Latest horseracing news from the UK

Arthur – King of the Scots

Bonnie Prince Charlie reached Derby before heading back to Scotland empty handed. Unperturbed by the tale of historical woe, Lucinda Russell led a successful Scottish raid as far south as Warwick, returning to Perth and Kinross duly crowned Queen of the Classic Chase.

Arthur once ruled Camelot, but this One For Arthur became King of the Scots, and promises to return in a bold bid to lift the main prize; the Grand National at Aintree in April. Under a wonderfully patient ride from Derek Fox, the handsome eight-year-old gelding cruised into contention turning for home, and with a huge leap at the last galloped clear for a six-length success.

He’d previously run a cracker in the Becher Chase over the National fences, when staying on strongly for a fifth-place finish. The trip and a sounder surface probably did for him that day, but over further on more testing ground, he ran-out a convincing winner.

Speaking after the victory, his thrilled jockey said: “The plan was to be a bit handier, but in those big fields he's a bit slow away from the start. He jumps so well and he's just jumped his way into it. We decided to put the tongue-tie on him and I think it's made a big difference. I think the Grand National is made for him.”

Celebrating her first success at the track, Russell added: “He's some horse, he really is. I'm so delighted and he jumped super. I'm delighted for Derek. He's such a great help in the yard and such a great horseman, he deserves all the credit. This was his first ride here, but he is a very level-headed jockey and he didn't panic when things didn't go right at the start.”

The trainer went on: “He was unfortunate in the Becher Chase. He got shuffled back that day, ended up out the back and stayed on for fifth place. When he got hampered at the second fence, I thought the same was going to happen again, but Derek took his time and let him get back in the race. If he goes up in the handicap, he might go for the Grand National. If not, he's definitely a National horse next year. He's got to be an Aintree horse.”

Kerry Lee followed last year’s success with the runner-up this time around. Goodtoknow travelled beautifully throughout, but had no answer when the winner set sail for home late-on. Having jumped slightly to his right on occasion, Lee hinted that the bet365 at Sandown would be a possible end-of-season target.

Shotgun Paddy again ran with great credit at Warwick. It was a gutsy performance from the 10-year-old, who appeared to be at full stretch for much of the race, yet battled on bravely for a third-place finish. Another tilt at Newcastle’s Eider Chase in February looks likely, and off his current mark he should again go close.

If One For Arthur was Warwick’s star over fences, then Willoughby Court took that honour over hurdles. The Leamington Novices’ has gone to a host of classy sorts over the years, including Inglis Drever and The New One. Ben Pauling’s six-year-old was given a positive ride by David Bass, who gradually turned the screw in the testing conditions. Turning for home he had the field on the stretch, and gradually pulled clear. By Court Cave, there’s little doubt that the ground was ideal for this sizeable gelding. He’s good over hurdles, and he should be even better over fences.

Though only third at the line, Peregrine Run had travelled powerfully through the race, before the testing conditions took their toll. He’d done his winning on a sound surface prior to this, including a Grade 2 at Cheltenham. He remains one to keep on side during the spring, and is capable of a huge run at the Festival in March, probably in the Neptune.

Paddy Can Power To Classic Chase Repeat

Hopefully tomorrow, Warwick will hold its most prestigious raceday of the winter, with the Classic Chase the highlight.

The three-mile and five-furlong slog was established in 2004, and is understandably used by many as a trial for the nationals in the spring. The race is usually run in testing conditions, and tomorrow should be no different. Frost covers were deployed earlier in the week, with forecasters predicting snow, sleet, torrential rain and the occasional deluge of locusts, but it seems that the course has missed the worse and prospects for racing look good.

A maximum field of 20 will go to post, with the Paul Nicholls trained Vivaldi Collonges at the head. Team Ditcheat have enjoyed the race in recent times, with three wins in the past nine years, though this fella needs to go some to maintain that record, having finished well down the field in last year’s renewal. it’s rather surprising to see that four horses have carried more than 11 stone to victory in that time. Two of those Nicholls winners were aged 10 and the other an eight-year-old, with experience therefore proving invaluable.

If Nicholls can’t provide the winner, then maybe a pair of Herefordshire trainers will have more luck. Both Venetia Williams and Kerry Lee have captured this event in recent times, and both are known for their knack of producing mud-lovers. Houblon Des Obeaux ticks the ‘wealth of experience’ box, and was a gallant fourth in this 12 months ago. He arrives off the back of a terrific Welsh National performance, and is clearly back to something like his best. Nevertheless, he is 6lb higher in the handicap than last year, and this therefore remains a tough assignment.

Lee has several in the mix, including last year’s winner Russe Blanc. He appears to have suffered from the hike in his handicap mark since that win, though his last run in the Tommy Whittle at Haydock gave hope that he is returning to a more competitive mark. This marathon trip is ideal, as will be ground conditions. A 7lb claimer takes a nice chunk of weight off his back, and he has to have a chance, though he’d be the first to win back-to-back.

The age of winners during this past dozen years varies from seven to 11, with nine-year-olds leading the way on four victories. Youngsters clearly lack the necessary experience, whilst the older brigade find the stamina test a little too much. Therefore, though Rigadin De Beauchene, Midnight Prayer and Mountainous for that matter, are all back on favourable handicap marks, their age remains a great concern. Of those, Midnight Prayer appears to love Warwick, and may still run a huge race.

The market shows just how open a renewal this is, with no fewer than six runners currently sharing favouritism at 10s. Tom Symonds Kaki De La Pree, has only run six times over fences, but has never been out of the first three. He won’t mind conditions, though the marathon trip is an unknown. I was at Bangor for his return last month, where he lost out to a real promising type from the Nicky Richards yard. He’s a horse I fancy, though the trip worries me.

Fergal O’Brien is having a cracking winter, and his Viva Steve is a leading contender. He stayed on powerfully at Ayr last time, though suffers a 7lb hike in the weights for that win. Clearly, that’s far from ideal, but he looks progressive, and looked a relentless galloper last time. He ought to be suited by the trip, and should have a decent chance.

Another with the potential to go close is Shotgun Paddy. He failed to make the cut for the Welsh National, and trainer Emma Lavelle looks for compensation in this. The trip will be ideal, as will the ground. He won this in 2014 at the age of seven, was then third in 2015, and is now 6lb lower in the handicap. He was third in the Welsh National a year ago, and clearly enjoys running at this time of year. He looks to have a huge chance.

Doctor Harper ran a cracker at Cheltenham a couple of weeks back, when only just failing to win over a trip of 3m2f. His new handicap mark will prove a real test, as will his return after such a short rest. He clearly has plenty more to give, but I have my doubts about tomorrow.

