Black Jack in a Dash – but sadly no Denman Clash

They arrived on the scene at the same time, but it was Black Jack Ketchum that landed a Cheltenham Festival victory in 2006, whilst Denman tasted defeat for the first time under rules.

Trained by Jonjo O’Neill, BJK was a diminutive son of Oscar out of a Supreme Leader mare. His pedigree suggested he’d make a decent stayer, but this classy racehorse was not short on speed. Having won a couple of bumpers in the summer of 2004, he opened his hurdling campaign with a low-key success at Uttoxeter, before comfortably outclassing a strong looking field at Cheltenham.

Just a few days later at Wincanton, the Paul Nicholls-trained Denman, made it two from two over hurdles, with an emphatic success. This huge and powerful son of Presenting was a completely different beast to Black Jack. O’Neill’s charge was small, neat and nimble and possessed destructive acceleration. Denman was all about prolonged, relentless galloping. Always likely to make a terrific chaser, he had huge presence to match the immense ability.

BJK returned to Prestbury Park in December and cruised to a comfortable victory in the Brit Insurance Novices’ Hurdle over three miles. A few weeks later it was Denman’s turn to travel to the Cotswolds. He took the Grade One Challow Hurdle (rerouted from Newbury) by a yawning 21-lengths, destroying several classy types in the process.

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Jump racing fans couldn’t wait for the undefeated pair to meet on a racecourse, and that clash looked set to take place at the unlikely venue of Bangor in February. Denman duly lined up for the three-mile event, but racegoers were disappointed when BJK was confirmed a non-runner on the day. During a media event at his yard a month later, O’Neill admitted that the team had ‘ducked’ a clash with Denman, despite the track and perfect spring ground arguably favouring the diminutive star.

Nevertheless, the clash still looked likely as the pair headed the market for the SunAlliance Novices’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival in March. A week prior to the event Jonjo said of his unbeaten seven-year-old: “A. P. loves him because he has a lazy style of running and, when he gets hold of him, he really responds. I don’t think he really wants to go three miles, and while we ducked taking on Denman for ten grand at Bangor recently, it looks like we might meet next week.”

Despite the encouraging statement, a thrilling duel between the two outstanding young hurdlers failed to materialise. Denman again made the gig, lining up at the start of the SunAlliance (better known as the Neptune) at 2m5f, whilst Jonjo decided to run Black Jack Ketchum in the three-mile Brit Insurance.

Denman was to suffer a shock defeat, beaten for speed on ground plenty lively enough, by the talented Irish raider Nicanor. There was no such surprise in the three-miler where BJK put in a thrilling performance. Cruising into contention turning for home, he displayed that exhilarating acceleration after the last, scooting clear to win by nine-lengths. In hindsight, Nicholls would have been kicking himself for not running Denman over the longer trip. The sight of the mighty warrior pouring on the pressure, whilst tracked by the silky-smooth Black Jack would have been electrifying.

A career as one of the greatest staying chasers lay ahead for Denman. His demolition of Kauto Star in the Gold Cup of 2008 was arguably the highlight, though the pair of Hennessy victories lumping top-weight were no less extraordinary. He was a colossus.

For the enigmatic Black Jack the future proved less glorious than that memorable day in March 2006. A horrible fall in the Stayers’ Hurdle (then the World Hurdle) a year later may have been the reason for his loss of enthusiasm for the sport. He rarely looked the same animal as the one who had been so destructive as a novice. In April of 2008 the decision was made to retire him. O’Neill said of the pocket-rocket: “He just did not seem to be enjoying it anymore. He was a brilliant servant to the yard and a super little horse who will be very hard to replace.”

I’ve stood on the rails at the Cheltenham Festival for many years now and can say with ‘hand-on-heart’, that the sight of Black Jack scooting up the famous hill in 2006 remains one of my festival highlights. On that day, despite the disappointment of a thrilling duel never materialising, Jonjo’s classy little novice put in a spellbinding performance that will live long in the memory.

Altior and Native River back at Newbury

If the weather forecast is correct (improbable I know) we’ll finally get to see Altior back on the racecourse on Saturday.

In his absence, Politologue has ruled the roost, winning the Haldon Gold Cup, the Tingle Creek and the Desert Orchid Chase. He defeated Fox Norton at Sandown, though only just. The pair are set to clash again and it’s possible they’ll give a ring-rusty Altior a run for his money.

Politologue’s owner, John Hales, is certainly excited at the prospect of meeting the best two-mile chaser in the business. He told Press Association Sport: “He's (Politologue) been electric this year and I'm looking forward to it. It's nice to see Altior is going to run. It will be a good contest and that's what it's all about. When he's stood up, he's unbeaten over two miles. It took us some time to realise that was his trip but since we have, there's been no looking back.

