The 2019/20 National Hunt season ended abruptly, with three dots, as opposed to a full stop. That’s because there were a few acts of the play still to be performed, chiefly the consequential chapters at Aintree and Punchestown, cancelled by Covid, and the upshot was end-of-season league tables that weren’t so defined nor refined as normally.
It was the first time in the 20-year history of the Anglo-Irish Jumps Classifications that no hurdler breached the 165 mark, with Sharjah (164) the top of the pile, 2lb ahead of Epatante, while the chasers were headed jointly by Al Boum Photo and Cyrname, but neither hit their previous highs, and the novices were collectively lower than for a few years, no surprise as the Festival formlines were never tied together.
It all increases the importance of the early exchanges of this season, where stakes, stalls and statements will be set out, each marker magnified, due to the lingering questions left over from the curtailed campaign.
And that goes for the trainers as much as the individual horses, as the stats of a stable and the strength of its string is itself a battleline, and the battleground in the beginning is the Jumps Season Opener at Chepstow, across Friday and Saturday – both days live on Sky Sports Racing.
Therefore, let’s check in on the bigger British yards, and their troop movements for Chepstow, which will bring colour and context to the next few months for the jumps.
Henderson won the trainers’ championship in 2019/20, for a sixth time, albeit without much to spare, nothing a good Aintree and/or Sandown for Paul Nicholls couldn’t have taken to the wire. It’s been a familiar summer for Henderson, just tipping away, with 13 wins, at a high strike-rate (30%), but for a second year he had no winners on the Flat, though Verdana Blue went close in both the Ascot Stakes and Ebor.
Amongst his heavier hitters in action at Chepstow this weekend, The Cashel Man makes his chasing debut (5.25 Friday), having ended last season in the Albert Bartlett, earned by his second to Thyme Hill in the Challow, but he’s hardly bred nor built for fences.
Fusil Raffles is already up and running over fences, but he faces a stiffer test – and stiffer opposition – in the Listed novice on Saturday (3.57) than he did at Uttoxeter.
The Silver Trophy is a race Henderson has never won, albeit rarely targeting it, but Fix Sun has a fixed target on it on Saturday (4.32), saved up for handicaps, after keeping it low-key last season. He’s also attacking the valuable handicap chases, via Brave Eagle (2.47) and Casablanca Mix (4.32), who both have big weights but have won when fresh.
BEST CHANCE: Fusil Raffles, 3.22 Saturday
Less than £200,000 behind Henderson when the curtain was closed prematurely on the last jumps season, when seeking a twelfth trainers’ title, Nicholls has been the busier of the two since the resumption, but this Chepstow runway is always the time for take-off for the trainer.
In the last five years, Nicholls has sent out 16 winners at this meeting; and he’s won the last three editions of the mares novice hurdle (2.45 Friday), the race in which he takes the wraps off Kilmington Rose, who ran into a very good one (Coquelicot) on her only start, in a bumper at Taunton in January.
No trainer has won the Persian War more times than Nicholls, 7 in total, and he’s in pole position for this year’s renewal courtesy of McFabulous, a classy bumper winner who grew in power through last season and looked all dressed up for the Grade 1 at Aintree before that road got blocked.
Secret Investor won the 2018 Persian War, since when he’s developed into Grade 2 chaser, runner-up to Native River in the Denman Chase when last seen. Prior to this comeback in the Native River Handicap Chase (2.47), he’s had a wind op, and what helps is the presence of Ballyoptic and Brave Eagle above him in the handicap, which keeps his weight manageable.
One of his nicer juveniles usually rocks up in the opener on the Saturday, and Hell Red fits that bill, bought out of Guillaume Macaire’s stable after his promising second in a newcomer’s event at Auteuil in March, marking him out from this crowd.
It’s a big weekend for Nicholls, with as many as 16 runners across the two days at Chepstow, and he hits it with his string already motoring along, as expressed by a Timeform run-to-form ratio of 64%, punchy even by his standards.
BEST CHANCE: McFabulous, 3.15 Friday
For a second season running, Dan Skelton finished third behind Henderson and Nicholls in the trainers’ table, and, for a third season running, he trained more winners than either of them. A summer spree was a driving force behind the numbers, but less so this time, and Skelton has sent out fewer winners than Nicholls since resumption. But that’s probably a happy trade-off, suggesting Skelton has more “winter” horses to go to war with, sacrificing some quantity for quality.
That said, Skelton has done great work with Longhouse Sale in recent months, completing a hat-trick over fences, and he gets to take on some would-be big boys in the Listed novice chase on Saturday, a horse who’s fit and firing, so if he’s got any chance of defeating Fiddlerontheroof and co then it’s now.
In the first race on the Friday, Skelton saddles Langer Dan, who did the best of the six horses here that contested the Fred Winter, finishing sixth at Cheltenham; and from one end of the age spectrum to the other, and the veterans chase (4.55), in which Skelton is represented by stalwart Virgilio and new recruit Don Poli, a real challenge to turn him around.
The big hope for the weekend is probably the same big hope last year, as Flash The Steel goes for a repeat in the Grade 3 Silver Trophy. He’s 8lb higher than when successful by 2 lengths last year, but he’s raced only twice since, including when beaten just 5 lengths in the Martin Pipe at Cheltenham, and you can bet he’ll be bang-ready for this defence of his title.
Along with the old are the new, and Skelton introduces two high-interest newcomers in either division of the bumper, namely Freezing Point and My Drago, both of whom look the part on paper. Skelton’s 14 runners at the two-day fixture are a blend of favourite horses and formative ones, making for a strong team, and potentially a strong statement for the season ahead.
BEST CHANCE: Flash The Steel, 3.57 Saturday
After checking in third or fourth in the trainers’ table for the previous three years, helped by a spring surge each time, Colin Tizzard slipped to sixth last season, including a washout at the Cheltenham Festival (from 17 runners), though Lostintranslation was a fine third in the Gold Cup.
The go-to race at the Chepstow fixture for Team Tizzard is the Listed novices chase on the Saturday. Cue Card and Finian’s Oscar won the race in 2011 and 2017 respectively, while Reserve Tank was runner-up last year, and their representative in 2015 finished third on the day, but turned out to be a Gold Cup winner, Native River.
It says plenty, therefore, that this is the starting point over fences for Fiddlerontheroof. Big and strong, he’s always looked a chaser in the making, and, though disappointing in the Supreme, the reason he went off at 6/1 was because of his mid-winter development, so impressive in winning the Tolworth by 6 lengths. He could easily go right to the top over fences.
Tizzard also has history in the staying novice chase on the Friday, winning it twice in the last 8 years, as well as finishing second in 2017 with Elegant Escape. Having won a novice hurdle at this meeting last year, Ofalltheginjoints didn’t quite go on as expected, but chasing was always going to be his game, added to which this will be his first real chance to flex his stamina muscles, so don’t be surprised if he proves up to this task, despite taking on horses who achieved more as hurdlers.
BEST CHANCE: Fiddlerontheroof, 3.22 Saturday