This weekend the AtTheRaces Stable Stars competition kicks off, starting at Cheltenham, and there have been a few key changes made to this years edition. The first one is quite noticeable as the stable size has increased from ten horses to twelve. The second, however, allows for three weekly transfers to be made to the “Main Horse” selections compared to last year where just one could be made. This will add more of an emphasis on planning and tactical choices will need to be made throughout the season.
Here I look at the “Elite Horses”, as the pool to choose from is much smaller, with eight potential horses needing to be narrowed down to fill just two spots.
Altior – Nicky Henderson’s star chaser is expected to make his seasonal reappearance in the Grade 1 Tingle Creek at Sandown next month. With that in mind, he wouldn’t necessarily have to be added straight away as he could be transferred in for December. He is likely to be difficult to beat over fences until he has to take on a rival such as Douvan, and that is not likely to come until Festival time next spring. Over Christmas, he could possibly drop down to Grade 2 company taking in the Desert Orchid Chase, so long as it doesn’t come too soon after Sandown. That would then lead nicely into the Grade 1 Clarence House at Ascot in January or the Game Spirit Chase at Newbury before a tilt at the Champion Chase at the Festival. Considering that both the Tingle Creek and Clarence House are bonus races he holds plenty of point scoring potential.
Likely targets: 9th December – Tingle Creek Chase, 27th December – Desert Orchid Chase, 20th Jan – Clarence House Chase, 14th March – Champion Chase.
Buveur D’air – Last years Champion Hurdle winner will be bidding to retain his Festival crown. Although he won two novice chases last season the decision to revert back to hurdles proved to be the right one as he added a second and third Grade 1 Hurdle to his resume at Cheltenham and then Aintree. Being in the same ownership as Defi Du Seuil, the pair are unlikely to clash but targets are likely to be similar. As he is a winner over 2m 4f, it does open up a few more options as he could take in races such as the Coral Hurdle at Ascot and the Relkeel Hurdle at Cheltenham. That said the Fighting Fifth, a race also earmarked for Defi, has been suggested as his starting point and being the reigning champion he is likely to get first pick in what looks a relatively weak division at present. He could be a solid selection for the time being but in terms of a long-term pick, a lot will depend on whether anything progresses through the handicap ranks and also whether Faugheen comes back to his brilliant best.
Likely targets: 2nd December – Fighting Fifth Hurdle, 26th December – Christmas Hurdle, 20th January – Champion Hurdle Trial, 13th March – Champion Hurdle.
Defi Du Seuil – Philip Hobbs’ Triumph Hurdle winner is also going down the Champion Hurdle route, despite it being a difficult path for five-year-olds. He missed his intended run in the Mastersons Hurdle at Cheltenham last month due to ground conditions being a little on the quick side and will now either head to the Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle, or the International Hurdle back at Cheltenham two weeks later. After that, a lot will depend on where JP McManus’ other Champion Hurdle horse Buveur D’air heads. There is the Grade 2 Champion Hurdle Trial at Haydock at the end of January or the Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton before a run in the Champion Hurdle itself.
Likely targets: 16th December – International Hurdle, 20th January – Champion Hurdle Trial, 17th February – Kingwell Hurdle, 13th March – Champion Hurdle.
Douvan (Pictured) – Looked like a world beater over the previous three seasons winning 13 consecutive races for Willie Mullins, including eight at Grade 1 level. That run came to an end at the Festival last year when he ran no race at all in the Champion Chase. It was later reported that he had suffered a stress fracture and with a summer off and plenty of time to rest it is very difficult to see anything in Ireland getting the better of him. He will likely be given a similar programme to last season where he took in the Hilly Way Chase at Cork before the Grade 1 Paddy Power Chase at Leopardstown over Christmas. If staying over the two-mile trip the Tied Cottage Chase at Punchestown would fit in nicely before a return to Cheltenham for the Champion Chase, and a potential head-to-head with Altior. He will be a solid point scorer throughout the season.
