Richard Johnson may already have 100 winners in the bag, and Paul Nicholls may already have banked £750,000 worth of prize money for his owners, but for most racing fans Cheltenham’s November meeting marks the start of the true jumping season.
There was a moment last Saturday, as the incessant rain — one that found a Barbour no impediment — soaked through my shirt, my boots proved as waterproof as cardboard and my racecard notes dissolved to soggy tissue, when I pondered whether it might have been wiser to be addicted to a warmer, drier sport: women’s beach volleyball, perhaps. But it was a brief moment. For all the class and style and occasionally breathtaking quality of Flat racing, it has nothing to compare with the gutsiness, the approachability, the exuberance and yes, the sheer sentimentality that binds jumping folk together. BetVictor Gold Cup day could not have underlined that better.
The winner of the big race was the 25–1 Splash of Ginge and so it was the bookies who would have benefited, not most of the 30,000 punters present. But there was an eruption of joy at Ginge’s success. This wasn’t just because his trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies is the epitome of National Hunt racing in his appealingly awkward, unposh amiability but because the crowd knew how important the victory was for the young man he had legged up on to the winner. Like any 23-year-old who has lost his conditional rider’s allowance, Robert Bellamy has been struggling for rides. Few will forget his grin as he rode in after the big race, nor the spectacle of Splash of Ginge’s owner John Neild bouncing around the parade ring like a Duracell Bunny as his horse crossed the line. ‘Bells’, as they call him, and another young rider Ryan Hatch share a house and in 2014 it was Hatch who rode Splash of Ginge to win the Betfair Hurdle. But it is 11 months since Bells has ridden, 11 long months since he fractured a series of vertebrae beneath his neck, along with his sternum.
After the Betfair success, the Liverpudlian Neild took over the Hollow Bottom, Nigel Twiston-Davies’s local pub, for four whole days, allegedly incurring a bar bill of £17,000. Last Saturday he insisted on Ryan Hatch accompanying him to collect his BetVictor prize declaring: ‘We are family. We lose together and we win together.’ This time Neild’s ‘Ginge army’ are probably still in the Hollow Bottom.
I cannot alas launch any such celebration over our Twelve to Follow on the Flat this year. We had our moments: the Twelve contested 42 races and made it into the frame on 17 occasions. Atty Persse won at 7–1 at Royal Ascot and the talented but inconsistent Brando won a big race in France at 9–1. Morando and International Law won too (although it took a gelding operation to get the latter to concentrate on racing). Ian Williams’s London Prize, who tragically lost his life in a Cheltenham hurdle at the weekend, was our star. He won at both Goodwood and Newcastle and in the 34-runner Cesarewitch, only Withhold, the subject of a meticulously planned gamble with a carefully protected handicap rating, beat him home. Had London Prize come first instead of second at 16–1 we would have enjoyed a comfortable profit; instead, on a level stake of £10 to win all round, we ended £60 down.
On then, undaunted, to our Twelve for the jumps. I will start with one of last year’s Twelve, Brian Ellison’s Ravenhill Road. He won two bumpers for us then and tanked through his first hurdle, winning by 23 lengths. I also like Malcolm Jefferson’s big handicap chaser Cyrus Darius — from the north, too — who won impressively at Ayr despite making mistakes. Both my Irish picks come from the fast-advancing yard of Gordon Elliott: this column was already written when his Jury Duty scored last Sunday at Punchestown. Elliott’s Death Duty was equally slick in capturing a novice chase there last month and could go a long way.
Other exciting novice chasers include Dan Skelton’s Shantou Rock, and two of Philip Hobbs’s string — Strong Pursuit and Jerrysback. Put them in along with Tom George’s Cuirassier Dempire, who is being brought along carefully. Among the novice hurdlers, Dynamite Dollars, already a winner for Paul Nicholls at Chepstow and Exeter, catches the eye along with Skelton’s If The Cap Fits.
For the mares’ races, I would include Skelton’s Cabaret Queen, while among the hurdling handicappers I go for Fergal O’Brien’s Sissinghurst. We must have a chaser from Neil Mulholland, who scored his first century of winners last season. His Doing Fine will do for me. Outside the Twelve, my old favourite Rock the Kasbah (Hobbs) looks a Welsh National winner and Mulholland’s Carole’s Destrier looks a prospect for the Aintree version. I leave out Harry Fry’s second season chaser, American, with reluctance. He has bags of talent, but dodgy knees might curtail his campaign. And the riders to watch for? The 5lb claimers Bryony Frost (Nicholls) and Mitchell Bastyan (Evan Williams) are an asset to any horse.