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Aintree Delights

Though the Grand National is undoubtedly the headline act, next week’s Aintree meeting has plenty more to offer, with eye-catching renewals on each of the three days.

The Grade One Aintree Hurdle is run at 2m4f and never fails to deliver. Buveur D’Air was mightily impressive in winning last year, comfortably accounting for My Tent Or Yours and The New One.

Since its inception in 1976, the race has been won by some of the best hurdlers in the business. Dual Cheltenham Champion Hurdle hero, Comedy Of Errors, was a gutsy winner of the first running. The following year, Night Nurse and Monksfield dead-heated in an absolute epic. The pair were two of the all-time greats in a golden period for hurdling. Both went on to win the Champion Hurdle a couple of times apiece, with Monksfield returning to Liverpool to take the Aintree Hurdle three years in-a-row.

The wonderful Irish mare, Dawn Run, captured this race soon after landing the Champion Hurdle and a couple of years before her dramatic victory in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Morley Street became the most successful hurdler in the history of the event, winning four times from 1990 to 1993. He also landed the Champion Hurdle in 1991.

Another hurdling great, Istabraq, captured the Aintree Hurdle in 1999, though failed in a thriller 12- months earlier, when losing out in a prolonged duel to Pridwell, under an inspired ride from AP McCoy.

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Al Eile was an Irish raider that loved both track and trip. Trained by John Queally, he achieved a trio of victories in 2005, 07 and 08. Oscar Whisky was similarly suited by the trip. Never quite quick enough to land a Champion Hurdle, he was at his best at two-and-a-half-miles. His two Aintree victories in 2011 and 2012 proved dramatic, as on both occasions he had to hold off a sustained threat from the Willie Mullins-trained Thousand Stars, each time hanging on by a neck.

In a race where horses regularly return to win again, it’s hard to envisage a Buveur D’Air defeat next Thursday.
Another Aintree highlight will be the Grade One Melling Chase. This is a personal favourite and has been won by Jump racing giants. Introduced in 1991, this wonderful race has gone to numerous Queen Mother Champion Chase winners. Remittance Man, Deep Sensation, Viking Flagship and Martha’s Son, all landed the big one at Cheltenham before capturing this.

But it was Moscow Flyer that won over the hearts of so many National Hunt racing fans. Hugely talented, he undoubtedly had his quirks. But from being sent over fences in 2001, until the end of his 2005 campaign, Jess Harrington’s chasing superstar was virtually unbeatable. He hit the floor on occasion, but whenever Barry Geraghty was able to retain the partnership, this formidable chaser swept all-comers aside.

Twice a winner of the Queen Mother Champion Chase, his win in the Tingle Creek of 2004 will live long in the memory. Then a 10-year-old, he proved himself ‘the daddy’ at two miles, when fighting off two top-class chasing youngsters in Azertyuiop and Well Chief. He travelled to Aintree to land the Melling Chase in 2004 and 2005.

Undeniably one of the most talented, Moscow Flyer dominated for years. But for a period from 2012 to the end of the 2013 campaign, Sprinter Sacre surely surpassed anything that had been previously achieved over fences.

Nicky Henderson’s chaser was poetry in motion. Seemingly created to jump a fence, Sprinter Sacre was as good a jumper as there’s ever been. Blessed with perfect physical attributes, he was a truly glorious sight leaping an obstacle. Destructive in the Queen Mother of 2013, he then went to Aintree and proved himself a class apart when defeating the wonderful Cue Card. Wishing to show him off to the Irish racing public, Nicky Henderson then sent Sprinter to Punchestown to win their Champion Chase. He was to return from a heart condition and famously win another Champion Chase at Cheltenham in 2016.

It would be lovely to see Henderson’s latest star, Altior, compete in the Melling Chase next week. This outstanding racehorse is building a reputation to rival the likes of Sprinter Sacre and Moscow Flyer. It would be fitting if he was to match their Aintree achievements.