It’s another cracking renewal, and those taking the opportunity to visit Warwick will be rewarded with a terrific card. I tipped Shotgun Paddy for the Welsh National, and I certainly won’t be deserting him here. He looks to have a great chance, in a race that he clearly enjoys. He loves the track, the trip and the ground. He’s handicapped to go close and looks sure to do so. Kaki De La Pree could well be best of the rest. Good luck to those taking a punt.

Don Gone! – Elliott Calls Time on Cossack Career

Kempton may have captured most of the headlines for obvious reasons, but for me, the major news from yesterday was that of the retirement of Gold Cup winner Don Cossack.

Gordon Elliott’s top-class staying chaser had been off the track since his devastating performance at Cheltenham last March. Hopes were high of a return, and only in December Elliott said of his Gold Cup hero: “He’s been coming along nicely over the past few months. In addition to cantering away, he swims twice a day and it's so far so good with him. It's still a case of taking one day at a time, but if things continue to go well the plan will be to give him one run before the Gold Cup.”

Sadly, yesterday the County Meath trainer revealed that the horse had met with a further setback, and the decision was made to call it a day. On his Betfair blog Elliott announced: “It's a real sickener for Gigginstown, myself, Bryan Cooper and the whole yard. We knew it was never certain we would get him back to the racecourse and even after that, to get him back to his best, but we were hopeful and he was on track for a run at Gowran Park next month.”

Elliott went on: “He's a horse of a lifetime and he owes us nothing. I said all season that if he had any sort of setback at all we would not abuse him and retire him straight away. He's won Grade Ones at Cheltenham, Aintree, Punchestown, Fairyhouse and Down Royal. He was the top-rated horse in Britain and Ireland for the last two seasons running, and we'd have loved to see him take on Thistlecrack in the Gold Cup. It was one of the highlights of my career when Don Cossack won the Gold Cup for us last year and he retires a champion.”

It’s been a tough week for lovers of the Gold Cup, with the news that Coneygree will also miss the race in March. On Monday, Sara Bradstock appeared to admit that time had run out for the Gold Cup winner of 2015, when saying: “We're not going to enter him. If everything changed and suddenly everything looked perfect, his x-rays and him, we could supplement him, but I'm not going to enter him because I'm 90 per cent certain he will not run.”

She added: “It's all too quick. It's only two months from now and he's still only walking and we're not going to be there in top form. He'll definitely have some spring target and could go to Aintree or Punchestown unless something else goes wrong. We just need to do this right.”

For Jump racing fans, all of this is of course hugely disappointing. The best races need the best horses in opposition, and unfortunately this year’s Gold Cup now looks a little threadbare. Colin Tizzard’s grip on the ‘Blue Riband’ now looks tighter than ever, with Thistlecrack a shade of odds-on across the board. His stablemate, Native River, is generally a 5/1 shot, and another from the Tizzard yard, Alary, continues to be supported, despite never yet stepping hoof on a British track.

The French recruit was a top-class performer in France. A huge chestnut gelding, with an eye-catching white flash down his face, he was last seen going down by half-a-length in a Grade 1 at Auteuil. He’s only a six-year-old, and that appeared to be his best run to date. Tizzard has made no secret of how much he thinks of the youngster, and he remains an intriguing ‘dark horse’ for the main event in March.

Magnificent Martaline – A Leading French Stallion

The career of talented chaser Dynaste came to an end at the weekend, following a slightly disappointing run in the Veterans’ Handicap Chase at Sandown.

The popular 11-year-old grey had been one of David Pipe’s stable stars for almost half a dozen years. The racecourse highlight came when winning the Ryanair Chase at the Cheltenham Festival back in 2014. He followed that performance with a second-place finish in the Betfred Bowl at Aintree, and later that year was runner-up to Silviniaco Conti in the King George at Kempton.

Though an attractive looking grey, Dynaste could not compete in the looks department with his talented father Martaline. The truly gorgeous French stallion is virtually white from nose to tail. A strikingly powerful colt, he stands at Haras De Montaigu, a beautifully picturesque stud in North-West France.

A classy horse on the flat, Martaline was at his best as a four-year-old in 2003, when runner-up in the Group 2 Grand Prix De Chantilly before winning the Prix Maurice De Nieuil at Longchamp. That victory came at 1m6f, when he defeated an outstanding stayer in Westerner. He was victorious or placed in 12 of his 22 career starts. It’s also interesting to note, that his most disappointing performances came on heavy ground.

As a leading French National Hunt stallion in recent years, he has produced numerous talented jumpers for trainers on both sides of the English Channel.

Agrapart was a high-profile success for the French sire recently, when taking the Grade 2 Relkeel Hurdle at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day. Trained by Nick Williams, the six-year-old clearly thrived in testing conditions, when getting up late to beat L’Ami Serge, with Cole Harden seven lengths back in third. He’s likely to head for the Stayers’ Hurdle at Cheltenham in March, though he looks a chaser in the making, and certainly has the action over hurdles to suggest that he’ll suit a fence.

Another with a Cheltenham success to his name this season, is the Colin Tizzard trained Viconte Du Noyer. Owned by the Potts’, he’d previously been trained in Ireland by Henry De Bromhead, and was winning the Grade 3 Betvictor Handicap Chase on his first run for the new yard. He failed to take to the Grand National fences next time at Aintree and then ran below par in testing ground at the Welsh National. His win at Cheltenham suggested there’s plenty more to come, so I wouldn’t be losing faith in this fella. Better ground may well be essential, and he’s worth a second luck with conditions to suit.

One from the bloodline that does enjoy Aintree’s National fences, is the Gordon Elliott trained Ucello Conti. He was fourth in the Becher Chase in December, having been sixth in the Grand National last April. It’s tough to say whether he truly stayed the trip that day on soft ground, but he’s likely to be back for another crack this year, and on a more attractive looking handicap mark.

Noel Meade also looks to have a talented chaser on his hands with the six-year-old grey gelding Disko. He seemed to appreciate better ground when running a cracker at Leopardstown over Christmas. His third-place finish in the Grade 1 three-mile novice chase was a personal best, and he’d be a live contender at Cheltenham in March, for either the JLT or the RSA. He’s not short of speed. Meade’s last Cheltenham Festival winner was another son of Martaline, with Very Wood landing the Albert Bartlett of 2014 at huge odds.

Another from the Martaline production line, who is rapidly going the right way, is Tim Vaughan’s hurdler, Theligny. Despite four victories and three second place finishes from his eight outings over hurdles, the six-year-old remains on a fair handicap mark. He was impressive at Newbury last time, when showing a terrific attitude in holding off the Rebecca Curtis trained Geordie Des Champs. That came at two and a half miles, and the target may well be the Martin Pipe Conditional at The Festival, with classy claimer Alan Johns likely to be on-board.

As an 18-year-old, Martaline continues to prove an extremely popular stallion. A strike-rate of 31% this season for his offspring, shows just how potent he is. It would be no surprise to see many more of his progeny travelling across the Channel in the coming years.

