The Nicky Henderson trained Shishkin is a horse who looks destined to go right to the very top. Last season’s Supreme Novices winner did incredibly well to win the festival curtain raiser. A poor jump at the third, wide passage throughout and trouble in running coming down the hill couldn’t stop Shishkin from beating the now dual Grade 1 winning hurdler Abacadabras. A leggy individual on looks, Shishkin certainly appeared to have the scope for fences and wowed punters on his first novice chase start at Kempton in the same race Altior kicked off his illustrious career in. The form of the race wouldn’t amount to much but visually Shishkin had it all. Quick through the air, he popped when he needed to and took off when Nico asked for one. To quote Nicky Henderson it was a “perfect” start to his chasing career. Unsurprisingly Shishkin was sent off the 1/3 favourite for his Christmas outing in the Grade 2 Wayward Lad Novices Chase at Kempton. Facing just the three rivals, all of whom rated 140 plus, Shishkin cruised to victory. Turning for home he appeared to have a race on his hands but the after burners kicked in and he went on to beat Tamorac Du Mathan by 13 lengths. The gears displayed between the third last and the finishing line were simply frightening. It may well be that 2 miles on a flat track like Kempton doesn’t show Shishkin in his best light. I believe a return to more stamina sapping, left handed track (like Cheltenham!) will see further improvement. Already a short-priced favourite for this seasons Arkle, Shishkin seems to have the world at his feet. I love this horse and hope to see him notch up an Arkle, Champion Chase double in the next two seasons.
Shewearsitwell looks another seriously exciting mare for Willie Mullins. She strolled to victory in a bumper on debut at the back end of last season and reappeared over hurdles with another facile success, jumping slickly throughout. Her last start really caught the eye though. Racing against rivals with some smart form in the book, notably Wajaaha and The Very Man, she put them to the sword. Again, jumping electrically throughout, she cruised to the front coming into the straight and eventually won by 8 lengths eased down. Yes, she carried less weight than her rivals due to the mares’ allowance and penalties but it was still a serious performance. The clock backed up the visual impression too. Shewearsitwell was eight seconds faster than champion hurdle hopeful Saint Roi over the same trip, carrying just seven pounds less. Willie is 5/5 in the Mares Novice hurdle at Cheltenham and Shewearsitwell heads the ante post betting to make it 6/6. She’s electric over a hurdle and a mare to get excited about going forward.
Ultra-impressive Point to Point winner Sir Gerhard was quickly snapped up by powerful connections Cheveley Park for the sum of £400,000. That price looked a steal after a dominant bumper win in late October. Sir Gerhard looked a potential monster with jockey Jamie Codd taking several pulls turning in for home before letting his mount extend to an emphatic victory. The third and fifth have come out and won novice hurdles since so the form would look solid too. Sir Gerhard looked to enhance his growing reputation when sent off a warm favourite for the “Future Champions” bumper at Navan. Ran on officially soft to heavy ground, Sir Gerhard didn’t seem to travel quite as well as you’d like but nearing the two-furlong marker he came straight back onto the bridle. Jamie Codd asked him to put the race to bed and boy did he quicken up. He lengthened away from the very smart Letsbeclearaboutit in ground I don’t believe he was a huge fan of. The return to spring ground will certainly be a plus and this fella is already as short as 11/4 for the Champion Bumper. Given the hype surrounding this horse alongside some glowing comments from his trainer Gordon Elliott and jockey Jamie Codd, he looks to have a massive future ahead of him and could take some stopping when seeking a hat trick of Champion Bumpers for owners Cheveley Park Stud.
A half-brother to the extremely talented grey, Simonsig, Dusart didn’t disappoint on hurdles debut, beating the more experienced and well regarded Soaring Glory. Slightly keen in the early stages, Dusart made a few novicey mistakes early on but just seemed to get better and better the further they went. I particularly liked the way he pinged the final two flights and put the race to bed in demanding fashion. Soaring Glory has since gone on to finish a six length third in the Grade 2 Supreme trial at Kempton so you’d have to think this was a useful performance beating him first time up. Both Henderson and Nico were impressed, highlighting the fact that this was his first trip to a racetrack so he’d have learnt plenty and would surely improve loads for the run. Appreciate It blew the Supreme market to pieces over Christmas and looks a worthy favourite at this stage. However, he wouldn’t look to have an obvious rival and I’m hoping Dusart can take high rank in the 2-mile novice hurdle division and fly the English flag in the Supreme come March.
Next up on my list of graded horses to follow is the highly likeable Melon. Runner up at the previous four Cheltenham festivals, he’s a horse who is sure to give you a good run for your money come Cheltenham in March. Runner up to the enigma that is Labaik in the 2017 supreme, Melon went on to be narrowly denied in the 2018 Champion Hurdle by dual winner Buveur D’Air and then second to the ill-fated Espoir D’Allen in 2019. Sent chasing last season, I thought Melon finally had his festival success but went down by a whisker to Samcro in the Marsh. Each season Melon has recorded his best performance on official ratings and Racing Post Ratings at Cheltenham. Chasing looks to be his game and so far, this season he’s shown us more pre- Cheltenham than in previous years, finishing third in both the Grade 1 John Durkan and Grade 1 Savills Chase. The Savills Chase was a particularly eye-catching run as it was his first attempt at three miles. Melon jumped big and bold throughout and cruised into the lead down the back straight. Seemingly going well, he made a slight mistake at the second last which may have knocked the stuffing out of him. Nevertheless, Melon plunged on and pinged the last to throw himself back alongside Kemboy. The pair were collared late on by the fast finishing A Plus Tard but Melon stuck on gamely and he may well be unexposed over three miles with further improvement to come at the trip. Given this performance received a racing post rating of 168 and Melon’s love for Prestbury Park he must be a massive player in either The Ryanair Chase or The Gold Cup. Currently priced up at around 11/1 and 25/1 he looks a cracking each way bet for either contest.
