That bright and fierce and fickle is the South; And dark and true and tender is the North.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, was born in the North, in Lincolnshire, but gravitated towards London as he grew in fame and fortune, though the excerpt from his poem The Princess: O Swallow suggests he was acutely aware of the North-South divide, and where his loyalties lay.
More so in National Hunt than the Flat, the North-South divide in racing has rarely been more distinct, and you have to go back to 2014 for the last Northern-trained winner at the Cheltenham Festival (Hawk High in the Fred Winter), and back further still, to 2012, for the last Graded success at the meeting, when Cinders And Ashes and Brindisi Breeze landed notable novice Grade 1s.
Since then, Nicky Richards has struck several Southern blows for the North outside of the flagship festival, and Waiting Patiently temporarily pulled up a chair at chasing’s top table, not elbowed out just yet based on last week’s Tingle Creek.
And it’s not only Waiting Patiently who’s flying the regional flag, because two other Northern lights are starting to shine, one a redeveloping force and the other a developing force, on a collision course this Saturday.
Sam Spinner is no Northern matter, the wider jumping world well aware of his powers as a staying hurdler, favourite for the main event at Cheltenham in 2018 and runner-up in 2019, and, beginning a new chapter this term, he’s 2/2 over fences, perfect in pay-off, if not foot-perfect in process.
Under normal circumstances, he and he alone would be the great white hope of the North but, in the words of Yoda, there is another.
Sam Spinner needs no introduction to Southern spectators, but Windsor Avenue possibly does considering, in his life, he has raced only at Sedgefield, Kelso, Hexham, Newcastle and Carlisle. Not to say, in this digital day and age, that he’s any sort of secret, as the cat is out of the bag, cat being the operative word because he jumps just like one.
Like Sam Spinner, Windsor Avenue has won both his chases, only that much more convincing, and if Sedgefield was about style (by 21 lengths), Carlisle brought the substance, out-jumping and out-galloping Ballymoy, a 151-rated hurdler.
Not only that, he also went faster from 3 out – by some 4 seconds – than the good-quality two-milers (led home by Hell’s Kitchen) later on the Carlisle card, despite racing over an extra half-mile.
This Grade 2 December Novices’ Chase at Doncaster is a regional title fight to which Windsor Avenue brings speed and slickness, but the race is over three miles, making it more of a home fixture for Sam Spinner, whose end-game is endurance.
All the same, the feature flashpoints of the season so far have had a common denominator, namely the electricity that’s generated by formidable fencing, from Cyrname in the 1965 Chase to Lostintranslation in the Betfair Chase; and in that department Windsor Avenue has an evident edge on Sam Spinner from what we’ve seen of them as chasers so far.
Something has got to give in this battle of the unbeaten chasers, but the pertinent point is that the North has not one but two maturing missiles to send southward, and defeat for either one at Doncaster needn’t spell the end of their road to Cheltenham, for which this is just a service stop.
But it’s a significant service stop, and its timing means WINDSOR AVENUE is the bet, because he’s a complete natural over fences and therefore further along the curve than Sam Spinner, regardless of the distance.
With only one other runner in the mix, Aye Right optimistically making his chasing debut, tactics will be interesting in this Doncaster duel, as to whether Joe Colliver tries to test the stamina of Windsor Avenue via a positive play, surely the only way, as the steadier they go the greater the emphasis on speed and the more Brian Hughes is in the driving seat.
It’s a battle in the North, but it’s a battle for the North, to build a bridge across the notable North-South divide.
One of the best ever illustrations of a Northern graduation is not a horse but a jockey, and James Reveley, now a star turn in France, is returning ‘home’ on Saturday to partner the exciting Nicky Henderson recruit Tombee Du Ciel in the Grade 2 Summit Juvenile Hurdle at Doncaster.
The filly has raced three times in France, finishing third in a Listed hurdle at Auteuil on the latest, back in April, and it’s significant that Henderson is starting her here, straight into the deep end, in a race he won with Peace And Co in 2014 and We Have A Dreamin 2017, both of whom likewise carried the two-tone green silks of Munir and Souede.