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“The only time he's lost over two (miles) over fences was at Aintree, when he'd have probably won anyway. His jumping is his biggest asset. He's very quick and very accurate. I call him a coat-of-paint job, because he leaves no gap between himself and the fence - there's no air. That's a trait of all the best two-milers, looking back at them.”

Hales is one of the great enthusiasts and deserves to own a high-class racehorse. Nevertheless, Altior has looked a breed apart and if back to near his best will surely prove too hot to handle. Speaking earlier in the week, a typically cautious Nicky Henderson said of his star chaser: “He's going to get beaten one day, probably. I think you've got to look at it that way. I'd like to get a race into him and if he gets beaten, he gets beaten. I suppose that this is the time that he's going to be at his most vulnerable, but in the interests of him trying to win the Champion Chase I think it's good for him to have a run.”

It’s certain to be another emotional day for the racing fraternity, with Cloudy Dream contesting the Denman Chase. Formerly trained by Malcolm Jefferson, the stable is now in the hands of daughter Ruth following the recent death of her father. And the eight-year-old has a great chance of landing the prestigious race, especially as favourite, Native River, will be returning from an 11-month lay-off.

Tizzard’s classy chaser will use this as a prep for the Gold Cup in March. His owner, Garth Broom, said of his return: “He's as ready as you can get him at home without having a race. All the reports are that Colin [Tizzard] and his team are very happy with him. In the past he's always wanted one race as a warm-up and this is what the idea is. If he got beat, as long as he ran a good race, it wouldn't be a complete disaster. It's the means to an end to get him to the Gold Cup.”

Broom added: “What happened last year was we were running him in the big races to see if he was a Gold Cup horse. Now we know he is, we didn't have to go through that process. The form of the stable dipped slightly at Cheltenham last year and he was beaten only two and three-quarter lengths and nutted on the line by Minella Rocco, his old foe. He loves Newbury. He's run in three chases there, the Hennessy and Denman last season and a novice the season before, and he's never been beaten there over fences, I'm hoping it will continue.”

Another talented horse on the comeback trail is Barters Hill. Trained by Ben Pauling, the eight-year-old has been off the track for more than a year after sustaining an injury on his chasing debut at Cheltenham. Back over hurdles this weekend, connections will be hoping for a trouble-free round before making plans for the remainder of the campaign. “It's very much the plan to go on Saturday at Newbury,” said Pauling. “He's in good order and it will be great to have him back out.”

Cheltenham Festival Pointers – Let Leopardstown Shine A Light

It should come as no surprise to see that Cheltenham Festival winners tend to take-in high profile meetings at elite tracks en-route to glory in March.

The better racecourses usually hold the more prestigious events, attracting better prize money and thereby tempting leading trainers to send their yards most talented inmates. The Hennessy meeting at Newbury; Betfair Chase Day at Haydock; Christmas at both Kempton and Leopardstown, and Cheltenham’s Trials Day, are just some of those significant events that attract the best that jump racing has to offer.

I had a quick look at where last year’s Festival winners ‘warmed-up’ for the big event, and the usual suspects sat proudly at the top of the pile. Leopardstown led the way, providing four winners, followed by Cheltenham, Kempton, Punchestown and Ascot with three apiece. Smaller tracks cannot be ignored, but more often than not, future Festival heroes will complete their preparation at the likes of Punchestown rather than Plumpton.

And it’s an Irish racecourse that I wish to focus on for today’s Cheltenham Festival piece. Leopardstown host several top-class meetings throughout the winter, with leading trainers such as Gordon Elliott and Willie Mullins battling over prestigious and extremely valuable prizes. Their Christmas Festival often shines a light on those with a bright future.

Races include the Lexus Chase, won in previous years by Best Mate, Denman, Synchronised and Bobs Worth. The Ryanair Hurdle (often known as the December Festival Hurdle) is another Christmas highlight, which is targeted by those with outstanding two-mile hurdlers. It has a roll of honour that includes, Istabraq, Brave Inca and Hurricane Fly. And there’s the Racing Post Novices’ Chase which has produced wonderful two-mile chasers, including, Native Upmanship, Moscow Flyer, Sizing Europe, and in 2015 Douvan.

The length of time from Leopardstown at Christmas until the Cheltenham Festival in March clearly makes the meeting an unlikely event for final preparation’s, though it has been known. Timing plays a major part in all sport, and having a horse ‘cherry-ripe’ for the Festival is a crucial factor in having any hope of success. That’s sure to be in the minds of connections as they send their best hopes to Leopardstown in early February.

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It’s this particular meeting that has provided so many pointers to Cheltenham success in recent years. With several prestigious races on the card, the timing of the event (usually five weeks prior to The Festival) fits in perfectly with those trainers targeting Jump racing’s Olympics.