The Festival looms large on the horizon

Though I know it upsets a fair few folk when Cheltenham becomes the only topic of conversation, I must admit that it’s becoming a little difficult for me to think of anything else.

Admittedly, there’s still plenty of top-class racing between now and March 13, though most of the racing news will be dominated by ‘Festival Fever’. At this point in the National Hunt calendar, even races that carry huge prestige, tend to be viewed more as Prestbury Park pointers.

This weekend’s Clarence House Chase is such an example. The Grade One is worth £85,425 to the winner, and the race has a stunning roll of honour. Desert Orchid won an epic 1989, when the race was still a handicap. Master Minded and Sprinter Sacre were modern day two-mile goliaths, with the former winning this twice. Un de Sceaux has captured the last two, but should he make it a magnificent three in-a-row, much of the post-race chat will focus on his form as he heads to defend his Ryanair crown in March.

Nicky Henderson’s Brain Power is also in the line-up on Saturday, with Nicky Henderson hoping for an improved performance in a race he feels should suit his novice chaser. Via his Unibet blog, the champion trainer said: “With Un De Sceaux, the race is likely to be run at a decent gallop. He wants dropping-in and doesn't want to be doing silly things like going out and making the running like he did at Sandown. It was the wrong way to ride him in the Henry VIII Novices' Chase, so a good gallop around Ascot might well suit him better than if you run in a small four-runner novice at a little track. The Arkle is obviously where we'd like to end up.”

In little more than a week we have the aptly named Festival Trials Day from Cheltenham. The Grade Two Cotswold Chase is the feature, and though the roll of honour is another tasty one, its timing lends itself to the role of Gold Cup prep-race. It’s fair to say that in recent times it’s rarely given many clues towards the blue riband in March.

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The same cannot be said of the Cleeve Hurdle, which takes place on the same card. Inglis Drever, Big Buck’s and Thistlecrack have all won this prestigious staying hurdle in recent years, prior to heroic performances when returning to the track in March.

From Cheltenham, attention will turn to Ireland in early February, when Leopardstown play host to the Dublin Racing Festival. The two-day event has certainly captured the imagination, and is a terrific effort by organisers to make this a ‘stand-alone’ treat for Irish racegoers. Indeed, there’s plenty of Jump racing fans from the UK who, if not travelling over this time, will be watching with interest and making a note in diaries for future reference.

The Irish Champion Hurdle headlines on day one, a race that both Istabraq and Hurricane Fly made their own. The following day’s showpiece is the Irish Gold Cup, won last year by Sizing John, prior to his glorious excursion to the Cotswolds. The card is packed with high-class action, and of course those vital Cheltenham Festival pointers. Nevertheless, the quality of racing is such that those attending may give little thought to the looming presence of the Prestbury Park gathering. Along with the equine talent on display, racegoers will be treated to comedy, music and the best of Irish food and drink. It sounds like a cracking event.

Newbury is next on the radar, with the valuable Betfair Hurdle its centrepiece. Established in 1963, this is rarely a race won by elite hurdlers, though Make A Stand took this in 1997 en route to Cheltenham glory. My Tent Or Yours was another high-class winner, when landing the spoils in 2013.

Far less valuable though arguably of greater significance, is the Denman Chase, which takes place earlier on the Newbury card. In its relative short history, the race has been won by See More Business, Kauto Star, Denman, Long Run and Coneygree. Native River landed the pot 12 months ago, prior to going close in the Gold Cup at Cheltenham. I’d expect another powerful line-up come February as trainers look to ‘fine-tune’ their talented staying chasers.

Buckle-up as we accelerate to the inevitable. Outstanding racing is still to be had, as Cheltenham looms on the horizon.

The Champion Hurdle – He Who D’Airs Wins

The showpiece on the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival is the Champion Hurdle.

