TWO-MILE CHASER – SHISHKIN (Timeform rating 181)
Fortunately we didn’t have to wait until Cheltenham for the much-anticipated first clash between the prospective two-mile chase champions Shishkin and Energumene. That turned out to be a damp squib in more ways than one. Their first meeting took place instead in the Clarence House Chase at Ascot in January and that proved to be a full-blooded head-to-head encounter and a strong candidate for race of the season. It was Shishkin who emerged with his unbeaten record over fences still intact, though the front-running Energumene made him pull out all the stops, with Shishkin only wearing down his rival in the closing stages for a length win having overcome a peck on landing earlier in the race.
That gave Shishkin the apparent upper hand for their rematch in the Queen Mother Champion Chase but it was apparent well before he was pulled up after the eighth fence that something was amiss. While the rapidly deteriorating conditions were initially blamed for Shishkin’s defeat, later investigations revealed a rare bone condition which ruled him out of a retrieval mission at Sandown on the final day of the season.
Meanwhile, Energumene followed up what turned into something of a hollow Cheltenham victory with a top-notch display to defeat stablemate Chacun Pour Soi at Punchestown. Having missed his intended reappearance in the Tingle Creek when off colour, Shishkin’s only other start of the season resulted in a straightforward win in the Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton. Shishkin has won all ten of his completed starts over jumps but will have a bit more to prove than his arch rival when he returns despite proving just the stronger at Ascot.
STAYING CHASER – ALLAHO (179)
A Plus Tard’s status as the season’s best staying chaser looked assured when he turned the tables on stablemate Minella Indo from the year before to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup, adding to another top-class and wide-margin success earlier in the season in the Betfair Chase at Haydock.
But while A Plus Tard remained in his box, Cheveley Park’s other top-class chaser Allaho, who had won his second Ryanair Chase at Cheltenham, trumped him in the staying division when stepped back up to three miles for the Punchestown Gold Cup. Allaho had been beaten in his two previous attempts over fences at the trip and had even dropped back to two miles at Punchestown the year before, but he’s far more the finished article nowadays and was typically unrelenting in the way he kept his unbeaten record for the campaign.
Going with his usual zest in front, Allaho routed a terrific field composed entirely of Grade 1 winners at Punchestown with his trademark fluent round of jumping and drew 14 lengths clear of the previous year’s winner Clan des Obeaux who was fresh from winning the Bowl at Aintree.
The form of Allaho’s two earlier wins in Ireland over shorter worked out well. Among the stablemates he beat in the John Durkan Memorial at Punchestown was King George winner Tornado Flyer, while he gave a 12-length beating to the subsequent Ascot Chase and Melling Chase winner Fakir d’Oudairies in the Kinloch Brae Chase at Thurles. There will doubtless be a temptation to keep Allaho and A Plus Tard apart again next season but Allaho’s own Gold Cup credentials have never looked stronger.
NOVICE CHASER – GALOPIN DES CHAMPS (175p)
There were some high-class chasers among the latest crop of novices, including the Mildmay Novices’ Chase winner Ahoy Senor who avenged earlier defeats from both Bravemansgame and L’Homme Presse at Aintree, while the Grand National winner Noble Yeats was another from the novice ranks, but the stand-out novice was Galopin des Champs.
Barring a fall at Cheltenham, he would have been unbeaten in four starts over the larger obstacles and ironically it was that one blip on his record that did as much to highlight his standing as a potential top-notcher over fences as any of his wins. The Turners Novices’ Chase – the new name for the Golden Miller – might have brought together the smallest field for a Festival contest in decades but it pitted Galopin des Champs against Ireland’s other top novice Bob Olinger. The pair were hard to split in the betting in the four-runner race but a lacklustre Bob Olinger was clearly coming off second best when Galopin des Champs stood off too far at the last and knuckled over on landing when 11 lengths clear.
Galopin des Champs made swift amends, confirming the form he was all set to show at Cheltenham, with a wide-margin success in the Grade 1 Boylesports Gold Cup Novice Chase at Fairyhouse a month later. Runner-up Master McShee had also chased home Galopin des Champs in his other Grade 1 win at the Dublin Racing Festival which followed a spectacular chasing debut, also at Leopardstown, in December where he recorded an exceptional figure for one having his first start over fences.
TWO-MILE HURDLER, NOVICE HURDLER – CONSTITUTION HILL (177p)
It’s hard to think of another jumper who has made such a huge impression from so few starts as Constitution Hill. He has had just the three races, but looked something well out of the ordinary from day one and confirmed that with a performance at Cheltenham which ranks among the best Timeform has recorded by any hurdler, let alone a novice on just his third start.
Constitution Hill was an unknown quantity when making his debut on the Tingle Creek card at Sandown in December but the way he swept aside favourite and ‘large P’ horse Might I by 14 lengths, showing a rare turn of foot in soft ground, marked him down as a rival to Nicky Henderson’s other leading novice Jonbon at the very least. Awarded the large P himself for that performance – indicating he was expected to improve markedly – Constitution Hill retained that symbol going into Cheltenham after following up on still softer ground back at Sandown in the Tolworth Novices’ Hurdle when again making light of the conditions.
