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1. Aspire Tower
In an eight-race career over timber (has run 19 times under rules), this five-year-old gelding has in my eyes always looked like a stayer. The fact that he has yet to race over further than two miles by his astute trainer Henry de Bromhead is hardly surprising as connections genuinely thought that he would go close to winning a Champion Hurdle following his staying on second in the 2020 Triumph Hurdle behind Burning Victory.
His performance in the Champion Hurdle was entirely predictable on the sharper older course when he got badly outpaced after making a mistake at the penultimate flight. Taking time to get back on an even keel, the son of Born To Sea really found his stride in the final 150 yards to grab fourth spot, eventually beaten 11 lengths by Honeysuckle.
Of course, there has to be a question mark over three miles on the New Course, but he is well worth a punt in the Stayer’s Hurdle. A run in the 2-and-a-half mile Hatton’s Grace Hurdle could ultimately tell us if the staying route remains a distinct possibility.
They say that in any sport, following injury that they never come back, but I believe that this marvellous specimen of a racehorse could well defy that ‘ruling’ and bounce back to his best, which to be fair is probably still to come.
A top-class novice hurdler and promising novice chaser before spells on the sidelines, the race which stands out in my mind was CHAMP’s second to the smart Sceau Royal in the Game Spirit at Newbury last year. He attacked his fences with renewed vigour following a 347-day break and after running like a newly opened champagne bottle, the son of King’s Theatre still found plenty on the long run in against a 2m specialist.
Back problems have quite obviously limited his racing in the past 18 months, but Nicky Henderson feels that they have been put firmly on the back burner. If he does manage to stay sound in what is likely to be a light campaign then he could have a massive say in the outcome of the 2022 Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Remember, he has only had six starts over fences (won three, including a dramatic RSA Chase in 2020) and there is surely more to come from him. The strong staying and Prestbury Park loving Minella Indo may well be worth a saver despite his single figure odds as he attempts to go back-to-back in the big race.
3. Escaria Ten
Many will want to run with the obvious long term Aintree Grand National selection, namely the unlucky in running 2020 third Any Second Now, and although the current price now is not to be sniffed at I wanted to take a pin to a bigger priced probable player.
There are some nice second season novices coming through that will be shy of championship standard with the likes of National Hunt Chase hero Galvin the obvious staying star in the making, but it is the horse that finished second to him at Cheltenham that makes more appeal at the prices for Liverpool.
ESCARIA TEN has won only one of his four starts over the larger obstacles to date, but really caught my eye when a running on second to the smart Eklat de Rire in a Grade Three at Naas – given that the winner was allowed a soft lead out in front for much of that contest.
His subsequent run at Cheltenham can be marked up as he made no less than five mistakes during his round – two of them serious – and yet he still ran the winner to three lengths, only really giving way after the last obstacle on the uphill run the line.
With his novice season under his belt and given time to strengthen up, he could be a real force in the stamina sapping chases this season and the Grand National would seem a likely long term target. There is definitely a load more to come from the seven-year-old.
4. Galahad Quest
Sometimes it takes young horses time to adjust to fences when they have performed to a well above average level over hurdles. GALAHAD QUEST was more than a fair juvenile hurdler, winning a Grade Two at Cheltenham (Triumph Hurdle Trial) before a disappointing 14th in the Boodles Handicap Hurdle at the festival.
Following two moderate displays in his native France at the beginning of last season his attentions were turned to fences, but on his first two outings at Kempton and Haydock he simply treated the obstacles with disdain, on each occasion losing valuable ground at most of them.
However, on his return to the Merseyside track the penny finally dropped when the Nick Williams charge made just the one minor mistake at the eighth and then ran on strongly to see off the well regarded Marown by 2-and-a-half lengths.
Hopefully, his fencing will continue to improve and granted plenty of give in the ground he could be nicely handicapped off a mark of 135. Last year’s winner of the Paddy Power Gold Cup, Coole Cody, won off a mark of 137. However, I suspect Galahad Quest may well need a penalty to get into this year’s field and if he does he could be a major player.
5. Galopin Des Champs
Last year in the novice chase division I went all in on Chantry House, advised in this very column last year at 33/1 for the Marsh Chase, and my main hope to follow up that success is this hugely exciting young novice chaser.
Willie Mullins raced him over 2m for his first three races over timber for the Closutton yard, but it was clear that GALOPIN DES CHAMPS simply was both too immature to do himself justice and that the minimum trip was very much on the sharp side.
Stepped up to 2-and-a-half miles for the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys Handicap Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival, the five-year-old simply toyed with his 21 rivals to record a smooth as silk 2-and-a-half length success off a handicap mark of 142.
