Despite being one of the wettest Decembers since records began, the racing over the festive period has been full of thrills, spills, shocks and superb performances. We have seen some new names thrust themselves into the headlines, the highest rated chasers looking to make a statement, as well as some aging stars returning to the scenes of their former glories.
The biggest race over Christmas is always the King George V chase at Kempton on Boxing Day and it turned out to be a spectacular contest. Three of the highest rated jumpers in the world pulled clear with three to jump, the favourite, Don Cossack fell at the second to last, leaving Irish star Vautour two lengths clear of Cue Card, but it was England who triumphed as Paddy Brennan bolted up in the last few strides, pipping Ruby Walsh’s mount by a short head. The resurgence in Cue Card’s form has been astonishing. After failing to win a single race in 2014 and most of 2015, the ten year old has now won three big graded races in a row, beating high quality fields in the process.
His trainer, Colin Tizzard had even more reason to celebrate over December, with eight year old Thistlecrack landing two big graded races, following up a comfortable Long Distance Hurdle win at Newbury, with an even more impressive performance around Ascot, leaving the favourite, Reve De Sivola eight lengths behind when romping to victory in the JLT.
The December Ascot meeting also provided a memorable victory for the Sue Smith trained Wakanda, who looked like a front runner with real speed and jumping talent when winning at Newcastle in late November, those feeling were completely reinforced with a similar win in much tougher company. Another prestigious race over the festive period is the Hennessy Gold Cup chase at Newbury. The Alan King trained second favourite Smad Place produced a magnificent and stylish jumping display, winning by 12 lengths.
My personal favourite horse to watch over December was Gary Moore’s promising six year old Ar Mad. A 14/1 rank outsider going into the Grade 1 Henry VIII Novice Chase at Sandown, but a stunning front running ride by Gary’s son Joshua saw him romp away from the highly rated favourite, Bristol De Mai and win by over ten lengths. This performance resulted in a 15llb rise in rating, leaving him as the 5/2 second favourite behind the much fancied Vaniteux, who went off odds on to win the Williamhill.com Novice Chase at Kempton just after Christmas. But it was Ar Mad who once again came out on top, holding off the favourite over the final furlong to win by half a length.
Philip Hobbs has enjoyed a very successful jumping season so far, boasting an impressive win percentage of just under 39% from his 165 entrants so far, with nine year old Village Vic being the most impressive of all the Hobbs runners.
He was backed in from 14/1 to an 8/1 starting price for the Caspian Caviar Gold Cup Chase in early December, but ran really well off the bottom weight, finishing four and a half lengths ahead of the field. He added a second Cheltenham victory to his CV on New Year’s Day, producing an equally impressive display to secure a three length victory as the 7/2 favourite.
It has also been a very fruitful period for top Irish trainer Willie Mullins, as he guided a number of his horses to graded victories around Britain; Djakadam emphasised his 7/4 favourite tag with a solid performance to win the John Durkan Memorial over in Punchestown. There were also big race wins for Don Poli, Douvan, Bellshill and Long Dog. As well as a return to winning ways for stable star Faugheen, who put the loss to Nichols Canyon firmly behind him with a dominant performance in the Boxing Day Christmas Hurdle at Kempton.
However, there was plenty of success for British trainers too; Old Guard won the StanJames.com International Hurdle for Paul Nicholls in early December. The Harry Fry trained Unothwtaimeanharry lived up to his 11/10 favourite tag to win the Albert Bartlett at the same Cheltenham meeting. And last but by no means least, Lizzie Kelly became the first female jockey to ride a Grade One winner as her mount, Tea For Two stormed to victory in the Kauto Star Novices’ Chase at the Boxing Day Kempton meeting.
For me, the most memorable race over the festive period was the Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton, which saw two former Cheltenham champions go toe-to-toe, as Sprinter Sacre took on Sir De Grugy. Both have struggled in recent times, but came into the race in good form. Sprinter had won a good Grade 2 at Cheltenham in November. Sire had rolled back the years earlier in the month, jumping really well around Sandown to land the Tingle Creek.
With two to fences to go, Sire De Grugy held a very narrow lead, but Sprinter Sacre jumped the last a little better than his long-time rival, closing the gap to eventually win by three quarters of a length. A fittingly close and exciting end to a wonderfully nostalgic race. Sprinter Sacre’s win was one of the rare moments for his trainer, Nicky Henderson to smile about over Christmas, as the three-time Champion Trainer endured a disappointing start to his 2014/15 campaign. Much was expected of Whisper, the second highest rated horse in his stable, but he has flattered to deceive in both starts, finishing last as the 6/4 favourite behind Thistlecrack at Newbury, before being pulled up at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day.
Two of his most promising 5 year olds, Peace and Co and Top Notch also put in very underwhelming performances. JCB Triumph Hurdle Champion Peace and Co went into the International Hurdle as the unbeaten odds-on favourite, but looked very green, eventually finishing sixth and last, 21 lengths behind Old Guard. After two close second place finishes in November, Top Notch was pushed up in trip to 20 furlongs, but still went off as the 13/8 favourite at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day. The Henderson youngster started OK, but weakened over the home straight, eventually finishing fifth behind 10/1 surprise winner Camping Ground.
There was also disappointment for four of last year’s Cheltenham champions; Gold Cup winner Coneygree was struck down with a damaged hock when preparing for his second appearance of the season, leaving him a major doubt to defend his crown in March. Arkle winner Un De Sceaux was well in command before falling heavily at Leopardstown. This is the second time this occurrence has happened, the only two blots on an otherwise perfect jumping record, Willie Mullins will hope he can bounce back in style. Wicklow Brave and Cole Harden were surprise winners at the Cheltenham Festival back in March, but both have had disappointingly slow starts to the season. Up there amongst the favourites in all of their starts, but third is the best either of them has been able to finish.
However, it is definitely Nicky Henderson who will have the most head-scratching to do over the next few months. With plenty of Cheltenham trial days on the horizon, it will be very interesting to see if he can get his stable stars back on the right path and put in a real statement of intent before the big meetings come around in the spring.