• In the Stables with Andrew Shaw

    This weekend sees the running of the first Grade 1 of the season when Down Royal hosts the JNwine.com Champion Chase. For all followers of National Hunt racing, this is possibly the most exciting time of the year and there are two great days to look forward to at the northern venue on Friday and Saturday. 

    This is the real start to the season. When the Anglo-Irish Jump Classifications were released in May, there were seven novice chasers rated 160 or higher and it is rare to see such quality over one season. The standard has never been higher and in the months ahead, it will be fascinating to see how these horses fare against the more established chasers such as triple Gold Cup winner Sizing John. 

    We have already seen exciting displays from the likes of Death Duty and Presenting Percy. I was very impressed by the latter at Galway on Monday. He beat another high-class hurdler in the shape of De Plotting Shed and I expect him to be knocking on the Grade 1 door this season. I loved how he jumped and travelled and the way he raced to the line. It was a fine first effort over fences. 

    Total Recall was a very taking winner of the JT McNamara Ladbrokes Munster National Handicap Chase at Limerick early last month and not surprisingly was the focus of all the attention. To some extent though, I feel that the one he beat that day, Alpha Des Obeaux is a forgotten horse. He perhaps didn’t reach the heights that many thought he would last season, but he could develop into a top chaser. He is among the 11 entries for the Grade 2 chase at Down Royal on Saturday and is also in the big race itself. 

    Everyone is looking forward to the meeting of our highest rated chaser, Douvan, and the top two-mile novice chaser from last season, Altior. We might have to wait until Cheltenham next March before they meet but it will be a race to savour and brings back memories of the Kauto Star/Denman debate which carried on throughout the 2008-09 season.

    A couple of interesting horses to keep an eye out for this season are Acapella Bourgeois and Benie Des Dieux. Whilst not in the higher echelons just yet, they could potentially become stars in their own right come the end of the season. Acapella Bourgeois put up an exceptional performance in the Grade 2 Ten Up Novice Chase at Navan prior to Cheltenham when beating Road To Respect by 32 lengths and although he subsequently disappointed at Cheltenham and Punchestown, he wouldn’t have appreciated the faster ground. Should the ground come up heavy at Newbury for next month’s Ladbroke Trophy Handicap Chase (formerly the Hennessy Gold Cup), then he would be a serious contender. Benie Des Dieux is another which I was very taken with when she ran away with a beginners’ chase at Limerick last Christmas. We haven’t seen her since but I would certainly be looking forward to her comeback. At the time, I remember thinking to myself that she could be the next Vroum Vroum Mag, who won her first six starts over fences before reverting to hurdles. 

    Among the early entries for the Jnwine.com Champion Chase, obviously Our Duke stands out. He enjoyed tremendous success last season, winning three of his four starts, culminating with a hugely impressive win in the BoyleSports Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse in mid-April. On 167, he is the top-rated entry. I’d fully expect Road To Respect to continue on an upward curve. He was very impressive when scoring at the Cheltenham Festival and followed that up with a narrow success over Yorkhill at Fairyhouse and although possibly a fortunate winner that day he looks progressive. He accounted for a race-fit rival in Kilcarry Bridge at Punchestown a couple of weeks back and I can certainly see him improving on his current rating of 157. He has the scope to become one of the better chasers. The race has a fine history and is a proven starting point for subsequent Cheltenham Gold Cup winners. Saturday’s race is one to savour. 

    And the same can be said of the Grade 2 MyCarNeedsA.com Chase. The average rating is massive, and the race is shaping up to be as good a renewal as we have seen. Eight of the 11 entries are rated 150 or higher and perhaps there is one among them waiting to burst onto the scene. TheTote.com Galway Plate winner Balko Des Flos, his Gowran Park conqueror A Toi Phil, and Disko clearly hold their chances while Ballyoisin was a very good winner, carrying top weight, in a handicap chase at Cork last time and would certainly be worthy of his place in the race. 

    Some nice hurdlers are set to take centre stage at Down Royal on Friday. Both the mares’ novice hurdle and the Grade 2 hurdle have attracted decent fields and obviously Mystic Theatre is an exciting type. On her form, she has definite Cheltenham Festival aspirations, of that I have no doubt. The WKD Hurdle is well up to Grade 2 standard and should be an informative race. It will be interesting to see how some of the higher rated contenders get on if they line up, with the Cheltenham runner-up Melon being one of the more interesting ones.

    The hurdling division arguably lacks a star but perhaps Faugheen will set things alight on his return. Hopefully that will be sooner rather than later but for now it is definitely the chasers that excite me most. What we have seen so far augurs well for the remainder of the season. And trainers won’t be short of options for their stars. Virtually every weekend presents an opportunity and, from a jumping point of view, after Down Royal and Cork this weekend there are major meetings at Navan, Clonmel, Cork again, Fairyhouse and Punchestown to bring us to Christmas. The most exciting time of the year?

     

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