Established in the late-1920s, it has possibly the most glittering roll of honour of all National Hunt races. The 1970s was a truly golden period for the race, with equine legends such as Comedy of Errors, Night Nurse, Monksfield and Sea Pigeon, battling for the coveted crown of Champion Hurdler.

The Nicky Henderson trained See You Then, won three-in-a-row during the 1980s, and the JP McManus owned Istabraq repeated the feat at the end of the 90s. In recent times, Henderson and Mullins have proved the dominant forces, often with horses carrying the famous green and gold silks of McManus, or the pink and green of Rich and Susannah Ricci.

It should come as little surprise then, to see those same connections and trainers prominent in this year’s betting for the race. Despite a particularly tough winter for Willie Mullins and the Ricci’s, with previous winners Faugheen and Annie Power both ruled out through injury, they still have a likely contender towards the head of the market, in Limini. JP McManus has the front two in the market with Henderson’s Buveur D’Air and the Alan King trained Yanworth.

I don’t wish to focus much on those that are missing from the line-up. That’s horse racing for you, and we must now look forward to an enthralling and ultra-competitive renewal, with a field that still contains horses with huge potential.

Last year’s Supreme Novices’ third and the Neptune runner-up are currently vying for top spot in the betting. Both carrying the famous green and gold, Buveur D’Air was switched from his short spell over fences, and proved a comfortable winner of the Contenders Hurdle at Sandown last month. That was his third run of the winter, and he’ll arrive at Cheltenham fit and ready to go. His Supreme Novices’ third, coupled with his victory over Petit Mouchoir at Aintree last April (a race that saw Limini nine lengths back in third), leaves Henderson’s six-year-old rightly in my books, at the head of the betting.

That Aintree success showed that he has the necessary battling qualities, along with the ability to travel powerfully though a race.

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Yanworth proved no match for Yorkhill in last year’s Neptune, but at the minimum trip over hurdles is yet to be defeated. He’s a tough one to judge, and it’s understandable that some have been left underwhelmed by his performances this winter. He struggled to get the better of Lil Rockerfeller at Ascot in November, and then was the first under pressure ion the Christmas Hurdle, before staying on best to win. His run in the Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton hardly sent shockwaves through the division, yet he continues to win, and will undoubtedly be doing his best work late-on when it matters at Prestbury Park.

The worry for Yanworth, is whether he’ll have the basic speed to keep tabs on the leaders, enabling him to land a telling blow up the final hill. He resembles The New One, and like him could find himself having to make up too much ground at a crucial stage.

Petit Mouchoir is next in the betting, and has been impressive through the winter. He’s looked the best of the Irish, thanks to victories in the Ryanair Hurdle and the Irish Champion, both at Leopardstown. Ridden boldly from the front, it’s likely that the tactics will continue at Cheltenham, and it will take a good one to pass him. The Irish have a terrific record in the race, having won five of the last six. He’s without doubt a leading contender.

Limini is yet to be supplemented by Team Mullins, though it looks likely after her stunning success on seasonal debut at Punchestown. The stable did the same with Annie Power last year, though I’m pretty sure that Limini is some way shy of Annie P. She certainly has a turn of foot, but at Aintree in April was unable to go with Buveur D’Air and Petit Mouchoir, when the guys put in a sustained effort along the length of the straight.

Nicky Henderson has another contender for the crown in Brain Power. Though he’s been winning handicaps this winter, he announced himself as a horse of substance when third as a novice in the Grade 1 at Punchestown last April, when four lengths adrift of Don’t Touch It and Petit Mouchoir. A strong traveller, he now appears to have matured both physically and mentally, and looks capable of a big performance on the main stage. He needs decent ground to be at his best. If he gets it, he could go very close.

Of the older brigade, you’d have to believe that My Tent Or Yours and The New One have had their chance, and despite several stars being missing, they will still find a few of these a bit too hot to handle. This is a race where six and seven-year-olds have the upper hand, and both look held by Yanworth on the Christmas Hurdle run.

