BALLYCASEY (WON, Thurles Jan 17)
In the coming weeks, champion Irish trainer Willie Mullins will be finalising the names to make up his battalion of runners heading for the Cheltenham Festival. Almost certain to be on the journey over is this six-year-old grey after a striking performance that readily dismissed two or three respectable opponents from the staying novices’ hurdle sphere. Come the home turn, it was clear he was travelling all over them and when given his head from the second last, he duly quickened clear. Pre-season, Mullins felt the son of Presenting was “an exciting chaser in the making”, but now, the Neptune or the Albert Bartlett are firmly on his agenda.
BUCK MAGIC (3RD, Kempton Jan 12)
Neil Mulholland is an unsung, young trainer going places -- and helping him to get there will be this lightly-raced seven-year-old. After scrambling home at Cheltenham’s Open meeting in November, he showed marked improvement here in a richly competitive Lanzarote Hurdle. Always prominent, he was no match for the classy, well-handicapped winner but boxed on gamely and surely has more races in him when stepped up to 3m, maybe even in the Pertemps Final back at Cheltenham, for the Festival in March. Eventually, he will be switched to fences.
CALCULATED RISK (WON, Doncaster Jan 9)
Malton trainer John Quinn is building a mighty reputation with juvenile hurdlers -- and has unearthed another to follow in this son of Derby winner Motivator. In an above-average race, the first four all spiked the guns of the warm favourite, but Quinn’s charge won it, even though he had the lowest official rating of those coming from the Flat. Closely-related to fair sorts by Montjeu and Singspiel, he took to timber-topping like a duck to water and ran on so well that he must not be forgotten come Triumph Hurdle day. Currently up for sale, he’ll make somebody a very good buy.
CHRIS PEA GREEN (WON, Lingfield Jan 15)
This was a very weak race, especially once the favourite had bombed, on deep, deep ground that most couldn’t handle. But as a Flat-bred son of Proclamation, Gary Moore’s four-year-old was not exactly entitled to enjoy the surface either, so it was quite an eye-opener to see him unleash a smart turn of foot between the final two flights. Also an impressive winner on his Bumper debut, he might be worth keeping an eye on with the Fred Winter at the Cheltenham Festival in mind -- a race his trainer has targeted with useful sorts before.
FAGO (WON, Newbury Jan 16)
Many horses brought over from France take time to acclimatise. But not this five-year-old chaser, who has been purchased by the Wylies and switched to champion trainer Paul Nicholls after finishing second in a Grade One novice event at Auteuil in November. Opining that he didn’t get home that day, Nicholls opted to drop him to the minimum trip for this UK debut and even though he had to carry a 4lb penalty in a good, competitive heat, he ran out a decisive pillar-to-post winner. The Arkle at the Cheltenham Festival is an ambitious plan, but he can motor and jump and connections are sure he’ll improve for this outing.
GET BACK IN LINE (2ND, Plumpton Jan 6)
Jonjo O’Neill’s JP McManus-owned newcomer was sent off at 33/1 for his debut in a race landed by a heavily-backed stablemate. Indeed winning jockey Tony McCoy later reported that the five-year-old son of Milan had shown nothing at home. What a pleasant surprise it must have been then for him to run so well under 5lb claimer Maurice Linehan to take second, albeit at a respectful distance, having never been placed in the race to win it. A full brother to smart Irish chaser Glam Gerry, he weaved his way through the field from rear to stay on nicely and must be kept onside by punters from now on.
GOLANTILLA (WON, Cork Jan 5)
When Cork-based owner/breeder Sean O’Brien sent this five-year-old to Cheltenham’s Brightwells Sale in December, days after he’d won an Irish point, he triggered a few disbelieving gasps by rejecting a bid of £190,000. But how shrewd his decision proved to be because the gelding went on to bolt up in this Bumper, persuading the owner/trainer combination of Barry Connell and Tony Martin to fork out 375,000 euros for him. All roads now lead to the Champion Bumper at the Cheltenham Festival -- and the manner in which he bombed clear here, when set alight 2f out, means he’s sure to go close. O’Brien describes him as “an absolute machine”.
GOONYELLA (3RD, Thurles Jan 17)
It’s not often I recommend hunter chasers to follow. But one fruitful exception last season was Monkerty Tunkerty, who still has a big staying prize in him, and this term’s eyecatcher could be Jim Dreaper’s youngster who has bags of scope for improvement, given that he’s only six years old. Not that he’s far off the standard required in hunter events already because here, he finished just a whisker behind Oscar Delta, who has been third in each of the last two Foxhunter races at the Cheltenham Festival. He travelled and jumped with aplomb and looks a different horse now to the one formerly with Nigel Twiston-Davies.
