Welcome to the first list of the New Year of 20 horses to have caught the eye over the past fortnight or so and well worth following.
AT FISHERS CROSS (WON, Cheltenham Dec 14)
It could be argued that I’ve missed the boat that’s sailing Rebecca Curtis’s JP McManus-owned novice hurdler, given that he’s reeled off a hat-trick of wins already. It was certainly one of my punting errors of the season not to lump on him here. But he showed so much more improvement for this first step-up to 3m, particularly in the jumping department, that there should be more to come from him. It had to be significant too that champion jockey Tony McCoy made the journey from Bangor earlier in the day specially to ride him.
CAPTAIN CUTTER (WON, Ascot Dec 21)
Considering how impressive David Pipe’s charge, Kings Palace, had been on his debut, this was some performance by Nicky Henderson’s five-year-old to lower his colours, off level weights, on his belated first appearance on a racecourse. Owned by John Magnier and related to several jumps winners, he has always been highly regarded, and this win convinced his trainer that he “can go a long way”. As the pair pulled clear in the mud, he battled gamely to take the spoils. Having spent the summer at Coolmore, connections clearly had no qualms about pitching him into a Listed contest first time up.
CHARTREUX (2ND, Newbury Dec 19)
Formerly with David Pipe, this Roger Brookhouse-owned grey has always been perceived as a horse with potential but, equally, one with lots of problems, which have resulted in him seeing a racecourse only eight times. Now with Tom George, he collected his first chasing success on his previous outing and was very much the one to take from a good, competitive handicap here, even though he was beaten into second. He travelled strongly and jumped well, and has plenty of room for manoeuvre from his current handicap mark.
CLOSE HOUSE (WON, Wincanton Dec 26)
While Nicky Henderson and Paul Nicholls continue to plunder the main prizes, David Pipe is quietly assembling a team to go to war with in the handicaps at the Cheltenham Festival. And it would be no surprise to see this five-year-old staying hurdler leading the way after a taking victory in what was a decent Pertemps Qualifier. It was only his fifth career-start, therefore more improvement should be forthcoming, and he has already proven that he can handle the hurly-burly of a Festival race, having run on well to finish fourth in last season’s Neptune for novices.
COLBERT STATION (WON, Leopardstown Dec 27)
Popular trainer-cum-TV-pundit-cum-sire-of-jockeys Ted Walsh saddles few horses these days. But he generally houses an up-and-coming prospect worth keeping an eye on, and this eight-year-old, owned by JP McManus, fits the bill at present. On only his fifth outing over fences, he convincingly landed one of Ireland’s most competitive handicap chases of the year under Tony McCoy, who chose to ride him ahead of several others in the race sporting the famous green and gold colours. As he moves up the handicap, Walsh reckons the Witness Box gelding could develop into a Grand National horse, especially as he acts on any ground.
COLOUR SQUADRON (2ND, Newbury Dec 29)
As if he didn’t suffer enough misfortune during an incredibly unlucky novice hurdling campaign last season, along came more, and in spades, on the chasing debut of Philip Hobbs’s six-year-old son of Old Vic. He hit the first fence so hard that the saddle slipped, forcing Tony McCoy to work miracles to stay on board, never mind ride a proper race. Somehow, he still finished second in a warm contest and must surely bag a decent prize or two soon. Last term, he threw away at least three contests by falling or hanging and was also a fine second at the Punchestown Festival.
DARK LOVER (WON, Cheltenham Dec 14)
Quite what went wrong in the Racing Post Hurdle (formerly the Greatwood), I don’t know. Trainer Paul Nicholls suspects that he might have ‘bounced’ in a race that came too soon after his successful re-appearance. But the seven-year-old absolutely hacked up in this lesser contest and is unquestionably an animal fast on the upgrade, even allowing for the fact that the handicapper will clobber him. He unveiled a telling turn of foot in a truly-run affair, persuading his trainer to temporarily shelve all plans to go chasing.
MARSHAL ZHUKOV (WON, Taunton Dec 13)
Small-time trainer Caroline Keevil must have been distraught when her six-year-old novice chaser was given a poor ride at Ascot in November, sweeping to the front far too early and weakening into third. Dropped to the minimum trip under new pilot Joe Tizzard, this was a much more accurate reflection of the gelding’s talents as he picked up to forge clear. A noticeably slick jumper with a genuine turn of foot, he is maturing all the time and hasn’t stopped winning yet.
MELODIC RENDEZVOUS (WON, Cheltenham Dec 14)
As the son of a Queen Elizabeth II Stakes winner (Where Or When), Jeremy Scott’s stable star is not exactly bred for testing ground. Yet he has now defied it to produce the best two performances of his brief career so far -- this terrific victory in a hot novice hurdle following a second to the top-class Champagne Fever in a Grade One Bumper at Punchestown in April. What’s more, he showed surprising speed and a fine turn of foot here in a display that put him bang in the frame for the Cheltenham Festival.
OSCARA DARA (2ND, Plumpton Dec 17)
In normal circumstances, finishing second in a four-runner contest at Plumpton on a cold Monday afternoon would not equate to a decent novice-chase debut. But you couldn’t help but be satisfied by Nicky Henderson’s seven-year-old, who was a smart novice hurdler in the 2011/12 campaign when fourth to the likes of Darlan and Captain Conan at Aintree before winning at Punchestown. Given a stiffer test of stamina, he is a banker to find more success. Described by the trainer as “a serious prospect”, he impressed most here with his jumping and attitude.