Tizzard top in Tolworth

Finian’s Oscar ran out a comfortable winner of the Grade 1 Tolworth Hurdle at Sandown.

In the absence of Nicky Henderson’s Kayf Grace, Saturday’s renewal looked to be a head-to-head between Tizzard’s exciting youngster, and the Paul Nicholls trained Capitaine. The pair battled for favouritism, and then continued the tussle on the track. In truth, the result rarely looked in doubt. Approaching two flights from home, Tom O’Brien made his move, and Finian’s Oscar swept clear. Capitaine tried to go with him, but a poor jump at the second last put paid to his chances.

Tizzard said of the impressive winner: “He’s a real professional horse. He's a gorgeous young horse, but we were worried we’d not done enough with him. He's only won a point to point and a novices' hurdle at Hereford, but the way he did it at Hereford, why waste him in a little race when you can have a go at this? He looked in control most of the way and he soon went five lengths clear. He stuttered into the last and I thought ‘is he going to stop’, but as soon as Tom got busy, he went on again.”

Of plans leading to The Festival in March, Tizzard added: “He probably will run again. I think the easiest option is to go two and a half, but he's got the speed for two and he stays.”

Bookies were taking no chances, and slashed his odds to 5/1 for the Neptune Novices’ Hurdle. He’s generally a 10/1 shot for the shorter Supreme Novices’. With the ground likely to run quicker at Cheltenham in March, the chances are that he will head for the Neptune. The trip should prove ideal, though whether his performance on Saturday warrants such euphoria is questionable.

Capitaine floundered somewhat in the ground, having previously run below par at Haydock in testing conditions. It was also a surprise to see Sam Twiston-Davies riding such a patient race, after the horse had performed so well from the front at Ascot the time before. He’s a gelding that lacks gears, and was caught short when O’Brien kicked for home on the winner. Messire Des Obeaux, and numerous runners from Ireland, are likely to prove a far more serious test for Tizzard’s young novice in March.

One that looks likely to swerve the clash is the impressive Irish hurdler, Death Duty. He was in action at Naas yesterday, taking the Grade 1 Lawlor’s Hotel Novice Hurdle. His task was made easier by the last flight fall of Augusta Kate. Willie Mullins’ mare was launching a strong challenge, and had every chance, when Ruby was forced to go long at the last. The mare crumpled on landing, leaving Death Duty in glorious isolation, galloping home to win by nine lengths.

Of the victory, Gordon Elliott said: “To be honest, I thought they didn't go fast enough. Our lad is just an out-and-out stayer. They were upsides when the mare fell, so it's hard to say but the one thing you know about our horse is that he would have kept pulling out. Jack thought he had it covered. He has his job done again and that will be it now until Cheltenham.”

Doubts remain over the festival target, though Elliott appeared to be favouring the longer race when saying: “There is a long way to go between now and Cheltenham, but if the race was tomorrow, I'd be saying the Albert Bartlett, definitely. He's a proper, big three-mile chaser. At this stage, of all the good horses I've had, none of them were ever as good as hurdlers, but that doesn't mean they'll do it as chasers. I'd say he's a fair one.”

Mullins was philosophical in defeat, when saying of Augusta Kate: “She trotted up fine. I'm sure she'll be a little bit sore in the morning. She was running a good race and Ruby felt he had a little bit left, but there was still a lot of racing to do. The winner is a fair machine, so we're just happy our mare was running a good race. Whether she'd have won or not is another day's work.”

Festival targets remain a mystery, with Mullins adding: “We'll see how she comes out of the race and go from there.”

There’s no doubt that she was running a huge race when coming down at the last, and is now generally a 5/1 chance for the Mares Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham. Mullins already has the favourite for that particular race in Airlie Beach, and it would come as no surprise should one of them take their chance against the boys in the Neptune.

For now, it’s Death Duty and Finian’s Oscar that have enhanced their reputation, with the Cheltenham Festival looming large on the horizon.

Expect an Oscar winning performance in the Tolworth

It looks a competitive renewal of the Tolworth Novices’ Hurdle on Saturday, with the Paul Nicholls trained Capitaine heading the betting.

Winner of a Grade 2 at Ascot in December, the handsome looking grey ran green at times, but nevertheless, stayed on powerfully to pull clear of a decent field. That victory came from the front on good to soft ground, though his high knee action suggests he should be fine in the likely testing conditions at Sandown. He’d previously been held too far off the pace at Haydock, when finishing second in a listed event. He’s a robust, scopey type, that looks sure to make a chaser in time.

The past nine renewals have all been run on soft or heavy ground, and without exception, have gone to horses that looked suited by further than the bare minimum two-mile trip. Fancied horses have a strong record in the race, with seven of the last 11 winners sent off at 3/1 or shorter. And though five and six-year-olds have proved most successful, a pair aged seven have landed the prize in the past 10 running’s.

Nicky Henderson has a terrific record in the race, and has a couple of seven-year-olds set to line up tomorrow. Kayf Grace looks to be his most notable challenger. A high-class bumper performer, she opened her account over hurdles at Bangor. By Kayf Tara, her record suggests that soft ground will not be an issue. She looks to have gears, and though this is sure to be a serious test, her Aintree bumper win proved that she has both class and guts. I would be slightly concerned if the ground became heavy. Indeed, the trainer has a habit of withdrawing horses late-on if he feels they are unsuited by a slog.

Henderson’s second dart at the bullseye is Gaitway. Back from two years on the sidelines, his effort at Cheltenham in December was respectable. He should improve for the run, but the long lay-off is a major concern. He’s not a horse I’d be backing at this stage of his comeback.

Colin Tizzard is having a sensational campaign, and looks to have a classy young hurdler on his hands with Finian’s Oscar. Ann and Alan Potts spent a small fortune on this fella, and he looked an exciting recruit when storming home at Hereford on debut. He’s dropping back in trip, which is a slight worry, though testing conditions will help. He looks the likely type for this race, and his trainer can do no wrong. I fancy he’ll go close.

Celestial Path is an interesting contender, though his entry rests on a schooling session this morning. “Tom Scudamore will school him and we'll make a decision on the Tolworth after that,” said trainer David Pipe. “He was a very good Flat horse, but he only went a mile and you'd prefer it if he was proven over further. He's been gelded since we got him and he's done lots of schooling already, he's been jumping okay.”

The ‘jumping okay’ comment is hardly a ringing endorsement, and I’d be a little surprised if he isn’t given an easier option for his hurdling debut.

One that certainly could go close, if taking up his entry, is Dan Skelton’s Mohaayed. He ran a cracker over Christmas at Kempton on hurdling debut, and should improve for the experience. As an ex-flat performer, the ground would again cause concerns. His sire, Intikhab, has been responsible for several decent jumpers over the years, including the talented Kempes, who was good enough to chase home Hurricane Fly in the Champion Novice Hurdle at Punchestown in 2009. Mohaayed certainly possesses the ability, if he copes with conditions.

