With just over a month until the National Hunt season gets in to full swing, excitement is building for a jumps campaign that is sure to offer plenty of thrills and spills before, during, and after Cheltenham in March.
One of the most exciting battles this National Hunt season is likely to be the Trainers' Championship, won unexpectedly easily by Paul Nicholls last term. With Nicky Henderson welcoming back Sprinter Sacre and Simonsig after injury layoffs, he has a fantastic chance to wrestle the title back from the Ditcheat handler. Henderson is currently favourite on Betfair to win this title, and if his two stable stars are back to their best it is hard to see who else can win it. Jonjo O'Neill, who has a host of talent to call upon, could be the one trainer to come close to beating the big two.
The men to beat
In this preview, we'll visit some of the top yards in UK and Ireland and point out some of the horses to follow for the 2014/15 National Hunt season.
By his own high standards, and considering the number of high quality animals under his care, 2013/14 wasn't the best for Nicky Henderson. Whisper was his only Cheltenham Festival winner in the Coral Cup, but there is plenty of reason to hope for a spectacular season to come at Seven Barrows. Notwithstanding the return of Sprinter Sacre and Simonsig, there are a number of horses trained by Henderson who could be top class in their own right. Josses Hill, second in the Supreme and a winner at Aintree, looks a chaser in the making and should be a live contender for the Arkle come March. Beat That missed Cheltenham last year but won at both Aintree and Punchestown to prove himself as a top staying novice hurdler and could be even better over fences. The RSA looks a legitimate target for Beat That if he goes chasing.
The closest challengers Like Henderson, Paul Nicholls had only one winner at the 2014 Cheltenham Festival, with Lac Fontana proving himself as a stable star with victory in the County Hurdle. With Silviniaco Conti accumulating over £250,000 in prize money, which included wins in the King George and Aintree Bowl, Nicholls had a stranglehold on the trainers' title. It may not be the same this season, but Nicholls certainly has the strength in depth in his yard to make a gallant defence. Saphir du Rheu had a fantastic time of it last season, and developed in to a top class hurdler, winning the Lanzarote and Welsh Champion Hurdle. He looks a fantastic novice chase prospect and will be aimed at the top races over staying trips.
Jonjo O'Neill has a really exciting season ahead with some top class horses at his disposal, but it will be hard to beat the last campaign, which saw the meteoric rise of More Of That from a handicap hurdle at Wetherby in November to becoming World Hurdle hero just three runs later. With a total of just five races under his belt, More Of That could conceivably be even better this term and either retain his World Hurdle crown or become a star staying novice chaser. With Taquin De Seuil and Holywell also in the ranks under O'Neill, it looks like being an excellent 2014/15, with both of those two having the potential to become Gold Cup contenders.