PONT ALEXANDRE (WON, Navan Dec 16)
Even if you aren’t falling for the hype surrounding youngster Don Cossack, this was still a tremendous performance by Willie Mullins’s four-year-old French recruit to thrash the odds-on favourite -- especially considering he was pitched straight into a Grade One for his Ireland debut. In a performance reminiscent of Mikael D’Haguenet (same owner) at his best in his novice hurdling days, the gelding made all, jumping with alacrity and efficiency. Between the last two flights, he accelerated to surge clear with a display that excited even the reserved Mullins. He’s chaser by design, but in the meantime, the Neptune or Albert Bartlett novice hurdles at the Cheltenham Festival are at his mercy.
PRINCE DE BEAUCHENE (WON, Limerick Dec 27)
Even if trainer Willie Mullins and owner Graham Wylie had scripted it, they could not have wished for a more pleasing seasonal bow for their big Grand National hope. Running over hurdles for the first time in nearly four years, the nine-year-old also had to contend with a 2m3f trip too short and two or three respected opponents. But he bolted up with a stylish performance that suggests he’s as good as ever and fully recovered from the setback that forced him to miss Aintree’s showpiece last term when ante-post favourite. Providing his mark is not too much above 150, the only question mark this time round would concern his stamina credentials. He travelled so beautifully here.
ROYAL BOY (2ND, Cheltenham Dec 14)
Nicky Henderson often targets this informative novice hurdle with one of his brightest young stars. Indeed he won it with Darlan last term. So it was probably significant that, for the 2012 race, he saddled this recruit from the Irish point field, rather than River Maigue, who had run so well for him at Cheltenham’s Open meeting. We soon found out why because he produced a fine UK debut display, even though it was a warm renewal hardly run to suit, given the stamina lines in his pedigree. In fact, it turned into a sprint from the home turn, yet he responded well to riding and must have a very bright future.
RED DEVIL BOYS (WON, Doncaster Dec 29)
Rookie jumps trainer John Ferguson is mainly used to dealing with well-bred rejects from the Flat. But this is a proper National Hunt horse -- and one with the potential to go a long way on what we have seen so far. The five-year-old son of Oscar followed up a nice victory in a Bumper with this polished success on his hurdling debut, travelling well from flagfall and jumping with aplomb. Confidently ridden by Denis O’Regan, he remained on the bridle right up to the last flight, from where he was nudged out to put the race to bed. I have little doubt he’s Graded class.
SHOOTERS WOOD (WON, Cheltenham Dec 15)
Paul Nicholls’s eight-year-old chaser is not a particularly imposing type to look at. But belatedly, he is improving at a rapid rate of knots and in a similar fashion to Edgardo Sol from the same stable last season. Making all at a healthy clip, he jumped superbly, measuring his fences to perfection, and although briefly collared at the last, he rallied gamely when galvanised by a masterful ride from Ruby Walsh. Nicholls is already eyeing a tilt at the Grand Annual at the Cheltenham Festival.
SWING BOWLER (WON, Musselburgh Jan 1)
As a daughter of the great Galileo and brilliant jumps mare Lady Cricket, there can be few better bred horses in training this winter than David Pipe’s six-year-old mare, owned by David Johnson. Handed a workable handicap mark of 123 for her seasonal debut, she justified strong market-support to dig out a victory in a good, competitive handicap that stretched her unbeaten run to five races. As a lightly-framed sort, she might be best fresh, but I can envisage Pond House mapping out a Cheltenham Festival plot -- possibly in the 2m5f contest named after Pipe’s legendary father, Martin.
TAP NIGHT (WON, Ayr Jan 2)
One of this season’s leading novice chasers is Captain Conan from the Nicky Henderson yard, which has raised the significance of a piece of form at Kelso over hurdles last term when his guns were spiked by Lucinda Russell’s six-year-old. It did not go unnoticed by JP McManus, who duly bought the gelding, so he must have been delighted that the gelding’s own chasing debut went so proficiently here. Patiently ridden by Tony McCoy, he swept to the front with a mighty leap at the second last before readily quickening clear. One of the 2m5f novice races at the Cheltenham Festival is now the target.
UNION DUES (WON, Navan Dec 16)
Identifying the pick of Willie Mullins’s brigade of Bumper winners is no easy matter. But I will be amazed if this four-year-old French-bred is not on the plane to the Cheltenham Festival in March after unleashing a searing turn of foot to collar an odds-on favourite and sprint clear of a respectable field here. Picked up for 41,000 euros, he had also won on his debut in July on much better ground and appears to have speed to burn.
UXIZANDRE (WON, Newbury Dec 19)
This four-year-old purchase from France is the latest project for the Million In Mind owners’ syndicate. Expected to land the spoils on his UK debut at Market Rasen, he was green and found things happening all too quickly. But he made no mistake here, powering home in the style of a horse laden with stamina. Trainer Alan King has made it perfectly clear how highly he rates him and, with improvement likely in the coming weeks, he is one to remember for the EBF Novice Hurdle Final at Sandown on the last Saturday before the Cheltenham Festival.
VENTURE CAPITAL (2ND, Limerick Dec 27)
Taken at face value, not a performance to write home about by pursuing a staying chaser in a hurdle race. But because that chaser was none other than the Grand National favourite and Grade Three winner Prince De Beauchene, then Philip Fenton’s five-year-old, owned by JP McManus, becomes of interest, especially as he’s only a novice with just three previous outings behind him. The son of Presenting looked a serious danger approaching the last and although the winner found more, he kept on gamely. His profile as a progressive sort is beginning to look increasingly attractive, especially as his dam is from the family of top-class chaser Somersby.
HORSES TO FOLLOW SUPPLIED BY SCOOP RACING (RICHARD SILVERWOOD).