One that should be suited by both the ground and track, is Harry Fry’s Chalonnial. He’s a big chasing type who galloped powerfully to victory at Bangor last time. The worry is whether he’ll possess the necessary speed to get competitive in a Grade 1. Nevertheless, I fancy he’ll be finishing the race to great effect.

It’s a tough one to call, but I’ll be siding with Finian’s Oscar for the all-conquering Tizzard Team. I fancy that Kayf Grace will go on to achieve more over hurdles, but track and ground will be against her on this occasion. Best of luck to those having a punt.

Tolworth Tales

The Tolworth Novices’ Hurdle is often viewed as a stepping stone for the Supreme or Neptune at Cheltenham, with last year’s winner Yorkhill, taking the latter at the Festival in March.

Nicky Henderson has dominated the race in recent times, with four wins from the last six renewals. This Grade 1 was first run in 1976, and has gone to numerous classy types. The legendary Desert Orchid took the race in 1984, though failed to make much of an impact over hurdles. The same cannot be said when switched to fences. The glorious grey went on to become one of the all-time great chasers, winning the King George on four occasions, and the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

French Holly took the race for Ferdy Murphy in 1998. He went on to take the Neptune, then the Royal & SunAlliance, a few months later. A huge gelding measuring 18 hands, he finished runner-up in the Fighting Fifth later that year, before winning the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton. He chased home the mighty Istabraq on several occasions, getting within a length in a thrilling Aintree Hurdle.

Paul Nicholls struck four times in six years, from 2003 to 2008. The first of those victories went to one of my favourite horses of the period, Thisthatandtother. The race had been switched to Wincanton, a track he loved. He ran-out a comfortable winner, and a couple of months later finished fifth in the Supreme Novices’ at Cheltenham. He went on to become a high-class chaser, especially at trips around two and a half miles. He took the Ryanair back in 2005, then the Festival Trophy Chase, beating Fondmort and Rathgar Beau in a thriller.

One horse that is certainly worth a mention among the Tolworth roll of honour, is the Martin Pipe trained Marcel. He won his hurdling debut at Stratford in August 2004, and by the end of November had racked-up an incredible seven victories, including a Grade 2 at Cheltenham. Beaten for the first time at Haydock in December, he then won at Windsor before arriving at the Tolworth with eight wins from nine races in little more than four months.

In a classy looking nine-runner affair, Marcel proved a cut above the rest, running on powerfully to win by a couple of lengths. He had Noel Meade’s Wild Passion more than six lengths behind him that day. He was beaten at Exeter a month later, and by the time he arrived for the Supreme Novices’ at Cheltenham had clearly run out of steam. Sent off the 13/2 favourite, he faded badly late-on to finish well down the field. Wild Passion, beaten comfortably in the Tolworth, finished second. By the end of the season, Marcel had won nine of his 13 starts.

A year later, Paul Nicholls mapped a rather more conservative path for young novice hurdler Noland. He arrived at the Tolworth with a couple of hurdle starts under his belt, and romped to victory. He warmed up for the Supreme with a gutsy win at Exeter, before famously getting-up in the dying strides at Cheltenham to defeat AP McCoy on Straw Bear.

Last year was the turn of Yorkhill to take in the Tolworth with little hurdling experience in the bank. He had won a 2m4f maiden at Punchestown, and arrived at Sandown with a burgeoning reputation. He duly ran out an impressive winner in testing conditions, before again stepping-up in trip to win the Neptune Novices’ Hurdle at Prestbury Park. He currently stands on seven wins from eight career starts, and is one of the most exciting novice chasers.

A number of classy types are sure to line-up for this weekend’s renewal of the Tolworth Novices’ Hurdle, with the likes of Nicky Henderson, Paul Nicholls, and Colin Tizzard represented. Whether a Cheltenham Festival winner emerges from the pack remains to be seen, though history suggests there’s every chance.

The Skelton Show Goes On

A couple of winners on Sunday for Dan Skelton, will have lightened the mood somewhat, after the disappointment of losing Robin Roe for the season following his nasty fall in the Challow Hurdle at Newbury.

Sent off favourite on Saturday, the exciting novice hurdler crumpled on landing three from home, when looking to move into contention. It’s impossible to say whether he would have won the Grade 1, but he’ll now miss the remainder of the season after cracking a bone in his knee. There’s every chance that he’ll return over fences, and should he may a full recovery, he should make a stunning chaser.

It’s such a shame for Skelton and his team. Though the season is going well, finding potential Grade 1 winners is never easy, and Robin Roe looks the type that could bring huge success to the yard.

Nevertheless, the show goes on, and a terrific win for Superb Story at Musselburgh on Sunday will have proved a timely tonic. The two-mile hurdler has now gone up a whopping 25lbs in little more than a year, with four wins from nine starts over hurdles. The handicapper will have his say, but this six-year-old continues to improve, and may well return to Cheltenham in March and attempt back-to-back victories in the County Hurdle.

Another youngster in the yard who continues to go the right way, despite having not yet won this season, is Born Survivor. Carrying the familiar silks of Widdowson and Kelvin-Hughes, he’s a lovely big chasing type, and will no doubt be sent over fences next year. But, there remains prizes to be won over hurdles, and he appears to be on a winning handicap mark. He’s a powerful traveller through a race, but looks to lack gears. A stiff finish at two and a half miles may be ideal, though a step-up to three miles would come as no surprise. The Coral Cup looks an attractive Festival target.

I mentioned Superb Story’s continued progression at two miles, and the same can be said for both North Hill Harvey and Ch’Tibello. The former took the valuable Greatwood Hurdle at Cheltenham last time, and is another owned by the Widdowson/Kelvin-Hughes combo. He’s a consistent type by the popular jumps sire Kayf Tara, and remains on a competitive handicap mark.

Ch’Tibello took on the best at Kempton over Christmas, and though coming-up short, was only beaten five lengths by Yanworth. He’s a big strong fella, and a mark of 145 may still give him a chance of bagging a valuable handicap before being sent over fences next season. He’s won or been placed in all bar one of his nine hurdle starts.

One that has struggled to meet lofty expectations is Three Musketeers. He unseated Harry Skelton when last seen at Newbury, having previously disappointed on seasonal debut at Aintree. He has an entry in the Ryanair Chase in March, but it would come as no surprise to see him switched back to hurdles when the spring festivals come around. He’s rated 143 over the smaller obstacles, and would be an interesting proposition in the Coral Cup come March.

I’ll also be interested to see how Mohaayed goes next time, after his terrific debut at Kempton when runner-up to Elgin in a strong looking novices’ hurdle. Rated over 100 on the flat, he’s clearly a classy sort. It was an impressive first attempt over obstacles, and you’d expect a fair amount of improvement for the experience. Whether he becomes a Supreme Novices’ contender remains to be seen, but he looks a cracking new-recruit for the yard. He’s entered in this weekend’s Tolworth Hurdle at Sandown.