At a price, Ch’Tibello may be the one to take each-way. He’s been running consistently well throughout the winter, seemingly putting in his best effort in the Kingwell last time. I’d be stunned if he won, but Dan Skelton’s six-year-old is a progressive sort, and it’s surprising that he’s 40/1 in places.

Favourites have won four of the last six Champion Hurdles, and I fancy the betting has it about right. Petit Mouchoir is likely to have them stretched at some point, and he’ll take some passing. But I feel this will be Nicky Henderson’s year, and in Buveur D’Air and Brain Power he has two mighty contenders. I’m favouring the former to have both the class and the grit to prevail. Expect Yanworth and Ch’Tibello to be flying late-on as they battle for minor places. Best of luck to all those having a punt.

McManus Launches Champion Hurdle Assault

The JP MCManus decision to switch Buveur D’Air from fences back to hurdles came as quite a surprise, though it shouldn’t have.

Nicky Henderson’s talented youngster looked sure to be heading for the JLT Novices’ Chase at Cheltenham in March, but suddenly finds himself a live Champion Hurdle contender. JP clearly believes that the Mullins contingent are vulnerable, and now is the time to attack with everything at his disposal.

Binocular in 2010, and Jezki in 2014 are the most recent winners of the Champion Hurdle to carry the famous Green and Gold silks, though it was Istabraq who famously carried the colours to a hat-trick of victories from 1998 to 2000.

This year’s Champion Hurdle is starting to resemble 2014’s, when McManus sent Jezki, My Tent Or Yours and Captain Cee Bee into battle against the Mullins favourite Hurricane Fly, and a young unexposed The New One. On that occasion, Jess Harrington’s charge defeated the more fancied My Tent Or Yours in a thrilling finish, with the ‘Captain’ back in fifth. ‘The Fly’ was then a 10-year-old, and though I hesitate to say it, was probably somewhat past his best. For what it’s worth, it’s my view that The New One was outpaced by the front two before staying on for a third-place finish. Understandably, Mr Twiston-Davies has a different opinion.

The field for this year’s renewal continues to evolve. Annie Power met with a setback and will not be there, and Mullins, though sounding confident, must be a little concerned over the wellbeing of Faugheen. The Champion Hurdle favourite, and winner from 2015, has not been seen on a racecourse for more than a year, and missed his intended return last weekend after a slight muscle issue. Chances are that he will now head directly to Cheltenham in March, without a prep-run. He’s a ‘tank’ of a horse, and is known to improve for a run or two.

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It’s hard to believe that Faugheen will arrive on the opening day of the festival firing on all cylinders. The question is whether a 90% primed ‘Machine’ will be enough to repel a McManus assault.

Yanworth was expected to deliver the sternest challenge, having impressed in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton. Alan King’s seven-year-old was due to run at Sandown this weekend, but has also met with a minor setback and may also now head straight to the Festival. In his ‘Weekender’ column, King, writing before the injury came to light, said: “He could have gone straight to Cheltenham, but he’s had only two races this season, and it’s a long time from the Christmas Hurdle to the Champion. It will do him no harm to have a bit more match practice.”

Unfortunately, yesterday JP McManus' racing manager Frank Berry announced: “He's just met with a small problem. He's tweaked a muscle in behind, it's nothing serious but he can't run this weekend. Hopefully it won't take too long to come right and we can get going with him again. Whether he runs again we'll just have to play it by ear, he could go straight to Cheltenham.” Again, by no means ideal, but at least Yanworth has had a couple of runs this winter.

In his absence, it looks like Buveur D’Air will now head to Sandown for the Contenders Hurdle. It was anticipated that Henderson’s hurdler, turned chaser, turned hurdler, would head north to Kelso in a couple of weeks, but a rather busy Frank Berry announced: “Obviously Buveur D'Air is in at Sandown, so it's still an option. We'll see how he is in the morning and we'll come to a decision then I'd imagine. Nicky had mentioned taking him up to Kelso, so we'll just see.”