The Grade 1 Spring Juvenile Hurdle usually attracts the best four-year-old’s in Ireland, with an eye on the Triumph Hurdle in March. The race doesn’t always go to plan for the ‘leading lights’, but a Festival winner is likely to be lurking among the contenders. Four of the last five Triumph winners have prepped in this, though only one of those won the Leopardstown race.

Our Conor was that exceptional juvenile, and he romped to victory in Ireland before destroying the best youngsters at Cheltenham in March 2013. His 15-length success was extraordinary, and he looked set to become a star of the sport. Tragedy struck the following March, when a fall in the Champion Hurdle cost him his life.

Last year Ivanovich Gorbatov flopped in unsuitable heavy ground at Leopardstown, but proved a different beast when arriving at Prestbury Park. He defeated Apple’s Jade, Footpad and Let’s Dance in lifting the Triumph Hurdle, under a classy ride from Barry Geraghty.

Tiger Roll finished second to Guitar Pete in the Leopardstown event of 2014, but improved plenty to reverse the form at Cheltenham a month later. And in 2012 it was Countrywide Flame that could only manage third at Leopardstown, before once again reversing Irish form in capturing the main event at Cheltenham. Unaccompanied only just failed in her bid to win the Triumph, when second to Zarkandar in 2011, a month after winning the juvenile hurdle at Leopardstown.

Mega Fortune and Bapaume came first and second in the Spring Juvenile Hurdle a couple of weeks back, and will head to Cheltenham as leading contenders for the Triumph Hurdle. Soft ground possibly suited Gordon Elliott’s runner, though the stiff finish in March will also be in his favour. Bapaume got the better of their encounter at Christmas on a sounder surface, and they look closely matched.

Along with strong recent Triumph clues, Leopardstown in February is host to the Deloitte Novice Hurdle, so often another strong Festival pointer, especially for the Supreme and Neptune. In its time the race has been won by Istabraq, Like-A-Butterfly, Brave Inca, Champagne Fever and Vautour.

The 2016 renewal failed to produce a Cheltenham Festival winner, though Tombstone and Petit Mouchoir ran well in the Supreme, and are now contenders in a wide-open renewal of the Champion Hurdle. In 2015, Nichols Canyon defeated Windsor Park in the Deloitte, but when the two met at Cheltenham it was the latter that gained revenge when winning the Neptune Novices’ with Nichols Canyon back in third.

Vautour and Champagne Fever won the prestigious Leopardstown event in 2014 and 2013, before going on to Supreme Novices’ glory. Willie Mullins was responsible for the first and second home this time around. Bacardys finished powerfully to get the better of the classy looking Bunk Off Early. The former has the potential to go close in the Neptune, whilst the latter is likely to head for the Supreme Novices’.

The Flogas Novice Chase is another that has provided plenty of Festival clues over the years, though has been less fruitful in the last couple of years. In 2013, Lord Windermere came third before going on to take the RSA. Bostons Angel won both in 2011, and Weapon’s Amnesty finished runner-up at Leopardstown before winning the RSA of 2010. In 2009, the winner and runner-up went on to Cheltenham Festival glory, when Cooldine, having won in Ireland went to the Cotswolds to capture the RSA, with Forpadydeplasterer taking the Arkle.

This year’s Flogas looked a classy affair, and though Our Duke will not be heading over to Cheltenham, there’s every chance that Disko will prove a tough nut to crack in either the JLT or the RSA.

Finally, a mention for the Foxhunters at Cheltenham, with the Leopardstown Hunter Chase providing the winner on so many occasions. Indeed, the last five renewals have delivered the last five Festival winners. On The Fringe is a dual winner at Prestbury Park, and the way he ran a couple of weeks back behind Foxrock gives hope of a hat-trick. Prior to him, Tammys Hill and Salsify (twice) completed the double.

Studying the results from Leopardstown’s February meeting has proved fruitful in recent years, and I’ll be hoping that 2017 follows a similar pattern.

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.

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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.

Tizzard To Taste Hennessy Glory

Arguably the greatest handicap chase in the calendar takes place at Newbury on Saturday.

Many would side with the Grand National at Aintree, often called ‘The World’s Greatest Steeplechase’. It’s certainly the most famous Jumps race in the World, often dramatic, and full of surprises. The race proves incredibly difficult to win, and for trainers, jockeys and owners, is undoubtedly the most coveted. It’s hard to knock the National, but I will, (just a little) in saying that the race remains something of a lottery. Winners at 33/1, 25/1, 25/1, 66/1 and 33/1 in the past five years, endorses the point, and it remains the case that plenty of luck, along with talent, is needed to be victorious.

I’m therefore of the opinion that the Hennessy Gold Cup is the number one handicap chase in the UK and Ireland. The race has a stunning roll of honour, with a history of outstanding horses coming out on top, which makes this race one of the great fixtures of the winter.