Finally a mention for Two Taffs, who made a pleasing chase debut at Kempton on Boxing Day. He was beaten by a very well handicapped Poker School on that occasion, but jumped well throughout, and being by Flemensfirth out of a Saddlers Hall mare, should make a lovely staying chaser in time. He’s certainly one to keep an eye on.

Despite Robin Roe’s mishap at the weekend, there’s certainly plenty for the Skelton team to look forward to over the coming months.

Robin to Rock at Newbury

The Grade 1 Challow Novices’ Hurdle is the centrepiece of Newbury’s card on Saturday.

Run at just over two miles and four furlongs, the race has a short yet illustrious roll of honour. Classy types have taken this, and gone on to take high order over hurdles and fences.

Large Action was successful in 1993, before finishing third in the Champion Hurdle a few months later. Trained by Oliver Sherwood, he went one place better the following year, when chasing home Alderbrook at the Festival. Cornish Rebel won the Challow in 2003, and went on to become an outstanding staying chaser. Third in the RSA at Cheltenham in 2005, he came second in a Scottish National, third in a Welsh National and third in the Hennessy Gold Cup.

A horse that went on to become one of the great staying chasers, took this in 2006, though the race was run at Cheltenham. Denman finished runner-up in the Neptune that season, but returned to the Cheltenham Festival to win the RSA and of course the Gold Cup. His demolition of Kauto Star was one of the most incredible performances I have ever witnessed. His victories in the Hennessy were no less impressive. He was a true warrior on the track, a mighty racehorse.

Wichita Lineman took the Challow the year after Denman. He too went on to festival success when winning the stayers novice hurdle at Cheltenham. His most memorable win came over fences at Prestbury Park, when taking the William Hill Trophy Handicap Chase, thanks to an incredible ride from AP McCoy. Only the ‘Champ’ could have got the horse home in front that day.

Further top-class winners of the Challow Novices’ Hurdle include; Diamond Harry, Reve de Sivola, Fingal Bay, Taquin du Seuil, and last year Barters Hill.

This year’s renewal has attracted a similar array of talented looking contenders, though the final line-up is still uncertain. Gordon Elliott has a talented team engaged, though it would come as no surprise should none arrive. Death Duty for Gigginstown and Baltazar D’Allier owned by JP McManus are the two outstanding challengers. The former has arguably been the most impressive Irish novice hurdler so far this winter. Should he travel over, he’ll take all the beating.

One that does look certain to make the start is the Dan Skelton trained Robin Roe. Sensational at Aintree on his hurdling debut, he has an eye-catching pedigree, being by Robin Des Champs out of a Flemensfirth mare. He’s a gorgeous looking gelding, built for fences. It’s always unwise to go overboard on the back of such little evidence, but he does look to have huge potential.

Alan King is set to run Messire Des Obeaux, who last time gave 7lbs and a beating to the useful Ballyandy. He got the better of Nicky Henderson’s Cultivator on that occasion, and the two are set to clash again. They appear closely matched and set a solid standard, though maybe lack star quality.

Geordie Des Champs has been kept busy by trainer Rebecca Curtis, and is three from three so far over hurdles. Like Robin Roe, he is by Robin Des Champs and is likely to make a lovely chaser. He showed plenty of guts last time, winning under a double-penalty at Warwick. Owned by JP McManus, this fella looks sure to go close.

Colin Tizzard has been sweeping all before him, and should Elegant Escape take his place at the start, he’d be impossible to dismiss. His jumping was somewhat patchy last time, when battling bravely to win at Ascot. He’s undoubtedly talented, but this marks a huge step up in class. I’d expect him to run well, but likely come-up a little short at this level.

In the likely absence of Gordon Elliott’s best performers, I hope and expect that Robin Roe will prove too good, though his lack of experience is a slight concern. I believe that the battle-hardened Geordie Des Champs is his main danger.

Power Struggle Continues as Elliott Captures Lexus

The last few days have done much to ignite the trainers’ championships either side of the Irish Sea.

In Ireland, Team Mullins have been in astounding form. On Monday, a trio of victories at Leopardstown was matched by a treble at Limerick. On Tuesday, the Closutton guys bagged a stunning five-timer at Leopardstown. And yesterday a further four victories were added to the incredible haul. Douvan, Min, Vroum Vroum Mag and Bellshill, have been among the high-profile winners, as Mullins unleashed the ‘big guns’.

With such a flurry of success, it was vital that Gordon Elliott struck back, and this he certainly did when winning the valuable Paddy Power Chase on Tuesday, and yesterday capturing the Grade 1 Lexus Chase in a truly thrilling renewal. With the combined winnings of almost €200,000, Elliott has managed to maintain his advantage at the head of the Trainers’ Championship.

In the Lexus, it came as something of a surprise when Elliott scooped first and second with Outlander and Don Poli. The former was trying three miles over fences for only the second time, whilst the latter was returning from a truly stinking effort at Down Royal. The Mullins trained Djakadam was sent off favourite, and held a prominent position throughout. But as the leaders quickened turning for home, Walsh needed to get serious to keep the favourite in touch.

At the last, a trio of Gigginstown horses appeared to have the race between them, with Bryan Cooper on Valseur Lido making a race winning move. But somewhat surprisingly, he wilted in the heat of battle, leaving Don Poli, Outlander and the staying-on Djakadam tussling for major honours. And it was Outlander that found most for pressure, pulling clear for a two-length success.

The trainer was understandably thrilled with both when saying: “Don Poli was brilliant, David was brilliant, Outlander was good and Jack was great. I feel a bit sorry for Bryan, who had to make the decision, but he'll be back. We've been out hunting with Don Poli and took the headgear off to try and sweeten him up today and it looked to have worked, then Jack was riding Outlander to be placed and coming to the last I started to get excited.”

Elliott went on: “I thought Outlander's last run was his career-best and, sure, he improved again today, didn't he? It was touch and go whether he ran here, but with the ground drying out we decided to come. He was only beaten about a length by Djakadam at Punchestown the last day, and one jump made the difference between winning and losing. I suppose the obvious race is to come back here for the Irish Gold Cup. I'm delighted with Don Poli, and I'd say the Grand National is the plan with him.”

Interestingly, with the trainers’ title in mind, Mullins spoke of sending Djakadam straight to Cheltenham, thereby missing the valuable Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown in February. Elliott currently leads the title race by almost 300,000 euros. And his firepower in valuable handicaps, both over hurdles and fences, coupled with the dramatic ascent of Outlander, give renewed hope that he may well take this title-tussle to the brink.

If Elliott versus Mullins continues to thrill, then the Tizzard v Nicholls dual also took a twist or two over the Christmas period.