On Twitter Henderson tweeted: “Change of plan! With Yanworth not going to Sandown, Buveur will now head there instead. Lots of chopping & changing this week!”

A trip to Sandown means that Henderson now has the top two in the market, with Brain Power already an intended runner. An impressive winner at Ascot prior to Christmas, I’m a huge fan of the horse, but this will come as a major test. He’s bred to become a chaser, and certainly has the physique to excel in that sphere. I’m not sure he’ll possess the speed to cope with Buveur D’Air on Saturday.

Decisions made by McManus have certainly given the Champion Hurdle picture a shake. In Nicky Henderson and Alan King, he has trainers that know how to win the main event in March. A McManus-Mullins clash is on, and let’s just hope that all the main contenders now arrive at the start on a thrilling opening day of the Festival.

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.

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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.

Tombstone Takes Dead Aim at Prestigious Deloitte

It’s one of Ireland’s most prestigious and informative novice hurdles, with numerous winners striking gold at the Cheltenham Festival a month later.

The Grade 1 Deloitte Novice Hurdle is run over a distance of 2m2f and takes place at Leopardstown on Saturday. Established in 1987 the race has gone to some of Ireland’s great hurdlers. Danoli took the event in 1994 before heading for Cheltenham and winning the Sun Alliance (now the Neptune). He became something of a hero in Ireland and went on to win the Aintree Hurdle in 94 and 95.

Istabraq took the race in 1997 before also stepping up in trip at Cheltenham when winning the Royal & Sun Alliance. He went on to dominate the two mile division with many experts viewing him as one of the all-time greats, if not the greatest ever hurdler. He won the Irish Champion four years running and took the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham three times.

In 2002 it was Like-A-Butterfly taking the Deloitte before winning the Supreme at The Festival. The wonderful warrior Brave Inca completed the same double in 2004. Forpadydeplasterer took the race in 2008, but could only finish fourth when stepped up at Cheltenham for the then named Ballymore Properties Novices’ Hurdle. He did return to Cheltenham a year later however, and was victorious in the Arkle Chase.

Dunguib was billed as the next Irish hurdling sensation when sweeping all before him, including the Deloitte, on his way to contesting the Supreme in 2010. Though running a cracker at Cheltenham he was outgunned by Menorah and Get Me Out Of Here, when many felt he had been given a little too much to do. Sadly injury blighted the rest of his career, and we probably never saw the best of Dunguib.

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The last three winners of the Deloitte have all been trained by Willie Mullins. Champagne Fever and Vautour took the race on the way to Cheltenham glory in the Supreme. Last year it was Nichols Canyon who impressed in the Leopardstown showpiece before heading to The Festival to contest the Neptune. A change of tactics were employed to ensure he stayed the extended trip, but he finished only third and in hindsight probably ran far too keenly under restraint.

And so to Saturday’s renewal which looks to have attracted another classy line-up. Sure to be run in testing conditions with further heavy rain forecast, Willie Mullins looks set to unleash Bellshill; so far undefeated over hurdles. Owned by Andrea and Graham Wylie, the six-year-old has looked convincing thus far, though the form of his three hurdles victories is somewhat underwhelming. This will undoubtedly be his biggest test to date, and a clash with Yanworth looms on the horizon.

Tombstone looks to be the main challenger tomorrow having run a cracker in defeat at Christmas behind Long Dog in the Future Champions. Trainer Gordon Elliott appeared pretty bullish when writing in his BoyleSports blog: “He's in great form ahead of his run in the Grade 1 Deloitte Novice Hurdle. We're really excited about running him; it's going to be a great race. Willie will probably have two, we'll have one and there'll be a few others. I really think the trip will suit and the ground will suit him so with a bit of luck, he'll do it.”

Sporting the familiar Gigginstown silks, he’s by Robin Des Champs, and as such may well appreciate better ground at Cheltenham should this rain ever stop.