On good ground at Cheltenham Constitution Hill shared favouritism with Willie Mullins’ Dysart Dynamo who was still just about in front when falling three out, but he wouldn’t have got anywhere near Constitution Hill in any case who, after travelling strongly throughout in a well-run race, produced an electric turn of foot off the final bend and stormed clear to beat stablemate Jonbon by 22 lengths, the clock confirming Constitution Hill’s outstanding performance.
While the runner-up franked the form at Aintree, there was talk of Constitution Hill taking on Honeysuckle at Punchestown but that mouthwatering prospect will have to wait until next season.
STAYING HURDLER - FLOORING PORTER (162)
Like their two-mile counterparts, there was a lack of overall quality among the staying hurdlers, though it was at least a competitive division which is more than could be said for the two-milers.
Flooring Porter won the Stayers’ Hurdle for the second year running, joining an illustrious list of horses to have won the race more than once, and narrowly gets the vote as the top stayer, though the next four home at Cheltenham - Thyme Hill, Paisley Park, Champ and Klassical Dream – all end the season within 4 lb of the winner, along with Sire du Berlais who beat Flooring Porter at Aintree. Flooring Porter won his second Stayers’ Hurdle in much the same way as his first, if anything securing an even softer lead than the year before under another well-judged ride from Danny Mullins and helped by some notably slick jumping.
He finished in front of Long Walk winner Champ and Thyme Hill again at Aintree but just found the previous season’s Stayers’ Hurdle runner-up Sire du Berlais (who’d contested the Pertemps Final instead this year) too strong in the Liverpool Hurdle. In his other completed start, Flooring Porter finished two lengths second to Klassical Dream when bidding to win Leopardstown’s Christmas Hurdle for the second year. Klassical Dream got much the better of an unsatisfactory start on that occasion but the boot was on the other foot at Cheltenham when Flooring Porter was best away.
In Flooring Porter’s absence, Klassical Dream went on to win the Champion Stayers Hurdle at Punchestown for the second year from a field that included Sire du Berlais and Paisley Park.
JUVENILE HURDLER – VAUBAN (150P)
Ireland – or more specifically the two stables of Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott – had the best juvenile hurdlers and while Fil Dor from the latter’s stable was the early leader among the four-year-olds, three successive defeats to Vauban in Grade 1 contests left no doubt that it was Mullins who had the pick of the juveniles.
A listed winner on the Flat in France, Vauban was beaten by Fil Dor’s stablemate Pied Piper on his hurdling debut at Punchestown, but he built on that promise when ending favourite Fil Dor’s unbeaten record in the Spring Juvenile Hurdle at Leopardstown. Between them, Mullins and Elliott had the first five home in that contest and, more impressively, they repeated that feat against the best the British could muster in the Triumph Hurdle.
Vauban started favourite this time and despite his jumping still lacking fluency, notably at the last, he again showed a good turn of foot to leave Fil Dor back in second with Pied Piper third. While the latter went on to the Anniversary Hurdle at Aintree, where he was demoted after passing the post in a dead-heat with the Triumph ninth Knight Salute, Vauban and Fil Dor locked horns again in the Champion Four Year Old Hurdle at Punchestown. Vauban’s four-length defeat of Fil Dor, leading on the bridle at the last before cruising clear, came after a more polished round of jumping, and while more will be required against his elders next season, there’s no denying that Vauban is one of the most exciting prospects to emerge from the juvenile division for a while.
BUMPER PERFORMER – FACILE VEGA (128)
Not many horses start their careers winning as many as four bumpers but that’s the record of the hugely exciting Facile Vega who completed a Grade 1 double at Cheltenham and Punchestown. Unlike their Flat counterparts, high-class jumpers rarely get to pass on their ability to offspring but that is clearly what has happened in Facile Vega’s case as he’s the second foal out of Quevega, winner of six David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdles at Cheltenham and four editions of the World Series Hurdle at Punchestown.
After an impressive debut at Leopardstown on Boxing Day, Facile Vega followed up by a dozen lengths in the Grade 2 bumper at the Dublin Racing Festival where he made mincemeat of his six rivals, all of them winners. That made him the clear number one among Willie Mullins’ team of seven in the Champion Bumper at Cheltenham and he duly became his trainer’s twelfth winner of that contest in readily beating the highly-touted American Mike from Gordon Elliott’s stable in very testing conditions.
Facile Vega became the fourth Champion Bumper winner to follow up in the Punchestown equivalent but with American Mike a well-held third this time it was Facile Vega’s stablemate Redemption Day, beaten out of sight at Cheltenham, who pushed him all the way before he found extra to win by a length and a quarter. Already clear favourite for the Supreme and Ballymore at Cheltenham next year, Facile Vega looks as good at this stage as any of Mullins’ ten previous Punchestown Champion Bumper winners.