There are Flat people and there are jumping people. People like the late Captain Tim Forster, trainer of three Grand National winners, Ben Nevis, Well to Do and Last Suspect, who once declared: ‘One day I’m going to stand for Parliament. If I get in my first Bill will be about abolishing Flat racing and the second about doing away with hurdlers.’ People like Trevor Hemmings, the billionaire with the flat cap whose later life became a quest for Grand National winners in his green and yellow quartered colours, a quest in which he succeeded with Hedgehunter, Ballabriggs and Many Clouds. Sadly the kindest of owners died last month and won’t see his appropriately named Cloth Cap campaigned again for the National. Then there is J.P. McManus, jump racing’s biggest benefactor, who laid out no less than £570,000 for the juvenile hurdler Jonbon. Yes, that’s for a jumper with no stud fees to follow his career. It will be intriguing to see what Nicky Henderson can do with Jonbon and with Mike Grech’s Gallyhill, who set his owner back a mere £450,000 and whom the trainer describes as ‘an out and out three-mile chaser’.
A 23-5 trouncing by the Irish at this year’s Cheltenham Festival led to much soul-searching among English trainers. Willie Mullins, Henry de Bromhead and Gordon Elliott will challenge again for the top English prizes but Paul Nicholls has already responded the best way by sending Frodon and Bryony Frost over to Down Royal for the Champion Chase, the first Grade One of the season, to out-battle de Bromhead’s Gold Cup winner Minella Indo and Elliott’s Grand National hope Galvin in what may turn out to have been the gutsiest race of the season. Henderson too has responded by training 20 winners more than he has usually done by end-November.
Choosing a dozen horses for readers to follow this season I am ignoring Henderson and Nicholls stars simply in search of fairer prices. First choice is Venetia Williams’s Royale Pagaille whose extraordinarily facile win in Haydock’s Peter Marsh Chase last year emboldened connections to go straight to the Gold Cup, ignoring easier Cheltenham targets. Lost shoes, a foot injury and jumping mistakes found him out at that level but this season in soft conditions he could prove Venetia’s best horse ever. Then there is Ben Pauling’s Your Darling, a horse bought for the Vestey family by Henrietta Knight. There is no better judge of a horse and after his first bumper victory Hen called him ‘as good as Best Mate’. No pressure there then, Ben.
Next is my Grand National hope Secret Reprieve, winner of the Welsh version last season, who just missed the cut for this year’s race. Trainer Evan Williams has demonstrated that no one knows better how to prepare a horse for Aintree. I will include one of Henry de Bromhead’s because his Eklat De Rire, though a faller last time out, looks just the sort for races like the Ladbrokes Trophy at Newbury. I will persevere with Kitty’s Light, trained by Christian Williams and ridden by Jack Tudor, who was desperately unlucky last year not to win the Bet365 Chase. Paul Nicholls’s former jockey Sam Thomas has lately taken off as a trainer and his Skytastic looks a promising novice hurdler. So does Olly Murphy’s Go Dante. Among the novice chasers Kim Bailey’s The Edgar Wallace should win races. There must be a candidate from the Dan Skelton yard and I will go for Third Time Lucki, already a Cheltenham winner. There’s nothing like Cheltenham Festival form and a third in the County Hurdle brings in Neil Mulholland’s Milkwood while Bear Ghylls’s fourth behind the outstanding Bob Olinger in the Ballymore should lead on to a fine novice chasing career for Nicky Martin. With Fergal O’Brien, now linked up with Graeme McPherson, topping the trainers’ table through early season we must conclude with one of Fergal’s and I will go for Peking Rose, third on his recent hurdles debut.
How about our Flat Twelve to Follow? Of the 11 who ran, Aaddeey, Asad, Jumeirah, Dance Fever, Derab, King’s Lynn, Run to Freedom, Shelir and Thundering Nights all won, three of them twice, but over-ambitious owners and poor prices left us with an overall loss to £10 stakes in 64 runs of £130. The biggest surprise was that the gorgeous grey filly Albaflora, my most confident choice, didn’t win. She was though fourth in the Coronation Cup, second to Snowfall and Wonderful Tonight in top Graded races and finally a heartbreaking runner-up to Eshaada in a nostril-to-nostril photo finish at Ascot on Champions Day. As I commiserated, trainer Ralph Beckett smiled wryly: ‘She went out on her shield, didn’t she?’. More frustrating was mile handicapper Shelir who ran ten times. Before a 14-1 victory Shelir managed to be second successively by a short head, a head and a neck. For his final run at Ascot he was 40-1 and I played up the 14-1 winnings each way with a bookie paying six places. True to character Shelir finished seventh — by another short head.