Mandarin took the inaugural running in 1957, when the race was held at Cheltenham. In 1961 he won again, though this time at the event’s new home, Newbury. The horse was owned by Peggy Hennessy, a member of the family which sponsored the race.

Arguably the greatest horse to ever jump a fence, Arkle, had back to back victories 1964 and ‘65. Mill House had defeated him in the Hennessy of 1963, having won the Gold Cup at Cheltenham in March. He went on to win the King George, though never again got the better of the mighty Arkle.

The legendary pair had hauled top-weight to victory, and some 20 years later the race witnessed another spate of impressive weight carrying achievements. Diamond Edge set the ball rolling in 1981, when bravely holding off all-comers whilst carrying 11st 10lbs.

Bregawn carried the same weight to victory a year later. Trained by Michael Dickinson, the classy chaser won the Gold Cup the following year, with his trainer famously filling the first five places.

Burrough Hill Lad was next to make-light of the hefty burden, when thumping his rivals in the 1984 renewal. Trained by Jenny Pitman, he’d won the Gold Cup earlier in the year, and followed his Newbury success with victory in the King George at Kempton.

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In more recent times both Nicky Henderson and Paul Nicholls have captured Newbury’s showpiece. They were responsible for the latest pair of weight-hauling-heroes, in Trabolgan and Denman.

The former had won the RSA as a novice chaser and was allotted 11st 12lbs for his tilt at the Hennessy. Mick Fitz took the ride, and crept into contention as the race came to the boil. He led at the second last, and kept on powerfully to give Henderson his first success in the race.

Denman became one of the modern greats when capturing the prize in 2007 and 2009. ‘The Tank’ was in a class of his own when romping clear for victory number one. Later in the campaign he spread-eagled a field including Kauto Star, to win the Gold Cup. He missed the Hennessy of 2008 due to heart issues, but was back at Newbury in 2009, when again defying top weight for a famous second success.

There’s no wonder the Hennessy Gold Cup sparks such excitement among the jump racing fraternity.

This year’s renewal may lack a true heavyweight, but the race, as competitive as ever, is stacked with horses of huge potential. A Coneygree or Cue Card at the top of the handicap would certainly have added spice. Nevertheless, Saturday’s showpiece looks a cracker.

The horse that does have to overcome top-weight tomorrow is last year’s winner Smad Place. Now a nine-year-old, he was certainly impressive 12 months ago, though he’s 11lb higher in the handicap this time around. Denman is the only horse aged nine to have won the Hennessy this century. It looks a tough ask for Alan King’s courageous grey.

Seven-year-olds have a great record in recent years, with five wins from the last 10 renewals. It’s often proved a race that favours second season chasers, and there’s plenty that fit the bill. Un Temps Pour Tout and Blaklion are the right age, and were both successful during their novice chase campaign.

The former came off second best to Native River on a couple of occasions last season, but was impressive when winning the Ultima Handicap Chase at the Cheltenham Festival. David Pipe captured this race in 2008, with another seven-year-old in Madison Du Berlais. Un Temps Pour Tout has had a spin over hurdles, and looked impressive when winning at Aintree.

Blaklion won the RSA Novices’ Chase in March and looks fairly treated by the handicapper. He ran well for a long way in the Charlie Hall, and is sure to strip fitter this time. Nigel Twiston-Davies has sounded bullish in the lead-up to this, and the horse looks to have a serious chance. He’s a gutsy, strong stayer, and is likely to be doing his best work late on.

The aforementioned Native River runs for the all-conquering Colin Tizzard stable. He finished his novice chase campaign with an impressive win in the Mildmay at Aintree, beating both Un Temps Pour Tout and Blaklion in the process. He’s another gutsy type, who appears to find plenty for pressure. Richard Johnson keeps the ride, having won on him at Aintree. He’s another that arrives after a prep run at Wetherby, where he finished second in the Bet365 Hurdle. He looks to have a great chance.

Paul Nicholls has a pair of seven-year-olds in the field. Saphir Du Rheu was fifth in this race 12 months ago, though is now 10lb lower in the handicap. He returned to something like his old self, when third in his seasonal return at Ascot. One gets the feeling that he wasn’t quite ready, mentally or physically, for the top flight a year ago. Classy enough to finish runner-up in the World Hurdle in 2015, if he jumps well enough, he is another that looks to have a huge chance.

Vicente rounded off last season by winning the Scottish Grand National, a victory that went a long way toward helping Paul Nicholls retain the trainers’ title. He has a decision over Un Temps Pour Tout at Cheltenham, and though behind Native River in the National Hunt Chase at the festival, he’d incurred traffic problems three-out. He needs better ground to have a chance, and may just get it, with a few dry days forecast.

Peter Bowen has an interesting contender in the Mildmay runner-up Henri Parry Morgan. That Aintree run behind Native River, marked him down as a staying chaser with a bright future. He’d won very easily at Uttoxeter prior to the Aintree outing, and I wonder if he arrived on Merseyside a slightly fresher horse than some of his opponents. Nevertheless, he can’t be discounted.