Expensive Point to Point recruit Bob Olinger is a horse with a serious engine. Purchased for £330,000 after easily winning his Point to Point, Bob Olinger powered to bumper success at Gowran Park just before last season’s festival. It was a performance that visually got the racing world talking. Thrown in at the deep end on hurdles debut, Bob had to face off against last season’s Champion Bumper Winner Ferny Hollow over two miles. The pair jumped well throughout and had a right ding dong battle up the straight with Ferny Hollow just prevailing, potentially demonstrating a superior turn of foot. Appreciate It, second to Ferny Hollow in last season’s Champion Bumper, put a classy field to sword in a Grade 1 over Christmas so you’d have to think this effort from Bob is top form. Upped in trip and dropped into calmer waters, Bob Olinger readily landed the odds over two miles four furlongs, jumping nicely throughout. Yet to be tested at this sort of trip, Bob could rock up in the Grade 1 Lawlor’s Of Naas Hurdle over two and a half miles in early January. A race won by Envoi Allen before he romped to Ballymore success at the Cheltenham Festival. With Appreciate It making waves in the supreme market, the coast might be clear for Henry De Bromheads charge to attempt the same double. I believe Bob Olinger to be a seriously talented horse and should he win the Lawlor’s of Naas Novice Hurdle, his odds of 10/1 for the Ballymore at Cheltenham will look a big price.
If there’s a dark horse in the Willie Mullins yard with serious graded potential at this stage of the season it may well be Energumene. A winner of two bumpers and a hurdle race last season, it was a surprise too many to see Energumene sent straight over fences by connections. A few minutes into his first novice chase, it was no longer a surprise! Energumene obliterated his rivals from pillar to post with a fine front running display. The third horse that day, Port Stanley, has since come out and run the smart Front View (rated 136) to within a length. Port Stanley was just the thirty-seven lengths behind Energumene who barely came out of second gear. His jumping was particularly slick and jockey Paul Townend had plenty of praise for him, saying both him and Patrick Mullins had schooled him over fences and both loved what they saw. The time of this facile success compared to the two other chases over the same trip on the same card would also indicate Energumene could be a bit special. He was twenty-eight seconds faster than the other novice chase carrying the same weight and eight seconds faster than Annamix who won the Kilkenny Chase carrying seven pounds less! By the same sire as Un De Sceaux, you’d think Energumene has a lovely blend of speed and stamina but he looks a relentless galloper to me. If he were mine I’d be looking at all the top two and a half to three chases with him from Cheltenham to Punchestown.
This year’s current Triumph hurdle favourite Zanahiyr has looked a future star in his short career to date. Lightly raced on the flat, Zanahiyr made a smooth transition to hurdles, beating the Willie Mullins trained Dark Voyager on debut before destroying another Willie Mullins inmate, Saint Sam, by fourteen lengths on his second start. Zanahiyr’s winning time that day was ten seconds quicker than Ballyadam who won the Grade 1 Royal Bond over the same trip 35 minutes later. Ballyadam carried just over a stone more but for a juvenile to put up such a time figure was a serious effort. It was no surprise to see Zanahiyr sent off a warm favourite for the Grade 2 Knight Frank Juvenile Hurdle at Leopardstown over Christmas where he duly bolted up. He didn’t win by far but the way he travelled and jumped throughout the race was amazing. He looks a seasoned pro and quotes of 3/1 about him for the triumph are far from ridiculous. I believe it’ll take a good one to beat him this season. Whether Zanahiyr goes on to record Grade 1 juvenile successes or not, I cannot wait to see him over a fence one day!
The Harry Whittington trained Saint Calvados ran an absolute stormer on his reappearance run in the King George. Sent off a general 14/1 shot Saint Calvados ran keenly throughout but still came swinging into the straight. He ultimately paid the price and lacked the finishing kick required to win but he went down an extremely eye catching fourth. His jumping throughout was exceptional, making ground at nearly every fence. Still only a seven-year-old, Saint Calvados has scope for improvement at this trip but I’d like to see him drop back to two and a half miles for another crack at the Ryanair. He ran a cracker in last year’s renewal finishing a neck second to Min and ahead of A Plus Tard who was third. Both Min and A Plus Tard have advertised the form already this season. Min won his third John Durkan and A Plus Tard swooped late to win the Savills Chase in a Christmas cracker. As mentioned before Saint Calvados is only seven meaning he may well be improving still. Given the losing margin of only a neck in last year’s Ryanair, he’s surely overpriced at 10/1 to take down Min, currently 5/1, who heads the market. Should connections persevere with the three-mile route something like the Aintree Bowl could be an ideal long-term target.
Mares hurdle third, Elfile looks a horse to keep onside this season. Earmarked to be going novice chasing, the new Mares Chase at Cheltenham could be the ideal long-term target. Officially rated 151 over hurdles after a seven-length defeat to the undefeated Honeysuckle at Cheltenham, Elfile can kick on over fences. Her pedigree would give you hope that she’ll improve further for a fence. Her Sire, Saint Des Saints has produced the likes of Djackadam, Saint Calvados and Protektorat. All of whom have excelled over the larger obstacles. Trained by the Irish master Willie Mullins, I’d expect her to pick up a few valuable mares chases in the build up to Cheltenham before maybe taking on the boys later in the season at Punchestown or Aintree. She physically looks a chaser and I can’t wait to see her jump a fence.
By Sam Rideout
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