It’s fair to say that the depth of talent at Ditcheat continues to give them the edge. With 99 wins from more than 300 runs, Nicholls probably has the numbers to cling to his title. Yet Colin Tizzard remains a huge threat, thanks in the main to his three outstanding chasers, Cue Card, Native River and Thistlecrack. With the Welsh National and King George VI Chase secured, the gap at the top of the title table was reduced to just £200,000.

Whilst Tizzard had a Christmas full of joy, Mr Mix at Wincanton was Team Ditcheat’s lone winner from nearing 20 runners. Frodon and Present Man were also-rans in the Kauto Star Novices’ Chase at Kempton. Marracudja was kicked aside by Altior in the Wayward Lad Chase, and though Silviniaco ran a cracker in the King George, he never looked like winning. At Chepstow, Vicente was a distant sixth in the Welsh National.

The season ending festivals will play a huge part in the outcome of this year’s championship, and you’d have to say that it’s Team Tizzard that appear to hold the stronger hand. It’s an enthralling season on so many fronts, but these training power tussles, are arguably proving to be the most captivating narrative of all. The dominant forces of Mullins and Nicholls find themselves in a mighty scrap, and neither make a habit of coming off second best.

Thistlecrack Crowned King Of Kempton

The star of tomorrow became the King for a day, as Thistlecrack stormed to a hugely impressive victory in the King George at Kempton.

It proved to be a dominant display from Colin Tizzard’s young chaser, despite concerns that the sharp track would prove less than ideal. In truth, the result never looked in doubt. Tom Scudamore sent Thistlecrack to the front from the off, and though he had company for the first circuit, he appeared capable of stretching clear whenever asked to do so. His jumping was assured throughout, and despite the step-up in class, he tanked along in his now customary superlative fashion.

Paddy Brennan moved Cue Card alongside his stablemate, in an attempt to apply some sort of pressure. But as the pair approached the home turn for the final time it was Thistlecrack that stepped on the gas and stretched clear. No more than nudged out by Scudamore, he was allowed to run down the last two fences, and still finished more than three lengths clear at the line. Cue Card held on to second spot in a blanket finish for minor honours.

Scudamore was clearly chuffed to bits with the stunning success, saying: “For the first time in my life I'm pretty speechless. It's wonderful - I thought he'd win, but I never imagined he'd do it as easy as that. He's a phenomenal racehorse, he's a pleasure to ride and a great credit to everyone. To win a King George on his fourth run over fences, it just shows the hard work everyone back at the yard has done and I'm so thrilled to be part of it.”

The decision to run Thistlecrack had surprised many, myself included. But Colin Tizzard had never doubted the exceptional talent, and spoke of the reasoning and of the pleasure in a plan coming to fruition, when saying: “He's not a five or six-year-old, he is eight and he'll be nine in a few days' time. He's at the peak of his powers and he's just proved we all got it right.”

The trainer went on: “It's quite frightening to watch, isn't it? We've all seen Thistlecrack for the last few years, he's had his biggest test and he's a brilliant horse. Tom was being a bit careful at the second-last and he shortened up almost like a show-jumper - he never touched a twig. He's got everything you'd want in a racehorse. Cue Card could have cried enough at the last, but he stuck his head out and finished second, so it's brilliant.”

Paddy Brennan was philosophical in defeat, when he said: “You want to win, but some things are impossible and trying to beat that racehorse today was one of the most impossible things I've ever tried to do. You can make all the excuses in the world, but it's a long time since I've ridden against a horse like that. Cue Card was really brave today and I'm proud of him. The ground was lively enough for him at times.”

Looking ahead to Cheltenham, he added: “It would be nice, but I'm very realistic and we'd need a lot of things to go right on the day. But on a bit softer ground, I won't give up hope.”

Unfortunately for Cue Card and the rest, ground conditions appear to have little effect on this sensational racehorse. And the way he trounced the opposition in last year’s World Hurdle suggests he’ll actually be better suited by Cheltenham. A practice spin in the Cotswold Chase at the end of January now appears likely. King for a day at Kempton, chances are that Thistlecrack will reign for some time to come.

Slick and Quick – A Huge Test For Thistlecrack

Can Thistlecrack really put-it-up to Cue Card in the King George today?

This is a monumental task for a novice chaser, as talented as he clearly is. In three chase outings to date, he has defeated 137 rated Aqalim, 136 rated Bigbadjohn and 140 rated Marinero. Today he tackles a pair in the 150s, one in the 160s and Cue Card, currently rated 176, at a track that puts an emphasis on jumping accurately at speed.

A surprising and somewhat disappointingly small field will give hope that Thistlecrack can settle into a comfortable rhythm, though chances are that Silviniaco Conti and the rejuvenated Josses Hill will be at the head of affairs, making this a true test. As the pair apply pressure from the front, Tizzard’s novice chaser will need to be foot perfect to keep tabs. And just when he looks to be mounting a challenge, Cue Card will move through the gears to put his jumping under maximum pressure.

His last effort at Newbury was visually impressive, and will have given connections the confidence to take the plunge. His jumping was slick, as he powered along at the head of a small field. Five-year-old chasing debutant Ibis Du Rheu, attempted to go with him, and ultimately paid the price. He has a tendency to shift slightly to his right at his fences, which will be in his favour at Kempton. And that high cruising speed will prove a valid weapon in a race that will inevitably test both speed and stamina.

That high cruising speed is the component in his armoury that will come under severe scrutiny. Has he enough speed to lay-up with horses that are quicker than those he has competed against for several years?

His last defeat came as a novice hurdler back in April 2015. He was outpaced that day by Killultagh Vic and Shaneshill, before staying on powerfully to go down by less than a length. His last eight victories have all come at three miles, in races that tested his stamina rather than his speed. He did win at Aintree during that period, a flat sharpish track. Though that win came on soft ground, where he undoubtedly outstayed Shaneshill.

Today he faces Josses Hill; a horse that came second in a Supreme and third in an Arkle. Silviniaco Conti, though not the force of old, won the Grade 1 Ascot Chase at 2m5f last February by 20 lengths. And then there’s stablemate Cue Card; Supreme Novices’ fourth, Arkle runner-up to Sprinter Sacre, runaway winner of the Ryanair Chase and current King George supremo. Though a small field opposes Thistlecrack today, there will be no hiding place. Pace is guaranteed.

Despite all that, it would come as no surprise to see him ‘loom large’ turning for home. He is hugely talented, and a potential superstar of the sport. Had this been at Cheltenham, a largely galloping track, with a stiff uphill finish, then I would probably be siding with him over his illustrious team-mate. But not today. Not at Kempton.
Thistlecrack and Cue Card are jump racing goliaths, and their clash should make for a fabulous spectacle. However, one is a hero of today, the other a star of tomorrow.