An extended 3m was his next port of call in class for the Grade One Irish Mirror Novice Hurdle at the Punchestown Festival when he simply outclassed his rivals to the tune of 18 lengths and that despite a mistake at the final obstacle.
A strong galloper with any amount of scope, I have already backed him for the Festival Novices Chase (3m) and as long as he stays sound, I fully expect him to be a star player in the staying novice chase ranks this coming season.
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6. Gerri Colombe
It is very easy to overrate a lightly raced young horse before a new National Hunt season starts, but this expensive purchase may well hit the heights for his astute trainer Gordon Elliot.
Winner of his sole point-to-point, when staying power got him home by a head, this beautifully put together gelding travelled very powerfully when landing his opening run under rules in a bumper at Fairyhouse pulverising his six rivals by 24 lengths and more. The fourth and seventh have since gone onto win under Rules and under his penalty the five-year-old cruised to victory at Naas.
Although GERRI COLOMBE’s seems to have a high cruising speed, the selection is bred to stay very well and it could well be wise to support him on two fronts long term for both the Albert Bartlett and the Ballymore Novices Hurdle at relatively big prices. He looks a fascinating prospect.
Sometimes it is hard to sort the wheat from the relative chaff when it comes to the increasingly competitive category of the fairer sex and, more specifically, the order of merit inside the champion trainer’s yard in the novice division.
However, for the forthcoming season Willie Mullins doesn’t have a mare in the top three in the ante-post market for the Cheltenham contest and his first entry is this daughter of Great Pretender. Many of you will be put off by GRANGEE’s physique or should I say the lack of it as she is a really diminutive mare, BUT with a really big engine inside judged on her first season under rules.
She won three of her six starts in bumpers last term including a strong staying on sixth in the Champion Bumper at Cheltenham, finishing 13.5 lengths off the eventual winner Sir Gerhard after being positioned way off the pace coming down the hill off a moderate gallop. That promise was further fulfilled with an emphatic success in the Grade Three EBF Mares Flat Race at the Punchestown Festival with a magnificent 7-length success.
Because she is seemingly such a strong stayer, distances in excess of the minimum trip could well suit her, but in the hope that the maestro keeps her to 2m and she trains on then the Mares Novice Hurdle at Prestbury Park could well be her calling.
There were plenty of bumper horses that impressed me last year, both at the highest table of the festivals and those just stepping their feet into the racing pool, but this son of Kayf Tara was the standout even though he only won a Warwick bumper in the middle of February on hock deep ground.
But, it was the way KYNTARA went about his business that impressed me. David Bass jumped him out at the sharp end and gradually upping the pace down the far side, he suddenly opened a gap turning out of the back straight and just went further-and-further away from his rivals to record a 17-length success.
The form has since been cemented by a couple of those that were well beaten (third and sixth) with the second and fourth yet to run again and the fifth a runner-up in a couple of novice events. A winner of his sole bumper point-to-point by 8 lengths, staying is obviously his strong point and he looks an exciting prospect for novice hurdles this coming winter.
9. Mr Incredible
I hate putting up two staying novice chases in my top 10, but they could still have different targets both through the season and then at the festivals in the spring. I suspect though that this well-made youngster (five going on six this term) from the Henry de Bromhead yard will probably need his stamina tested to the max.
A staying on second on his only point-to-point start, MR INCREDIBLE subsequently only ran in two maiden hurdles. Taking time to warm to the task, the race was gone by the time he got the hang of things behind the potentially smart Gaillard Du Mesnil Leopardstown. However, he really ran right through the line and then put that experience to good use at Naas next time out galloping his rivals into submission to the tune of 4-and-a-half lengths and more, racing much more prominently from the start.
The form of that success hasn’t really been cemented by those behind him that day, but I believe once this son of Westerner is put over a fence and gets to put his undoubted stamina to the test, we could see a really exciting staying chaser in the making.
10. Royal Pagaille
This Venetia Williams-trained mud lover had a remarkable season going from a handicap mark of 137 to going off a 14/1 shot in the Cheltenham Gold Cup on ground (good to soft) which was way too fast for ROYAL PAGAILLE.
A foot injury during that Festival challenge obviously affected his jumping, with at least five mistakes during the race, and yet he was far from disgraced in finishing sixth of the 12 runners.
It doesn’t need an oracle to tell you that deep ground over three miles plus will be his port of call and with that in mind a return to Haydock Park (scene of his impressive Peter Marsh Chase win) could prove his best chance for a Grade One success. Add in the big possibility that he could take another step forward and his chance in that Betfair Chase looks appealing.
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