Likely targets: 10th December – Hilly Way Chase, 27th December – Paddy Power Chase, 30th January – Tied Cottage Chase, 15th March – Champion Chase.
Might Bite – Last years top staying novice made a pleasing seasonal debut at Sandown, after which the Betfair Chase was ruled out. He is likely to have a racecourse gallop before tackling the King George at Kempton over Christmas, where he will meet the likes of other Gold Cup hopefuls Sizing John, Thistlecrack, Cue Card and Djakadam. Much will depend on how he fares there but he could then find himself running in either the Cotswold Chase on Cheltenham Trials day or in the Denman Chase at Newbury before heading back to Prestbury Park for the Gold Cup. With so few runs expected in the first half of the season, on top of the fact he has to step up into what looks the toughest division he currently looks one to leave out, for now at least.
Likely targets: 26th December – King George VI Chase, 27th January – Cotswold Chase, 16th March – Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Sizing John (Pictured) – Last years Cheltenham Gold Cup winner is being aimed at the Million Pound Triple Crown Bonus (Betfair Chase, King George, Cheltenham Gold Cup), so his targets are pretty much already outlined. It is a very difficult division though with Douvan, Djakadam, Thistlecrack, Might Bite, Cue Card, Native River, Yorkhill and stable mate Our Duke all potential adversaries during the winter months so it is not going to be an easy feat winning all three! The winner of eight of his eighteen starts to date, he has also finished behind Douvan no fewer than seven times. He is currently unbeaten over three-miles and beyond and will be a force to be reckoned with but the points he could rack up will be hard-fought and not necessarily guaranteed. He is the only one of the eight likely to line up between now and December though so he has to grab a spot before potentially being substituted out in December.
Likely targets: 25th November – Betfair Chase, 26th December – King George VI Chase, 4th February – Irish Gold Cup, 16th March – Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Thistlecrack – On the comeback trail after suffering his first defeat over fences and a tendon injury to boot. Colin Tizzard has reported him to be in fine form at home and his first target is the Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury in December as a prep for the King George VI Chase at Christmas. He could then be given a break before the Gold Cup but may run in the Cotswold Chase on Trials Day at Cheltenham if it is needed. The fact that he will be campaigned over hurdles to begin with rather than being found a nice opportunity over fences, with a light winter campaign in mind is slightly worrying. There is no doubt that he is (was) a very good horse on his day but with the kind of injury he has suffered, the proof of whether he retains the ability won’t be seen until he takes to the racecourse.
Likely targets: 1st December – Long Distance Hurdle, 26th December – King George VI Chase, 27th January – Cotswold Chase, 16th March – Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Yorkhill – Plans still seem to be up in the air for this very quirky individual and he could find himself reverting to hurdles if Faugheen disappoints on his return in the Morgiana at the weekend. He does have a tendency to idle in front as well as jump to his left, with both of his defeats to date having come on right-handed tracks – something which will need to be kept in mind. That said, he has a massive engine and is bred to stay so he could end up in either a Champion Hurdle or a Cheltenham Gold Cup. A lot will depend on how the rest of the stable fair but Willie Mullins was keen to get him back over hurdles and the fact that he holds entries in both the Morgiana and Hatton’s Grace are small indicators that he might just be heading down that route. Still, it is a dangerous game second-guessing Mullins and the best course of action is to hold off and see.
Likely targets: ?????
First of all, with Sizing John being the only runner likely to make an appearance in November he has to be a starter with his target the Betfair Chase also being a “Bonus Race”. A decision can then be made in December whether he needs to be transferred out, for either Altior (Tingle Creek) or Douvan. Secondly, with both the Fighting Fifth and the Christmas Hurdles also being “Bonus Races” it makes sense starting Buveur D’air who will likely be targeted at both. Depending on how Might Bite and Yorkhill fair he may then need to be switched out in January.
Now that the “Elite Horses” have been selected, it’s time to start work on the “Main Horses” taking into account some of the bonus races that come up early in the season…..