Alex Hammond: Grands plans
Well the jumps season really gets going this weekend with Cheltenham's Open meeting taking place on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
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I have been lucky enough to get a real insight into two of the biggest yards in the country this week with trips to Paul Nicholls' Manor Farm Stables and Nicky Henderson's Seven Barrows for Sky Sports News.
Not only did I get to chat to both of the trainers, but I was very fortunate to be given the leg up on a horse called Black Thunder at Ditcheat and ride up the famous Somerset hill a couple of times.
It was fabulous to see Kauto Star too. The recently retired champion is still top dog in the yard, he has the presence of a great horse and I hope plenty of people get the chance to see him in years to come.
We have been on our travels in order to search for horses to follow this national hunt season, and if you have been tuning into Sky Sports News in the mornings you will be up to speed with my top ten. If not, I'll reiterate them at the end of this week's blog. I make no apology for focusing on horses from those two yards this week as I want to impart the knowledge that was kindly passed onto me.
So, all eyes are on Prestbury Park this weekend and this is when trainers will find out of their geese are swans and vice versa. Let's kick off with Friday and Fingal Bay faces a real test in the two and a half mile novices' chase.
There are only 5 going to post, but they include David Pipe's Dynaste and Paul Nicholls' unbeaten chaser Unioniste.
I'm sticking with the Philip Hobbs trained horse here though and think he can be top of the heap in the novice division this season.
I'm also looking forward to seeing Dodging Bullets run in the Grade 2 Novices' Hurdle on day one of the meeting. This is one of my horses to follow this term and having seen him in the flesh this week he has a lovely attitude. He was the highest rated maiden in training until he made his seasonal reappearance a winning one at Cheltenham last month. He looks capable of being one of the top novices this season.
It's important to remember that the season is long and none of these horses will be finely tuned at this stage so there should be plenty of improvement to come over the next few months.
Saturday is Paddy Power Gold Cup day and Grands Crus has been talked up for some time for this race. David Pipe trains the grey who was a top class novice chaser last season winning three of his four starts, with his one defeat coming in the RSA Chase. He finished fourth there when not running to his best form and can be forgiven his lacklustre effort. This race looks to be an ideal starting point for him.
He will face 19 rivals though as a maximum field lines up and they include Kieran Burke's massive improver Hunt Ball. His owner Anthony Knott isn't know as a shrinking violet, but his confidence has so far proved well founded and he thinks this horse still has a stone in hand of his rivals. He has made a fortune backing him and stands to win plenty more if this likable horse wins the Gold Cup in March.
Al Ferof is another horse with good claims in this Grade 3. He is one of 3 for the champion trainer and Ruby Walsh rides. He should get a decent gallop which suits his style of running and having ridden out at the yard I wouldn't be worried about his fitness on his first run back as those magnificent Somerset hills are brilliant for conditioning horses.
Alan King's Walkon isn't without a chance either and as you can see we are set for a real corker of a race. I also think Triolo d'Alene looks particularly well weighted. Nicky Henderson trains and Barry Geraghty rides the horse who just has 10st 1lb to carry here and I wouldn't put you off backing him.
It's hard to get away from the favourite here though as the vibes have been so positive and although he doesn't look an attractive price in a race as competitive as this I won't complain if he charges away up the famous Cheltenham hill.
I also like the look of Harry The Viking who runs in the Grade 3 Henrietta Knight Handicap Chase on Saturday. He is another who hails from the Paul Nicholls yard and the three and a half mile trip will be right up his street. He could make up into a National horse this season and he can gallop them all into submission here.
On Sunday it's the Racing Post Hurdle (formerly the Greatwood). This race is the starting point for Darlan, who it's believed could be a serious Champion Hurdle contender this season.
I can't oppose him in this Grade 3 Handicap, he looked magnificent when I saw him at Seven Barrows this week and AP McCoy thinks this horse can be a Champion Hurdle contender come March time. The 5 year-old did well to come back from a crashing fall at Newbury in February and was 2nd in the Supreme before winning at Aintree.
There were positive murmurings about his stablemate Cash and Go from those connected to the Henderson yard on Thursday too. Barry Geraghty rides this horse who won a Grade 1 Novice Hurdle at Leopardstown last Christmas. What a strong hand Henderson has in this.
There are a few reputations on the line on Sunday and it will be a stressful day for the trainer as Sprinter Sacre makes his seasonal reappearance in the Shloer Chase over 2 miles. He has weight to give away to his rivals, but barring accidents should win this. He is one of the few horses I have seen that have real presence (Kauto Star is of course another). He easily cantered up Henderson's gallops on Thursday barely turning a hair and the way he strutted back down the hill really caught the eye. He is a very handsome horse and if you want to introduce anyone to the thrills of jump racing then I would recommend watching this horse in full flight on Sunday.
I think the Henderson stable can get off to a winning start on Sunday with Captain Conan in the Racing Post Arkle Trial Novices' Chase. He is a Grade 1 winning hurdler but has always looked like the type of horse who would flourish when sent chasing and as has often been the case on weekends throughout the season it looks like Henderson and Nicholls will be winning many of the major prizes.
So, lots to look forward to for fans of jump racing and here is the list of my ten horses to follow for the season, all horses who should win races given a bit of luck and some of whom could be top class:
Sir Des Champs (Willie Mullins)
Waaheb (Dermot Weld)
Oscars Well (Jessica Harrington)
Grands Crus (David Pipe)
Sanctuaire (Paul Nicholls)
Dodging Bullets (Paul Nicholls)
My Tent or Yours (Nicky Henderson)
Simonsig (Nicky Henderson)
Darlan (Nicky Henderson)
Fingal Bay (Philip Hobbs)
Fingal Bay in the Novices' Chase
Dodging Bullets in the Grade 2 Novices' Hurdle
Harry the Viking in the Grade 3 Handicap Chase
Grands Crus in the Paddy Power Gold Cup @ 9/4 with Sky Bet
Darlan in the Racing Post Hurdle @ 9/4 with Sky Bet
Sprinter Sacre in the Shloer Chase
Captain Conan in the Racing Post Arkle Trial Novices' Chase