It’s that time of the year already.
It’s getting wetter – well it’s getting even wetter than it was during another so called summer.
The nights are getting longer – a feeling not helped by the abundance of The Only Way Is Essex repeats on any given evening. Yes, the seasons change from the one that was rainy and bright to the one that’s rainy and dark and as depressing as that sounds, it does bring with it some benefits. It’s at around now the focus shifts from the flat to the drama, intrigue and mud-splattered faces of the jumps. We love all forms of horse racing equally, but some more equally than others and the National Hunt season almost makes the cold hands, damp trouser legs and fumbling around with umbrellas worthwhile.
The enthusiasm hasn’t been damaged with a quality renewal of the Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby. Historically it was a race for horses with genuine aspirations of winning a Cheltenham Gold Cup, but that reputation suffered during the pomp of Best Mate, Kauto Star and Denman a period when the race seemed to produce horses who could only spend most of their time grasping at the Gold Cup coat-tails of some of the greatest National Hunt horses of all time. With two of that trio now winding down towards retirement, the 3 mile chasing division is far more open and this race could well give us some serious pointers for the big prizes later in the season.
With so many of the runners making their seasonal reappearances, we shouldn’t be drawing too many firm conclusions from what we see, but one thing is for sure – the winner is guaranteed to go on to be spoken as plenty of people’s ‘dark horse’ for the Cheltenham Gold Cup. In truth, it’s going to take a little more than winning this contest to be a genuine contender, but if a victory at Wetherby is backed up by a couple of strong showings elsewhere, dreams of success in the Cotswolds and an over the top celebration in the Cheltenham parade ring will start to take root for owners and trainers alike.
After nearly a year out of action, Diamond Harry is the main focus of attention. After winning the Hennessy Gold Cup in gutsy fashion, he was amongst the leading contenders for Cheltenham’s big prize, but missed his chance due to injury. Whether you’ve got two legs or four, injury is never pleasant, but it was particularly galling for Harry’s connections as the progressive horse looked to be on course to be one of the division’s leading contenders. Hopefully his momentum hasn’t been lost and he’ll still continue his progress. According to the market, Time For Rupert is his main danger. Similar to Diamond Harry, he showed signs of being top class last season, but he arrives in the race with his own slightly different question marks surrounding him. Not exactly ‘where were you on the evening of the murder?’ police interrogation style questions, but questions nonetheless. He was last seen disappointing favourite backers in the RSA Chase at Cheltenham. The below par performance on that occasion was explained by a burst blood vessel. This race will go some way to telling us if that was a genuine reason or we were simply guilty of over-rating his previous displays.
With the air of uncertainty about the leading pair in the market, the solid reliability of Poquelin may appeal to many. Paul Nicholls’ loyal servant is rarely spectacular and the suspicion is he’s just short of top class, but there’s a consistency to his efforts that means if anyone fails to fire, he’ll be well placed to take advantage. Nacarat is the defending champion and he can’t be dismissed lightly. Again he’s not spoken of as one of the National Hunt’s marquee names, but he’s capable of a big run as we saw when he took the Grade 1 Aintree Bowl back in April. With a few interesting performers lurking in the long grass, it all promises to be tighter than a woman in her 30s trying to squeeze into her old school uniform for a fancy dress party.
In an unfairly brief summary of the racing happening elsewhere, the folks at Ascot have put away all the top hats and Bollinger and shifted the focus back to tweed jackets and whiskey-filled hipflasks. They begin their jumps programme with a nice little card featuring a couple of good chases and a wide open handicap hurdle. After winning three races over timber towards the end of last season, Topolski marked himself out as one to follow in the new season and he’s one of the leading fancies for the race. Winner of the Jewson at Cheltenham, Noble Prince is pencilled in to start his jumps campaign in Naas where he’ll go head to head with rival Realt Dubh. There’s still something for fans of the flat with Newmarket hosting a decent end of season one last hurrah’ card featuring a couple of listed races. It’s mainly about the jumps however and this weekend sets the tone for what should be another fascinating season.