Vyta Du Roc has been touted as a potential winner, and Henderson’s seven-year-old creeps in towards the bottom of the handicap. He was slightly disappointing in the RSA, when some distance behind Blaklion, and then failed to get home when fifth in the Scottish National. His comeback run at Aintree over hurdles was also disappointing, and he now has something to prove at this level. Despite having little weight to carry, he’s not for me.

I’m coming down in favour of three progressive young chasers. I’m struggling to split Native River and Blaklion. I think they’ll both go close, and am just edging towards Tizzard’s fella. I’m also confident that Vicente will run well for the champion trainer.

Altior Primed for Cheltenham Chasing Debut

Excitement builds as Cheltenham host their second meeting of the campaign, with the BetVictor Gold Cup, the showpiece event.

Three exciting days in the Cotswolds, will see a host of talented horses compete at the home of Jump racing. It’s a meeting I love, and in my humble opinion, a venue that’s second to none. There’s a ‘buzz’ about Cheltenham like no other course I know.

Thankfully, the rain arrived at Gloucestershire, and with it the hope that all major contenders at the meeting will take to the start. On Friday, several talented novice chasers are set to line up in the Steel Plate And Sections Novices’ Chase, a race won in the past by More Of That, Dynaste, Denman and Imperial Commander. The illustrious roll of honour speaks volumes, and another class act is likely to prevail this time around.

Barters Hill, Rock The Kasbah and Champers On Ice are all possible starters. The former was always expected to make a better chaser than hurdler. Ben Pauling’s stable star has apparently been schooling well, with both trainer and his jockey David Bass ‘delighted’ with his progress.

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Champers On Ice finished one place ahead of him in the Albert Bartlett back in March. Every bit as much a chaser in waiting, David Pipe’s powerful looking son of Robin Des Champs tends to go from the front. Yet another grey, he perhaps lacks the gears of Pipe’s previous winners, Dynaste and Grands Crus. Nevertheless, he’s a classy sort, and ought to make an exciting chaser.

Rock The Kasbah has already made his chasing debut, when winning at Chepstow last month. Hobbs’ six-year-old is owned by the Whateley’s, and was impressive on his first attempt at the larger obstacles. Connections came close in this race with Fingal Bay in 2012, and had both Garde La Victoire and Sausalito Sunrise win at this meeting last term.

The aforementioned World Hurdle winner, More Of That may well ‘rock-up’ in the BetVictor Gold Cup on Saturday. With Jonjo ‘desperate to run him’, and stating that he is in ‘great shape’, the rain may well have assured his involvement. He will face tough opposition in the form of an exciting young chaser from Team Ditcheat. Four-year-old Frodon took the Rising Stars at Wincanton last week, and is one of four intended runners for in-form Paul Nicholls.

On Sunday, last year’s Supreme winner, Altior, is set to launch his career over fences. Nicky Henderson’s six-year-old proved unstoppable as a novice hurdler and is already a short price for the Arkle in March. His chasing debut has been eagerly anticipated, and Cheltenham’s undulations will ensure he has a thorough examination.

Later in the day there is the prospect of another Seven Barrows star returning to action, with Simonsig set to line-up in the Schloer Chase. Henderson will be hoping for a trouble-free campaign from his injury prone grey. A class act on his day, his victory in the Arkle of 2013 seems a lifetime ago. He’s likely to be facing Fox Norton. Neil Mulholland’s young chaser was mightily impressive at the course in October, though this is a much tougher assignment.

Kerry Lee also hinted that her Game Spirit winner, Top Gamble, may well take up this option. He finished last season with a stunning win at Fairyhouse, proving that the Newbury success was no fluke.

An exciting and informative three days is assured.

Sad Day For ‘Class Act’ Carberry

At the age of 42, Paul Carberry has been forced to quit the saddle, bringing to an end an outstanding career.

One of the most gifted of horsemen, Carberry had not ridden competitively since last September, when fracturing his left femur in a nasty fall at Listowel. On Tuesday he met with orthopaedic surgeon Dr Paddy Kenny in Blanchardstown, and was advised against a return to action.

“It didn't go great,” said Carberry after the meeting. “Dr Kenny said that the leg is still too weak and that I'd be better off not coming back - he couldn't pass me fit to ride. I suppose I knew the last month that the leg wasn't getting stronger, but it is still a blow. I was half hoping that I might get back. It's a day that had to come at some stage, but it's difficult to take. I am gutted.”

From one of Ireland’s most famous racing dynasties, Paul is the son of former jockey Tommy Carberry, and he is the nephew of trainer Arthur Moore. Siblings Philip and Nina are also talented jockeys, with his sister arguably the finest female rider of all-time.