Carole’s to prove ‘Pitch-Perfect’ in Wales

The Welsh National was first run at Chepstow in 1949, though dates back to 1895 when run at Ely Racecourse in Cardiff.

The race took place at Easter and then in February, before the switch to December in 1979. Trainer Jenny Pitman struck in 1982 and 1983 with a pair of exceptional horses. Corbiere was her first winner, and went on to glorious success in the Aintree version a few months later. Burrough Hill Lad won the following year, before lifting the Gold Cup at Cheltenham. He was a sensational racehorse, though his career was blighted by injury. He still managed to add victories in the Charlie Hall, the Hennessy and the King George.

Cool Ground was another future Gold Cup winner to take the Welsh National, when winning in 1990. Master Oats completed the same double during the 94/95 season, though the Chepstow event was transferred to Newbury due to the weather. Earth Summit took the Welsh and then the Aintree Nationals, and Bindaree completed the same double, though in the reverse order in 2002 and 2003.

In 2004 Silver Birch won the showpiece at Chepstow, but had to wait three years before capturing the Grand National at Aintree. Whilst ill-fated Synchronised won in Wales in 2010, then took the Lexus in Ireland in 2011, before his sensational victory in England, at Cheltenham, in the Gold Cup of 2012. Tragically, he was to die at Aintree just weeks after his greatest success.

Synchronised is one of only three horses to carry 11 stone or more to victory in the last 19 Welsh Nationals. He was successful as an eight-year-old, an age that has accounted for five of the last seven winners. It usually takes a horse with a fair amount of experience to win a Welsh National. Only two six-year-olds have won since the race came to Chepstow, and they are the youngest to capture the prize.

Older horses have a similarly patchy record however, with just one 11-year-old, and a pair of 10-year-olds winning since 1979. Mountainous was the lone 11-year-old, successful in the race just 12 months ago. It was his second success in three years, and he returns for another crack next week. Though older horses have a poor record, he does at least have plenty of racecourse experience, which has often proved a prerequisite for potential winners of this.

In a marathon handicap of this nature, it’s somewhat surprising that there have not been more shock results. Though favourites have a poor record, the winners do tend to be fancied contenders. In the last 10 renewals, only two have won at odds bigger than 16s, and those were both 20/1 shots. It does however, come as no surprise that horses need to have experience of competing in staying chases. The last 10 winners had all run, and indeed won, at three miles or more. This race is often a slog, and contenders must possess the guts for such a battle.

Of this year’s field, Native River heads both the weights and the betting. The Hennessy Gold Cup winner is undoubtedly classy, and is trained by the triumphant Tizzard team. Very few have carried top-weight to victory, with Carvill’s Hill the last fella to do so in 1991. The chances of Tizzard’s young chaser making the start, diminish with every day of rain, and I’d be surprised if he’s not spared the inevitable slog through the mud, with a potential Gold Cup bid still on the horizon.

The same cannot be said for Bishop’s Road, who off 11st 11lbs is a recognised mud-lover, and is trained by last year’s winner, Kerry Lee. His handicap mark remains a mighty issue when viewing him as a potential winner. He’s 10lbs higher than when winning the Grand National trial at Haydock in February. He can be a little clumsy over his fences, and is yet to win a big-field chase, which is an added concern.

Carole’s Destrier is another on a career high mark, though his 11st 5lbs is somewhat more bearable. He put in a stunning performance when runner-up in the Hennessy at Newbury, and took the London National at Sandown last winter when carrying 11st 10lbs. He goes on any ground, and has been well-backed for the race. He’s an eight-year-old with the right amount of experience, and looks to have a great chance.

Money has poured in for the Philip Hobbs trained Onenightinvienna. A very good novice chaser last season, he chased home RSA winner Blaklion at Cheltenham last December, and looks to be on a fair mark. He is another that will not be inconvenienced should the ground turn soft or heavy. He does occasionally shift slightly right at his fences, which is a concern, but he is a horse I like. His return at Carlisle was solid, though only a two-runner affair. He looks a serious player.

Another second-season chaser with the pedigree to go well is Nicky Henderson’s Vyta Du Roc. He appeared to lack the speed to challenge for honours in the Hennessy, though stayed on well enough for sixth. Though he goes on soft, I’m not convinced it’s ideal for him. And despite running well in the Scottish National, I’m by no means certain that he’s an out-and-out stayer. Nevertheless, his handicap mark looks attractive, and odds of 20/1 are hugely tempting.

Firebird Flyer was runner-up in this race 12 months ago, and will love the slog. The worry is, that he’s now 8lbs higher in the handicap, and there’s been no Welsh-trained winner since the year of my birth, 1965. Evan Williams has had some terrific staying chasers in the yard over the years, and will be hoping to finally crack that Welsh National hoodoo.

Another that quite enjoys a marathon, is the Richard Newland trained Royale Knight. He’s not the quickest, but he’ll be staying on well, when others have cried ‘enough’. He was fourth in the Scottish National in April, won the Durham National at Sedgefield in October 2015, and was sixth in the Grand National the same year. His recent run in the Borders National shows that he retains plenty of ability and enthusiasm, and I’d be surprised if he wasn’t in the mix at the prize-giving end of the race.

Surely Shotgun Paddy will go close off a mark of 139, assuming he makes the cut. Third last year when off 145, he looks to have been given a great chance by the handicapper. Twice a winner and twice placed at Chepstow in his five visits, he’s a major each-way shout at 16s. His return at Cheltenham was more than satisfactory, when only fading late-on. He’s impossible to ignore when searching for the likely winner.

This is such a competitive renewal, with so many contenders looking to have a winning profile. In the absence of my original selections, Vyta Du Roc and Shotgun Paddy, I'll now be siding with Carole's Destrier, ridden by Grand National supremo Leighton Aspell. The horse came so close in the Hennessy, and can go one better today. Best of luck to all those having a punt.

Christmas Va Va Vroum

If the Irish don’t win it, then recent history suggests that Nicky Henderson will be victorious in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton.

Since 2000, Irish trainers have seven victories to their name, whilst the master of Seven Barrows has half a dozen. My Tent Or Yours made it four-in-a-row for Henderson in 2013, when edging out The New One in a thrilling finish. Willie Mullins has won the last two, thanks to the mighty Faugheen. Sadly he misses out on the chance of making it three on the bounce, though the Closutton team still have an outstanding contender.

Vroum Vroum Mag suffered her first defeat in two years when pipped at the post by Apple’s Jade last time on her seasonal bow. She ought to strip much fitter this time, and if taking her chance would take some beating. She finished five lengths clear of My Tent Or Yours when they last met in the Punchestown Champion Hurdle. She’s a high-class mare.