Willie Mullins appears less likely to run Yorkhill, but looks sure to let his Gigginstown contender Petit Mouchoir take his chance. He was less than a length behind Tombstone at Christmas and is likely to be in the shake-up again. Brian Cooper has chosen to ride Elliott’s contender, and the money has come for him during the week.

Though Mullins and Elliott appear to have the race between them, there has been support for the Edward Harty trained Coney Island. He took a maiden hurdle at Christmas and though impressive on that occasion this is a much tougher ask. By Flemensfirth out of a Milan mare, I’d be surprised if he has the gears needed to win this.

For some an encounter with Min awaits at Cheltenham, and for others Yanworth looms large at The Festival. However, for now the focus is to win one of the most prestigious novice hurdles; a race with a rich history and illustrious roll of honour.

Coolmore take a Walk In The Park

Just how much of a statement of intent is the purchase of Walk In The Park by Coolmore?

The official announcement came yesterday that the sire of both Douvan and Vautour will now stand at Grange Stud along with the likes of Flemensfirth, Milan and Westerner. The 14-year-old son of Montjeu began his career at stud in France in 2008. He was due to continue at Haras de la Huderie in Normandy at a fee of €3,500 before the move to Ireland.

Stud manager Albert Sherwood said of the purchase: “Douvan and Min are two of the most exciting young horses around so we're delighted to have secured him. As well as getting great racehorses he gets sales horses too with one of his foals topping Goffs December at €70,000.”

An athletic racehorse, Walk In The Park was placed in all his runs as a juvenile before finishing second in the Epsom Derby to Motivator in 2005. His career at stud had proven somewhat lukewarm until the Mullins duo burst onto the scene, and clearly further progeny will now come under greater scrutiny.

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Coolmore’s action to purchase the stallion comes during a season when Joseph O’Brien has launched an assault on the Irish National Hunt scene. Training for JP McManus out of his father’s original yard at Owning Co Kilkenny, the O’Brien National Hunt wing is expected to expand under the backing of McManus. Though his father Aidan’s name appears as trainer, it is understood that this is son Joseph’s first step into the training ranks.

The season has been going well with another exciting winner in the bumper at Leopardstown over the weekend. Aspen Colorado swept to a stylish victory and has now been installed as favourite for the Cheltenham Champion Bumper. The stable also have the favourite for the Triumph Hurdle. Ivanovich Gorbatov won at Leopardstown over the Christmas period, comfortably getting the better of Willie Mullins’ young filly Let’s Dance. The son of Montjeu was pretty slick over his obstacles and is now three from four under rules.

It will come as no surprise to see that the yard’s strongest division is the team of young bumper runners. A winter of 16 wins from 31 runs tells its own story. This compares to just three wins from 10 runs the year before. Long term plans are uncertain, but there’s little doubt that Joseph has already made an impact.

The addition of Walk In The Park to Coolmore’s roster could well provide O’Brien with quality jumpers down the line, giving JP McManus the ammunition to challenge Ricci and Gigginstown at the very highest level.

It’ll soon be a decade since the mighty Istabraq set out on a career of dominance over hurdles. This winter has already hinted at exciting times ahead for team O’Brien over the jumps. With so much talk of a Mullins monopoly, maybe a familiar foe is about to launch a challenge on the Irish National Hunt scene.

‘Lost In France’ but not forgotten – Ferdy Murphy

Ferdy Murphy

Ferdy Murphy

My wife and I have had the pleasure of travelling north over the last few days. It’s hard to beat a short break in Scotland for recharging the batteries, sampling that wonderful Scottish scenery.

On route we had the good fortune of stopping off at the Wensleydale Heifer in the pretty little village of West Witton in the glorious Yorkshire Dales. It’s a cracking hotel and we had booked to stay overnight in one of their themed rooms; we were lucky enough to get the Chocolate Room. Not only was the bedroom and en-suite pretty luxurious, but it contained the added bonus of as much free chocolate as you could possibly eat. Other rooms include the Whisky Room, The Wensleydale Suite, the James Bond 007 Room and the Middleham Racing Room.

