It’s late on in October and the usual excitement for the jump season proper is now in full swing. After 6 months of what often seems endless flat racing, we can finally get back to the National Hunt. One of the huge advantages to following the jumps is the longevity of the horse’s careers.
The mighty Altior is about to enter his sixth season of training, a feat impossible to imagine on the Flat. Had Altior been a successful Flat horse, he would have been whisked away to the Stallion sheds long ago and would by this stage be little more than a memory.
As I do every October, a good 3 hours has been spent giving the horse tracker a tidy up, 337 and counting at this stage is too many. Out go the Flat Handicappers who have spent the last 6 months running against each other week in week out. I begin with much enthusiasm, carefully watching replays and reading form lines to decide whether its worth keeping for next year or whether the horse has had its day. However, this is taking too long and as time passes, the level of research is gradually reducing and by the end its a case of can I remember why I added this to the tracker? No. Then delete it.
Down to under 150 now, many of which are the jumpers that I decided to leave in when following the same process in April when the Flat started. October is one of the best months for me, the jumps is just about underway and its the perfect time to start the study for Cheltenham. The best week of the year in March, Christmas in all but name in our house. Ante-post punting on Cheltenham will consume most of my free time for the next 6 months and there is no better time to start. To some extent, I am still dining out on an October bet on Altior to win the 2016 Supreme Novices at 25/1 and the hope that I can find another nugget like that is always there.
Here’s where things can get tricky, the endless question for many jumpers, are they hurdling or chasing this year? Even worse for the Novices, where it seems there has become an obsession with Novice Chasing in recent years. Particularly for those at the top of the Novice hurdle divisions, chasing to some extent is an inevitability. It’s been a tough start this year, having already wasted a bet on City Island to win the champion hurdle given his trainers decision for a campaign over fences. In my opinion, his stamina and battling qualities would give him an outstanding chance given the limited quality in the 2-miler hurdle division, but its not my call. If he goes on to win the JLT or the RSA, then the decision will be a good one.
City Island is hardly a unique case. It’s commonplace. Altior, Douvan, Vautour, Min, Champagne Fever, the list goes on and on. Horses who were stars of the Novice Hurdle division who went straight to Novice Chasing. Now there is no doubt that they have achieved so much over fences, that the decision has largely been justified, but perhaps a better question is whether the decision was made too quickly.
In 2016, Altior won the best Supreme Novices of recent years, beating Min, Buveur D’Air, Supasundae and a host of other future stars. The following season, he won a below average Arkle at odds of 1-4, while having failed to take to the chasing game, Buveur D’Air won the Champion Hurdle, beating My Tent or Yours and Petit Mouchoir. Now Buveur D’Air undoubtedly improved from 2016, but had Altior been in that field, he would have won comfortably. Right now, Altior could have been a Champion Hurdle and a Champion Chase winner with perhaps an even higher profile and rating than he does now.
This years Champion Hurdle is a great example of the weakness caused by this situation, the ill-fated Espoir D’Allen produced a career best and was a worthy winner, but behind him….Buveur D’Air fell, Apples Jade (a staying hurdler if ever I saw one) and Laurina were woeful, Silver Streak, a good horse, but not a Champion and the eternal bridesmaid Melon filled the places. Hardly a race that will live long in the memory. There is an ever-widening gap in this division, with the best Novice hurdlers being whisked away to fences far too soon.
Cheltenham is not the only example of this, the best races in the 2-mile arena, the Morgiana, the Irish Champion Hurdle, the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton, all Grade 1 prizes, yet all average less than 6 runners each year. Imagine if the likes of Istabraq , Hurricane Fly, Annie Power and Faugheen had gone straight over fences after their Novice campaigns, what would we have lost? Jumps horses have more time on their side, most can have careers that last 7, 8, sometimes more years. The top prizes in the sport are no doubt over fences, the Gold Cup and the National, but there is time for all that. Racing Authorities do need to try to find a way to improve the Hurdle divisions, with more incentives needed to encourage hurdling campaigns. As with the Stayers series on the flat, incentives can work. Without the bonus schemes would Stradivarius still be in training? It is doubtful, but he is right now.
Still, doesn’t really help right now, the tracker is still full of possibilities, but there are so many questions that need to be answered. For what its worth, Paisley Park is the best bet for the season at this stage in my opinion, at least we can be sure of the route he will take, the Long Walk at Ascot, the Cleeve in January and then the Stayers, which as long as he is fit and well he should win without too much trouble and 3/1 seems a cracking price for me. If I could have the answers to where Klassical Dream and City Island will be running, I would advise to lump on them too, but I don’t, so we will all have to wait.