Trainer Dan Skelton and his jockey brother Harry have 100 winners on the board already but for most of us the jumping season proper has only just begun. It wasn’t long, though, before I was reminded of one essential difference between the Flat and jumping codes: the sheer fun element of the winter game. In the Agetur novices’ hurdle at Newbury, the 40-year-old owner-rider David Maxwell looked like being beaten to the line on his French import Ecu De La Noverie when he was headed as the post loomed by the 13–8 favourite Mister Fisher, ridden by the teenage wunderkind James Bowen. Instead the determined amateur conjured one last thrust from his mount and regained the lead to win by a short head at 33–1. There was delight all round, not least from trainer Philip Hobbs’s wife Sarah who had invested £20 on Ecu’s chances. The beaming Maxwell, who had had to waste down to his lightest weight ever at 10st 7lb, declared: ‘I’m now going to eat the horse.’ As he passed trainer Alan King on the way to weigh, the elated Maxwell paused to advertise the fact that he was ‘an up-and-coming 5lb-claimer if you ever need my services’.
The nearest moment to that on the Flat this year was when an emotional Eve Johnson Houghton won her first Group One, the Queen Anne Stakes at Ascot, with Accidental Agent, bred by her mother and also at 33–1. Eve’s joy was, I hope, shared by some readers since Accidental Agent was among our Twelve to Follow. He played a significant part in the healthy profit delivered by the Twelve. Those who invested £10 to win every time on the 29 occasions they competed would have netted a healthy profit of £233. I had only one regret. Second to Accidental Agent that day was the grey Lord Glitters, also in the Twelve. Sometimes, when two of them contest the same race, I do a forecast on the pair finishing first and second. It’s a pity I didn’t do so that day: the forecast paid £555 to £1. Lord Glitters, placed several times in top company, won a Group race at York and although three of the dozen never made it to the racecourse, four others who did and won for us were Bacacarat, Labrega, Breathless Times and Waqaas.
Finding our winter dozen has been tricky this year: many trainers have been waiting for some rain to bring out their best hopes. Sometimes, too, we don’t get the timing right. Gordon Elliott’s Jury Duty didn’t win for us in four outings last season; this autumn he won the $400,000 American Grand National. Paul Nicholls’s Dynamite Dollars, too, ran in four hurdles for us without winning but was a scintillating success in his first chase last month. Gary Moore’s Baron Alco, a 2014 choice who missed most of two seasons injured, won the BetVictor Gold Cup at Cheltenham last Saturday in commanding style.
Anyway here goes with this season’s Twelve. First on my list is Warren Greatrex’s lovely athletic mare La Bague Au Roi. A highly rated hurdler, she jumped superbly to win a Beginners’ Chase at Newbury from a small but quality field and she obviously stirs deep feelings in her trainer. David Pipe had a lean last season, but with the likes of Un Temps Pour Tout and Moon Racer I am sure he will be back in the big time. Into our Twelve goes his Mr Big Shot, who impressed by winning an Aintree hurdle on Grand National Day. Tom George’s yard is now full of quality, like our former selection God’s Own, winner of the Haldon Gold Cup this year, and top prospect Black Op. For the Twelve I include Tom’s The Big Bite. He won two bumpers last year and won a maiden hurdle at Chepstow this month in convincing style.
From the North I take Donald McCain’s Uppertown Prince, winner by miles of an Ayr novice hurdle last season. From Wales I think Evan Williams’s six-year-old The Last Day, unbeaten at Chepstow, will prove progressive and I believe that the Ludlow-based Henry Daly will continue winning mares’ races with the useful Atlanta Ablaze. Harry Fry will surely collect prizes with his novice hurdler Bullionaire, but the Fry horse for the Twelve is his Bags Groove, already the winner of two novice chases.
Philip Hobbs had an annus horribilis with a bug last year, but is scoring all round the wicket this year. I will be watching his yet unproven Oakley, who is said to have some pace, and War Sound should win a handicap chase. But for the Twelve let us go with No Comment, a three-mile chaser. We must have one from Colin Tizzard, so I go with his novice hurdler Russian Hawk, a winner at Exeter over 2m 5f. From Champion trainer Nicky Henderson’s basket of riches, I take On The Blind Side, a decent hurdler going chasing, from the ever-dependable Paul Nicholls let us go with juvenile hurdler Ecco, and from the prolific Gordon Elliott I take Vision D’Honneur.
May they all show up — and come back safely.