There’s very much a horse racing theme running throughout the hotel, with equine photos and paintings in the lounge and the bar area. It’s a great base, not only for The Dales, but for racing fans visiting the numerous racecourses in the vicinity. The village was formerly the home of one of the most successful northern National Hunt yards, run by the Wexford born trainer Ferdy Murphy.

Murphy moved to Wynbury Stables on the edge of West Witton in 1996. Over a decade of success followed with winners at the Cheltenham Festival along with victories in the Scottish and Irish Nationals.

The trainer produced a host of top-class horses winning major races throughout the UK. Kalahari King may never have won at the Cheltenham Festival, but he was without doubt one of the leading lights for Murphy and his team. Fourth in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle in 2008, he was then agonisingly close to winning the Arkle the following year when failing by a short-head to overhaul Forpadydeplasterer. Third in a Champion Chase and then runner-up once more, this time in the Ryanair of 2011, gave the grand old gelding a mighty Festival record.

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French Holly was one of the earlier stars of the yard. A winner of seven of his 13 starts over hurdles, he was successful in the Royal & Sunalliance Novices’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival, but also had three memorable runs behind Istabraq in 1999, getting to within a length of the great hurdler at Leopardstown and Aintree. It was hoped that he would go on to great things over fences, but tragically he died in a training accident later that year.

Murphy went on to have many quality chasers in the yard. His Scottish National victories came from Paris Pike, Joes Edge and Hot Weld. Irish Grand National success came from Granit D’Estruval in 2004. Producing staying chasers proved to be his forte, with him adding the winners of the Midlands Grand National, the Kerry National, the Rowland Meyrick and Sandown’s season ending Gold Cup on two occasions.

Poker De Sivola and the aforementioned Hot Weld both completed the Cheltenham National Hunt Chase and Sandown Gold Cup double. Their style of running could not have been more different. The latter loved to get on with things, galloping his opposition into the turf, whilst Poker De Sivola preferred being hidden out the back, only to be introduced into the fray when others had cried ‘no more’. In Hot Weld’s Scottish National success of 2007 Murphy also saddled the runner-up and more fancied stable companion Nine De Sivola.

It would be remiss not to mention another of the yard’s top chasers, the 2003 Cheltenham Gold Cup runner-up Truckers Tavern. True he was beaten some way by the outstanding Best Mate on that occasion, but the horse won a Peter Marsh Chase, a Rowland Meyrick and was placed in numerous other graded staying chases.

Sadly for Jump racing in Yorkshire, and the UK as a whole, Murphy took the major decision in 2013 to sell Wynbury Stables and move to France. He spoke at time of his new venture: “It will be the end of an era. I’ve had many grand times at Wynbury, but I’ve always wanted to train in France. If I don’t do it now, it is probably something that I will regret later on in life. The opportunity is too good to turn down. My eldest daughter, Caroline, lives in Normandy with my son-in-law Guy Petit, who is a top bloodstock agent, so it also makes sense from a family point of view.”

Based in the North-East of France, Murphy runs a small yard and is also involved in the sourcing of racehorses. He’s even taken to Twitter in an attempt to check-in on old friends in the UK. He appears to have settled well into his new life across the channel.

It’s hoped that one day we may see a Murphy raiding party at the likes of Cheltenham or Aintree. But for now, tracks in Northern France can expect to see a host of Murphy trained staying chasers scooping their major prizes.

Midnight Legend – Still A Stallion In Demand

Seeyouatmidnight

Seeyouatmidnight - Potentially top-class chaser

He may have reached veteran status as a stallion, but Read more

Tipperary’s ‘Season Finale’

Istabraq

Istabraq

Summer racing draws to a close at Tipperary Racecourse, as they hold their ‘Season Finale’ meeting on Tuesday. Lying next to the Limerick Junction railway station, just two miles north of the town, the first recorded meeting at the racetrack was in September 1916.

