"For all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these: what might have been."
- John Greenleaf Whittier
The Jump Finale, the curtain closer, the end chapter, the full stop - the season is over, which can mean only one thing: Punchestown is coming the following week. In Britain, the neat bow around the season is now tied. Only it doesn’t quite work like that, not in racing, nor sport, nor indeed life, as between black and white is the equivocal expanse of the grey area, dotted with ifs, buts and maybes. The what ifs.
Every season has its ‘what if’ horses; those who, for one reason or another, weren’t seen to full effect, or just weren’t seen much at all, but for which certain divisions, and certain champions, might have been different. Here then are my top five ‘what if’ horses of the 2018/19 season, and what the future may hold for them.
A deep-seated lung infection was the reason for a diluted Samcro in a truncated campaign, a diagnosis that excuses in part rather than explains in full. Nevertheless, the second-season Samcro clearly wasn’t the second-coming Samcro of his first term, and the question now is less what if and more what next, though they are related in that what’s next is no doubt chasing, and what if he’d have taken that direct route at the start of the season?
Whether or not the virus masked a wrong turn to begin with, the high-flying Samcro barely got off the runway this season, but if his power is intact so too is his potential, and fences may be the fuel to relight his fire. Forgive and forget? It’s not too hard to forgive a one-season washout, and it’s not easy to forget how he made short work of Arkle winner Duc Des Genievres in last year’s Deloitte.
Six, five, one. Those are the number of races that Presenting Percy had prior to the last three Festivals. When he had six and five, motoring to Cheltenham, he maintained his momentum right through to the Pertemps and RSA respectively. And one seemingly wasn’t enough when he got lost in the Gold Cup, begging the ‘what if’ question of whether coming in hot, like before, would have been a better way of preparing Percy. To race only once, and over hurdles at that, was unorthodox – even for an unorthodox horse – and the risk got no reward.
Unseasonable weather and unreasonable ground played a part, but a short-changed season needn’t be a wasted season if a lesson is learnt, and next year will surely be the same target with a different approach, of following his old formula based on attack and not defence.
One of the surprises of the season was the power-play by Cheveley Park, whose red, white and blue silks were carried to victory not once but twice at the Cheltenham Festival, including the Champion Bumper with Envoi Allen, whom I seriously doubt was even the best bumper horse they had.
Likewise trained by Gordon Elliott, Malone Road looked a monster in winning at Down Royal and Punchestown in November, the only month we saw him on the track, due to injury. At Punchestown, in what was supposed to be an early, epic showdown between him and Willie Mullins’ Mt Leinster, when neither blinked in the market, Malone Road simply steamrollered him. Had things gone to plan, we could easily have been talking now about Malone Road as a potential superstar of the sport, and he tops the list of exciting novice hurdlers for next season.
Master Dino had 17 races over hurdles (winning eight of them, including two Grade 1s), as well as two unbeaten starts over fences, before the setback that robbed him of the chance to shine brighter, at Cheltenham as planned, in the spring. But here’s the thing with Master Dino – starting next season he’ll still only be a five-year-old!
They don’t mess around in France, but British and Irish buyers don’t mess around either, rare that one so high on power and potential as Master Dino can go to war for his home nation these days, but, means testing for Cheltenham, he came over to Plumpton and put on a show with, on Timeform terms, the best performance by a novice chaser by that stage of the season.
This year’s JLT, won by Defi Du Seuil, was a good one, made to look better still by Lostinstranslation at Aintree, but Master Dino would probably have been favourite over the pair of them at Cheltenham, a ‘what if’ scenario for sure, though he still has time – and youth – very much on his side.
This is pretty simple. Cilaos Emery, on his only start over fences, at Gowran, had Duc Des Genievres six-and-a-half lengths behind him, and Duc Des Genievres won the Arkle by 13 lengths. You do the math(s).
Prior to his withdrawal from the Arkle at the eleventh hour, following Le Richebourg’s setback at the tenth hour, Cilaos Emery came in for strong support, suggesting he was Mullins’s number one, ahead of Duc Des Genievres. And the collateral form makes Cilaos Emery perhaps the biggest ‘what if’ horse of the season. He’s 20/1 for next year’s Champion Chase, by which time Altior is liable to be exploring other, longer avenues.