He started out as an apprentice with Jim Bolger, winning his first race in 1990. He found success at the Cheltenham Festival in 1993 when aboard Rhythm Section in the Champion Bumper. Carberry was a 14-time winner at The Festival, and became Irish Champion Jockey twice.

One of many highlights during a sparkling career has to be the 1999 Grand National success aboard his father Tommy's Bobbyjo. Reflecting on his most memorable rides he said: “The National is the highlight. It was a dream come true. To win the National was always my dream, but then to win it for my father was unreal altogether. He had been the last to ride an Irish winner of it before me (on L'Escargot in 1975), so it was a big family day.”

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Trainer Noel Meade was very much Carberry’s partner in crime over the years, with the association going back to the early 1990’s. Sausalito Bay brought the pairing their first Cheltenham Festival success in 2000, when he took the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, defeating none-other than Best Mate in the process.

Carberry spoke of his relationship with the Co Meath handler, saying: “I had a great time and rode a lot of good winners in big races, especially for Noel. Harchibald was the best horse I rode for him and winning the title a couple of times was special as well. Noel was easy enough to work for and a great friend.”

Meade responded to the news by saying: “He was a unique talent, there is no doubt about that. Paul sometimes would ride one of those waiting races and get there to win and people would be in awe of him, but he wouldn't see anything that special about it. It was second nature to him. He was one in a million. Not only was he a very good jockey, but he was a very good friend. I'll miss him for sure.”

That exaggerated waiting style was Carberry’s calling card. His judgement of pace was probably only matched in recent times by Ruby Walsh. His rides on Harchibald tested that riding style to the limit. The enigmatic gelding was a class act, but barely did a stroke off the bridle.

The victory in the 2004 Christmas Hurdle was thanks to a riding masterclass from Carberry. Dickie Johnson had Rooster Booster miles clear turning for home, whilst Carberry niggled away at Harchibald, refusing to panic. At the last there was still five lengths between the pair, but the Irish star swept past with time to spare, winning without once feeling the rider’s whip. The pair went on to win five Grade 1’s, yet the defeat to Hardy Eustace in the Champion Hurdle of 2005 proved to be arguably his most memorable race.

Ridden as he had to be, Harchibald cruised alongside Hardy Eustace after the last flight at Cheltenham, with Carberry statuesque on top. But, when asked for maximum effort, the horse failed to find another gear, and came off second best. The jockey was blamed by many, yet those who truly understand the sport knew that if Carberry couldn’t win on him, no-one could.

It was the jockey’s outstanding rides that very much became the norm. Cool on Nicanor, as he came late to defeat the mighty Denman in the Royal & SunAlliance at Cheltenham in 2006. He was brave on Go Native, when sneaking through on the inner to steal the Supreme Novices’ in 2009.

He partnered a mighty chaser in Pandorama, and had him in the perfect spot throughout, hitting the front at the last fence to win the Grade 1 Lexus Chase in 2010.

Major wins were not confined to Noel Meade, as a jockey of the stature of Carberry is always in demand. He got the leg-up on Monbeg Dude for the Welsh National in 2013 for trainer Michael Scudamore, and gave the horse an astounding ride. Coaxed along throughout the marathon contest, the gelding went through more fences than he jumped, but was allowed to work his way into contention. Picking them off one-by-one, Carberry was ‘taking a pull’ two fences from home, before hitting the front after the last. It was an incredible performance from man and beast.

Carberry was no less impressive on Solwhit in the World Hurdle for trainer Charles Byrnes two months later, and back with Meade partnered Very Wood to a stunning success 12 months later in the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle, when virtually no-one gave the horse a prayer.

It was that knack of getting the best from a horse, that sets Carberry aside from most other jockeys. The rider was at one with a horse, cajoling, kidding them along, until somehow they found themselves in front when it mattered most.

Noel Meade probably put it best when saying: “We've had a great innings together and Paul has had a great innings. I often thought that he could teach a horse to do more in one schooling session than someone else would in five. I remember when he got beat in the Christmas Hurdle on Harchibald and I said to him, “why didn't you hit him?” And he said to me, “why would I do that? He was doing his best.” He loved the horse, so there was nearly a tear in his eye.”

The sport will certainly miss Paul Carberry, with that familiar derriere weaving its way through the pack. He was a pure natural talent, a master of his trade.

A Lovely Time The Day We Went To Bangor

Scotland is undoubtedly my first love, but I always enjoy a trip to Wales, a country with a rich history and stunning natural landscape.

North Wales in particular is a favourite destination, easily accessible from my home in the Midlands, I’ve spent numerous holidays in Snowdonia and as a youngster our family headed to Llandudno on more than one occasion for a taste of the seaside.

On such excursions one particular racetrack has to come under consideration. Bangor on Dee is a real cracker and hold meetings both under National Hunt rules and for fans of Point to Point. The racing is always competitive and they have a habit of attracting leading trainers along with quality horses. With racing throughout the year, their latest meet takes place this afternoon.