The course stages both codes of racing, and is ideally placed to attract some of the very best trainers in Ireland. Over the years many equine greats have run at the track. In 2002, High Read more

Who’s up for the Festival treble?

Istabraq - 1999 Festival hat trick

Istabraq - 1999 Festival hat trick

Sprinter Sacre and Solwhit both head off to Punchestown aiming to complete a rare feat – a seasonal hat trick of Festival victories. Istabraq was the last horse to win races at the Cheltenham, Aintree and Punchestown Festivals, and that was back in 1999.

Then, he won the Champion Hurdle, Aintree Hurdle and Punchestown Champion Hurdle, achieving his highest ever rating of 181 in the third of those races. That in itself shows what a challenge it is, and Charlie Swan, who rode Istabraq in those races, told the Racing Post that although Istabraq was a horse with bags of ability, that wasn’t enough to ensure a triple success.

When he won the Champion Hurdle in 1999, he came to Cheltenham on the back of one defeat in 12 races, stretching back over two years. That loss was a head defeat to Pridwell in the 1998 Aintree Hurdle. His eight races beginning with those three yielded seven wins, including two Cheltenham Champion Hurdles and a second place. That’s the talent Istabraq had, yet Swan says he needed more than that.

He said, “To do what he did that year, with them coming up so quickly (just six weeks between Cheltenham and Punchestown) he had to be a very good horse. He also had to have a very good trainer. He was as good in the Punchestown race as he had been at Cheltenham and I think the reason he had been beaten at Aintree was more to do with the ground and him running keenly.”

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So how likely is it that Solwhit or Sprinter Sacre can emulate Istabraq and do what Rooster Booster, Moscow Flyer and Fota Island all tried, but just failed to manage? And is it possible that two horses will do so in the same year?

One trainer who is perhaps better placed than most to judge that is Jessica Harrington, who had Moscow Flyer in her care. She explained what she thought had prevented her horse gaining the treble, saying, “The first year Moscow Flyer went to the three big meetings was 2004. When he departed at the top of the (Cheltenham) hill, it meant he didn’t have a hard race and because he was ten we had nothing to lose from stepping him up to two and a half miles. He won easily at Aintree before going on to Punchestown.”

They tried again the following season. “Then, he won the Queen Mother as an 11-year-old, followed up at Aintree and was beaten only a whisker by Rathgar Beau at Punchestown. But going into that race, he hadn’t had too hard a time of it at Cheltenham or Aintree, so he was fit and well.”

Now Sprinter Sacre clearly passes Swan’s test of having a very good trainer. Nicky Henderson had been perennial runner up to Paul Nicholls, and this season is champion trainer. And he also meets the Harrington test of not having had too many hard races. She added, “The thing with Sprinter Sacre is that, like Moscow, he hasn’t really had hard races at either Cheltenham or Aintree, so you’d imagine he’ll be fresh enough going to Punchestown. He is just the real deal, isn’t he?”

That’s a pretty clear vote of confidence behind his chances, but what of Solwhit?

In Charles Byrnes he has a very capable trainer. You couldn’t have predicted his two wins at Cheltenham and Aintree; they were over a distance of three miles and were the first two runs he had beyond two and a half miles. What’s more, he’d only won once over that distance. He may still have more to show over three. But the biggest challenge Solwhit will face is a horse he hasn’t come up against before, and which ran in the Mares' Hurdle at Cheltenham, but skipped Aintree. Step forward Quevega. If she is fit and lines up, she might well be the fly in Solwhit’s ointment.

O’Brien’s Shield heralds Cheltenham return

O'Brien - back to Cheltenham

O'Brien - back to Cheltenham

Aidan O’Brien’s first venture into the National Hunt arena for eight years paid dividends last month when Shield gained a placing in the first four of a race at Punchestown that qualified him to run in the Weatherbys Champion Bumper. Read more