“She'll have to work again tomorrow. I think declarations are Friday,” said Walsh. “She seems well. She came out of her race nicely when Apple's Jade beat her, but there's obviously Yanworth and The New One. It's going to be a small field, but she looks to be in good order. I suppose when a horse gets beaten it takes the shine off them a little, but we still think she's a very good mare and she'll give a good account of herself getting 7lb from the geldings.”

JP McManus also has an outstanding record in the race, and has two chances of lifting the prize. My Tent Or Yours is yet to shine this season, though better ground at Kempton will certainly help the powerful traveller. However, the main hope for the Irish owner appears to be the Alan King trained Yanworth. He was one of last winter’s leading novice hurdlers, though looked sure to be stepped-up in trip for this campaign. Plans changed due to the exceptional form of Unowhatimeanharry, also JP owned.

King said in his Weekender column: “Obviously it's going to be a big test for him, but we need to find out if he's a Champion Hurdle contender and I think this will give us some idea. There will probably be a few big guns in opposition, but Yanworth is well. We've not really trained him any differently since switching targets from the World Hurdle and he breezed on Saturday, which we were very happy with.

“The big question is whether he'll be effective over two miles at Kempton, but the one thing I can say is he's never been beaten over that trip over hurdles. I genuinely don't know how he'll fare, but we've got nothing to lose by trying so let's see what happens.”

He defeated Lil Rockerfeller on his seasonal debut, though had to dig deep to do so. This will certainly be tougher, but he’s unexposed compared to several of these.

Another for whom plans have changed dramatically, is The New One, trained by Nigel Twiston-Davies. With 14 victories from 22 starts over hurdles, this fella is considered a hero by his handler, and by many National Hunt followers. He looked set to be switched to fences, but stormed to victory in the International Hurdle at Cheltenham, when dominant from the front.

The Naunton trainer said of his favourite horse: “He was only beaten a whisker by My Tent Or Yours three years ago. He made a mistake at the last otherwise he probably would have won. He's in very good form as you've seen. We want to apply the same tactics as at Cheltenham, more forcing tactics. Sam (Twiston-Davies) will ride him this time, I'm sure. It was lovely to see him back at his best last time, although really he has never been away from his best.”

The Christmas Hurdle field is set to be completed by massive outsider Gray Wolf River and Dan Skelton’s progressive youngster Ch’tibello. The former will be hunting for prize money, and hopefully won’t cause a delay to the start of the King George, just half an hour later.

Skelton’s contender is of far more interest. He was impressive at Haydock last time in a small field on heavy ground. He had My Tent Or Yours and Old Guard behind him on that occasion. He clearly has plenty of speed, and is a big strong individual. Connections were worried about the ground at Haydock, and he’ll likely be more effective on a sounder surface at Kempton. He gave Altior a run for his money a year ago at Ascot, and may well prove competitive again.

Kayf Tara – Stallion’s Powerful Progeny

Kayf Tara has been one of the most successful National Hunt stallions for well over a decade.

And he was no slouch on the racecourse. Out of the Irish Oaks winner Colorspin and from one of the greatest sire’s Sadler’s Wells, Kayf Tara was first trained by Sir Michael Stoute before switching to Saeed bin Suroor. Under Godolphin he became one of the great stayers of his time, capturing the Ascot Gold Cup in 1998 and 2000. He also became dual-winner of the Irish St Leger, and won both the Goodwood and Yorkshire Cups.

He retired to stud in 2001, and has been responsible for high-class jumpers such as; Special Tiara, Planet Of Sound, Carruthers, Blaklion, and potentially the best of the lot, Thistlecrack. His home is Overbury Stud, near Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire, just a short drive from the home of jump racing, Cheltenham Racecourse. In his time there, he has become Champion British National Hunt sire on seven occasions.

Producing a star-performer such as Thistlecrack has certainly put the stallion in the limelight, though his influence has rarely waned over the years. The aforementioned Special Tiara, has been among the elite two-mile chasers in recent times. He captured the Grade 2 Desert Orchid Chase during Christmas 2014, and a few months later won the Grade 1 Celebration Chase at Sandown. He was only just denied victory in the Tingle Creek last winter, and arguably should have been awarded the race in the stewards’ room.

It appears that his spot as the Kayf Tara ‘top two-mile chaser’ could be in danger, with novice Identity Thief looking mightily impressive so far this winter. Two from two since switching to the larger obstacles, he was a classy hurdler, winning the Fighting Fifth last year, and has clearly transferred that talent to chasing. He’s sure to be tested over Christmas, with the likelihood of a clash with Mullins’ Min.

Though rarely a headliner, Planet Of Sound was a quality chaser for Philip Hobbs. Third in an Arkle, his finest hour came at Punchestown in April 2010, when winning the Guinness Gold Cup, defeating War Of Attrition and Denman in the process. A year later he finished runner-up in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury, beaten by another from the Kayf Tara production line, Carruthers.

Blaklion and Carole’s Destrier look set to be the next Kayf Tara pair to challenge for major honours over marathon trips. The former is already a Grade 1 winning chaser, after his victory in the RSA at Cheltenham back in March. He ran well for a long way in the Hennessy Gold Cup, though was ultimately undone by a combination of 11 stone and lively ground. There’s plenty more to come from this progressive seven-year-old, especially with conditions to suit.

Carole’s Destrier is only a year older, and came close to capturing the Hennessy, when only just failing to get to Native River in a thrilling finish. He won a London National at Sandown last winter, and is a well-fancied second favourite to take the Welsh National at Chepstow over the Christmas period. He’s effective on all ground, and should be a huge player.

It could prove an incredible Christmas for Kayf Tara, with a pair of his progeny likely to take their place in Kempton’s showpiece on Boxing Day. Potentially the best of the lot was confirmed a runner on Monday, after owners John and Heather Snook rather surprisingly said ‘it’s definitely the King George for Thistlecrack’, setting up a clash with stable companion Cue Card.

Last year’s World Hurdle winner is one of the most gifted racehorses, and has cruised to victory in his first three outings over fences. Nevertheless, this is a huge challenge for a novice chaser, and in Cue Card he faces arguably the best staying chaser in the business.

He’ll be joined in the line-up by seven-year-old Tea For Two, another by Kayf Tara, who 12 months ago was an impressive winner of the Kauto Star Novices’ Chase at this meeting. He had Hennessy winner Native River seven lengths back on that occasion. He’s three from three at the track, and is an intriguing contender.

Though I’ve spent time highlighting established stars from this incredible stallion, I’d also like to point out the substantial impact of Kayf Tara progeny when competing in bumpers. Ballyandy took the Champion Bumper at Cheltenham in March, and Nicky Henderson’s Kayf Grace captured the mares equivalent at Aintree a few weeks later. Sadly, I’ve no stats to back it up, but I’d always be giving Kayf Tara progeny a second look when running in bumpers.

It looks like being another sensational winter for this mighty stallion. Thistlecrack is undoubtedly the fag-bearer, but he is ably supported by an array of talented young horses.