Horses have raced in the area since the mid-1800’s, with the first recorded clash taking place in 1858. On that occasion, two members of the local hunt attracted a large crowd of locals with a £50 prize up for grabs. The event proved such a success that further meetings were organised for members of the hunt and local farmers. Racing at Bangor was born.

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In February 1859 the first Steeplechase event took place over much the same course that is used to this day. A pony race was held annually in the early years, run over a trip of two miles. In 1868 the race was won by a young 10 year-old named Fred Archer. He became one of the greats, many claim him better than the likes of Sir Gordon Richards and Lester Piggott. He went on to record 2,748 wins from just over 8,000 rides. His life ended tragically, though I will save that story for another day.

The course was also the first to host the talent of Dick Francis, National Hunt jockey turned thriller author. He rode the first of his 345 winners at the track in 1947. When asked of his thoughts of Bangor he said ‘it is my favourite because of the flatness and the absence of sharp bends’. Another of Jump Racing’s royalty to strut his stuff at Bangor was the mighty Denman. He won a novice hurdle at the track before tasting defeat at the Cheltenham Festival of 2006 behind Nicanor.

Jeannie Chantler is the General Manager, and on the hugely informative website says: “Bangor on Dee Racecourse is a major part of the local community, both as a social event and as a part of the economic structure within the area. The current head groundsman for the last 10 years Andrew Malam, took over the reins from his father John who had a career of some 27 years as head groundsman. Andrew's brother Brian also works on the team along with two other local boys.”

Bangor certainly has that kind of ‘local’ friendly feel. Facilities are more than ample, and the setting is just lovely. I’m a sucker for picturesque racecourses and this certainly ticks that particular box. The fact that Bangor is so close to great holiday destinations is a great bonus, but it is also within an hour of two terrific cities in Manchester and Liverpool.

As far as racing goes Nicky Henderson, Warren Greatrex and Rebecca Curtis hold impressive track records. Donald McCain is another Bangor regular, and all bar Henderson have runners at the course today.

Greatrex has had another terrific campaign and has had 5 winners from his last dozen runners. He’s particularly potent in bumpers and has the favourite in the last today, though McCain’s filly has an eye-catching pedigree.

Kerry Lee doesn’t have that far to travel, and will be hoping her current good run continues. She has a couple of fancied runners and with ground conditions classed as soft, heavy in places, she’s hard to overlook. Venetia Williams is another who will travel up from her Herefordshire base hoping to improve on a rather quiet spell. Just one win from her last 18 suggests the yard have gone off the boil.

Nigel Twiston-Davies is another heading to the Welsh track, though he travels with his yard in tip-top form. I Am Colin looks to be his best chance of a winner. The young chaser won at Leicester last time and looks to have plenty more improvement in him. He’s a lovely big horse though looked a little lazy Leicester when needing to be kept up to his work by the trainer’s son Sam.

There’ll certainly be far worse places to spend a Thursday afternoon, and with meetings in both April and May it won’t be too long before I’m back at Bangor, no doubt with Mrs K in tow, sampling some of that Welsh hospitality.

Creating Legends – The Hennessy Gold Cup

Hennessy Hero Denman

Hennessy Hero Denman

It’s a race with a rich history and a stunning roll of honour.

Established in 1957 and originally run at Cheltenham, the Hennessy Gold Cup was transferred to Newbury in 1960. Run over the same trip as the Cheltenham Gold Cup at 3 miles and 2½ furlongs, the race has been won by some of Jump racings all-time greats.

Arkle took the race as a seven and eight-year-old back in 1964 and 1965. Trained by Tom Dreaper in County Meath, and owned by the Duchess of Westminster, Anne Grosvenor, the wonderfully talented chaser was named after a mountain the stands on the border of the owner’s estate in Northern Scotland. An imposing natural phenomenon that has stood imperious over the Sutherland landscape for more than 500 million years seems appropriate for this legendary racehorse.

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A glorious period in the early eighties saw further epic victories for Jump racing royalty. Fulke Walwyn trained Diamond Edge to success; Michael Dickinson and Graham Bradley teamed up to win with Bregawn and then Jenny Pitman and John Francome were the famous combination for the wonderfully talented Burrough Hill Lad. All won under the enormous burden of top-weight.

In more recent times the undeniable hero of the Hennessy was the mighty Denman. It’s always a pleasure to include this sensational racehorse in an article, and reminisce over his incredible achievements. Such equine heroes are one of the main reasons we become hooked on this wonderful sport.

