November has never been my favourite month, not since the time when as a Rugby-playing student my face was rearranged by an opponent’s boot. At an Oxford hospital’s casualty department that 6 November fireworks lost their fun. Before they could see me the attendant clinicians were busy for hours tending children’s burns. November, too, is the reckoning time when I must reveal how the 12 animals whom I urged you to support through the Flat season have performed. Fortunately, as this column embarks upon its 20th year the news is good: had you invested £10 to win at starting price every time our Twelve reached the racecourse you would today be sitting on a comfortable tax-free profit of £171.
John Gosden’s Taghrooda was our star, winning The Oaks (at 5–1) and the King George (at 7–2) in scintillating style, and finishing third from a cruel draw in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. Another dual scorer was David Simcock’s Madame Chiang, who won the Group One Qipco Fillies’ and Mares’ stakes on Ascot’s Champions Day at 12–1. Since she had already won at 8–1, she did us proud. Other dual winners were David O’Meara’s That Is The Spirit (at 5–2 and 11–10), Hugo Palmer’s Aktabantay (at 6–5 and 9–4) and Richard Fahey’s busy two-year-old Vimy Ridge, who ran nine times and scored at 11–2 and 5–2. Sir Michael Stoute’s Gospel Choir won at 7–2 on his only appearance and Justineo, whom Roger Varian normally raced at the very highest level, won just one of his five outings at 11–10.
Can we score as well over the jumps? Mrs Oakley considers me as much of an optimist as the late Sir Matt Busby, who apparently used to insist decades afterwards that the bandleader Glenn Miller was still only ‘missing’ after his second world war flight had gone off the radar. But then racing folk have to be optimists. The joy of jumping is its season-to-season continuity and I take it as a good omen that five of last year’s Twelve (A Tail Of Intrigue, Bob Ford, Redpender, Southfield Theatre and Doing Fine) have won already this season, two of them twice. Stick with that last pair in what is a jumps season to relish. Paul Nicholls and Nicky Henderson, tussling again for the trainers’ championship, have to catch the early leader Jonjo O’Neill, whose yard improves in quality every year. We have new talents to watch in the saddle, notably Nicholls’s new young conditional Sean Bowen and Gavin Sheehan who is linked with advancing trainer Warren Greatrex. Nicholls’s former assistant Dan Skelton and his rider brother Harry have also been banging in the winners.
I haven’t seen an easier winner this year than Nicky Henderson’s Sign Of A Victory at Ascot, but I won’t include Nicholls or Henderson horses because it is hard to find a working man’s price on their superstars. But there are other talented trainers who are less frequently in the headlines. I will follow two, for example, from Devon-based Nick Williams, the bumper star Tea For Two, who will be going novice-hurdling, and the recent Chepstow second Aubusson, both regular mounts of wife Jane Williams’s daughter Lizzie Kelly.
The admirably realistic Philip Hobbs, who had 106 winners last season, looks to have a particularly strong hand with well-publicised novice chasers such as Sausalito Sunrise and the Cesarewitch winner Big Easy back over hurdles. His Fingal Bay, a previous Twelve selection, could now be a chasing star and Colour Squadron loves battling round Cheltenham in big fields, so I include them both, along with Hello George, who should go well in novice hurdles. At Sandown last Saturday Gary Moore’s French import Baron Alco made an immediate impression over hurdles to force his way in.
Jonjo O’Neill’s More Of That, the World Hurdle winner, will win big races but let us instead select the lesser known but progressive hurdler Goodwood Mirage. Incidentally, although it will be hard to beat Nicholls’s Rocky Creek, a selection last year, I like Jonjo’s Shutthefrontdoor for the Grand National.
Mick Channon is not known best for his jumpers, but working in tandem with Henrietta Knight he has impressive prospects this year, including Sgt Reckless and Paradise Valley. I’m rowing in with Knock House, their impressive novice chase winner at Fakenham.
You have to watch anything Warren Greatrex sends out in bumpers, but I was impressed with his staying hurdler Cole Harden at Wetherby so he goes into the Twelve. So, too, does Nigel Twiston-Davies’s Blaklion, winner at Chepstow of the best novice hurdle this season. For the mares’ races nothing has been as impressive as John Quinn’s Aurore d’Estruval at Wetherby and with Cheltenham in mind we must have an Irish selection. With the likes of Vautour, Faugheen, Clondaw Court and Annie Power, Willie Mullins looks invincible but in the hope of a better price I will go for Noel Meade’s impressive Galway winner Very Wood as a future star.
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