LAST SHADOW (4TH, Doncaster Jan 9)
There have been few more fascinating juvenile hurdles all season than this, with the first four all proving too good for a warm favourite boasting strong form. Jonjo O’Neill’s newcomer, owned by JP McManus, was held up in rear and never put in the race to win it. But he shaped most encouragingly, creeping closer from the home bend and ending up getting the better of the market leader on the run-in. A son of 2007 Eclipse winner Notnowcato, he’s well worth monitoring from now on, especially as he cost a massive 210,000 guineas, and might well develop into a candidate for the Fred Winter at the Cheltenham Festival.
LOCH BA (WON, Newbury Jan 16)
Leading Flat trainer Mick Channon has taken charge of about 12 horses formerly under the care of the now-retired Henrietta Knight -- and one of the most progressive of them must be this seven-year-old chaser. This was a truly-run, competitive handicap chase, yet he travelled extremely well from the outset, jumped even better and ran out a most authoritative winner without being seriously extended. The performance was a marked improvement on what he’d achieved before and given that he’s considered to need goodish ground, he could well sneak into contention for one of the Cheltenham Festival handicaps.
L’UNIQUE (WON, Kempton Jan 12)
Alan King is not firing in as many winners as he might like, but he knows what it takes to bag a Triumph Hurdle, having saddled Katchit and Penzance in recent years, so when he labels this filly as “well above-average”, we need to listen. Mind you, we also got the chance to see for ourselves here, as she defied a 5lb penalty to demolish male opposition and set up a tilt at one of the traditional Triumph trials, the Adonis at Kempton next month. A daughter of top-class French stayer Reefscape, she lacks experience on the Flat but has progressed with every run over timber and boasts all the qualities required for the demanding Cheltenham Festival contest.
ROCKY CREEK (WON, Warwick Jan 12)
Champion trainer Paul Nicholls identified this as the day when his progressive, well-regarded seven-year-old needed to prove his worth as a staying chaser capable of mixing it with the best of his generation. He didn’t disappoint, maintaining an upward curve that has characterised all six of his outings under Rules since being recruited from the pointing field. Impressing with a polished exhibition of jumping, the full brother of the ill-fated Tell Massini produced a near-flawless performance to destroy three or four talented novices. He must go on the shortlist for the RSA Chase at the Cheltenham Festival and, in time, he could even mature into another Gold Cup candidate for Nicholls.
SAPHIR DU RHEU (WON, Taunton Jan 7)
After arriving in this country with a lofty reputation, Paul Nicholls’s Andy Stewart-owned four-year-old French-bred was sent off a warm favourite for the juvenile hurdle at Newbury’s Hennessy meeting, only to finish a disapppointing third. However, Nicholls subsequently admitted he made a mistake by leaving him short of race-fitness, so it was no surprise to see the gelding put the record straight here. It was quite significant that Ruby Walsh travelled over from Ireland on a Monday afternoon (while the trainer was on holiday in Barbados) to take the ride, and a comfortable victory against older rivals proved that he’s a good horse in the making.
SOUND INVESTMENT (WON, Taunton Jan 7)
When you splash out £100,000 for a young horse on often-flimsy evidence from Irish point-to-points, you need a return from your investment. It’s taken this five-year-old son of Dr Massini, bought by the Wylies, three runs to supply it, but there was no denying the impressive impact he made to land this 2m4f novice hurdle. Even though he was plenty keen enough through the first half of the race, he quickened up in style at the business end and powered clear. Far from disgraced over an inadequate trip behind the highly-rated Puffin Billy at Newbury in November, he has no fancy targets but is improving nicely.
SWNYMOR (FELL, Chepstow Jan 5)
The moral victor of a decent, competitive Grade One Finale Juvenile Hurdle, which is saying something considering the race represented a huge step-up in class for Tim Vaughan’s youngster and considering it is almost unheard of for the race to be won on the back of only one previous run. The reason he wasn’t the real winner can be attributed to a bad piece of misjudgement by jockey Richard Johnson who, instead of holding his mount together as they approached the final flight in front, asked for an unnecessary big leap that resulted in a crashing tumble. A talented recruit from the Flat, where he never really fulfilled his potential for William Haggas, the son of 2007 Arc hero Dylan Thomas had arrived on the scene travelling smoothly and had quickened impressively to take the lead. If the fall has not caused any lasting damage or affected his confidence, he will be a leading player in the Triumph Hurdle.
HORSES TO FOLLOW SUPPLIED BY SCOOP RACING (RICHARD SILVERWOOD).