A son of Presenting, Denman was trained by Paul Nicholls and fondly known by the racing public as ‘The Tank’. Owned by Paul Barber and Harry Findlay, the raw five-year-old started out as a novice hurdler in the winter of 2005. He won his first two races at Wincanton; the second in particular an impressive all the way romp. Stepped up in class for his third appearance, he took the Grade 1 Challow Novices’ Hurdle, run at Cheltenham, by a yawning 20 lengths.

Few doubted that we had witnessed the arrival of a new racing star. Another with similar credentials had mirrored Denman’s achievements during the winter and many hoped for a clash in March at the Cheltenham Festival. However, the unbeaten Black Jack Ketchum ran in the three miler at the Festival, winning easily, whilst Nicholls’ charge was to meet with his first defeat when caught for speed by Nicanor in the Royal & SunAlliance Novices' Hurdle over two miles and five furlongs.

There was never a doubt that fences would bring out the best in this giant horse, and sure enough his novice chase campaign brought five wins from five outings, culminating in a stunning victory in the RSA at Cheltenham.

His first appearance out of novice company came in the 2007 Hennessy, when off top-weight he slaughtered all-comers in one of the most awesome displays of raw power. Just a few months later he was to savage a high-class field, (which included one of the all-time great chasers Kauto Star) when victorious in the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

That incredible performance appeared to leave its mark, and a period on the side-lines followed due to a heart condition. Yet incredibly, just 18 months after his famous Cheltenham Gold Cup success, he was back at Newbury winning another Hennessy, hauling top-weight to a mind-blowing success. Though sent off favourite for that famous win in November 2009, few could believe what they were witnessing as he tenaciously fought off the challenge from stable companion What A Friend. It was classic Denman.

The Hennessy Gold Cup is rightly seen as one of the great races during the winter months. The likes of Arkle, Burrough Hill Lad and Denman have caught the imagination and left an indelible mark on the events illustrious past.

Brothers – How Art Thou?

Longsdon with Kilcooley

Longsdon with Kilcooley

One hugely talented sibling does not always guarantee the arrival of another, though often the genes give hope that little brother or sister will come close.

Denman was one of the greatest chasers of the modern era. Staggering performances in winning the Hennessy twice off top weight were matched by a stunning success in the Gold Cup at Cheltenham. His record at the highest level was simply sensational. He was a beast of a horse, rightly adored by National Hunt fans.

Silverburn was his talented full-brother. Also trained by Paul Nicholls, he won a Tolworth Hurdle as a novice but never reached the same heights over fences, eventually being transferred to Evan Williams before attaining limited success as a hunter chaser.

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Frankel and Noble Mission were another great equine example. The former is recognised as one of the all-time greats, whilst the latter, though never reaching the heights of big brother, was still a hugely talented colt capable of winning the Group 1 Champion Stakes at Ascot.

Over the past few weeks we have been introduced to several more ‘brothers in arms’ who look more than capable of making a serious impact during the winter jumps season that lies ahead.

Charlie Longsdon is once again fast out of the traps with the latest campaign still in its infancy. The Cotswolds trainer is currently running at a 25% strike rate and had winners at Chepstow and Warwick yesterday. Chances are that he is still on a high after an exceptional weekend which yielded major wins at Wetherby and Ascot. Pendra finally got his act together over fences to win the Sodexo Gold Cup, while in Yorkshire Kilcooley romped to victory in the West Yorkshire Hurdle.

It’s the latter who holds our attention for today’s piece. The six-year-old is a son of Stowaway out of an Irish mare called Bealaha Essie. There is a strong staying influence in the pedigree on the dam’s side provided by a terrific jumps sire Roselier. Kilcooley clearly appreciated a step up in trip at the weekend and looks set to have a hugely successful winter.

Just a couple of days earlier at Stratford his younger brother Ballydine, also trained by Longsdon, ran out an impressive winner in a stayers maiden hurdle. Ridden by Richard Johnson, the strapping chestnut gelding appreciated the testing conditions, galloping to an eye-catching 10 length success. Slightly larger than his talented sibling, he looks every inch a chaser in the making.

Yesterday at Chepstow we were introduced to another gelding that looks to have a bright future. Bun Doran is a four-year-old trained by Tom George. The son of Shantou is out of the King’s Theatre mare Village Queen. A winning pointer, he was an expensive purchase and looked impressive winning this competitive bumper. A scopey type, he travelled beautifully throughout and should prove exciting when sent over hurdles.

His performance came just a few weeks after his older sibling Shantou Village had run out a stunning winner of a novice hurdle at Carlisle. Neil Mulholland’s five-year-old looked something special when cruising to a 20 length success on his hurdling debut. He’s set to step up in class with an outing at Cheltenham in just over a week’s time. His wins have come on a sound surface, but it’s likely he’ll have little trouble coping with more testing conditions.

Pedigree is obviously a key component to success and in this pair of siblings there’s every chance that a potent mix of genes has produced a number of potentially high class racehorses. Messrs Longsdon, Mulholland and George will certainly hope so.

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