Friday, May 03, 2019

A brief review of the 2018/19 jumps season

Champion jockey: Richard Johnson
Champion trainer: Paul Nicholls
Winning owner: J P McManus
Champion conditional jockey: Bryony Frost

Any review of this season has to start with last season's Grand National winner Tiger Roll.

Small and nothing particular to look at, Tiger Roll won the Cross Country race at this year's Festival as though he'd joined in at the last.Three and a half weeks later, sent off 4/1 favourite to become the first horse since Red Rum to win back-to-back Nationals, Tiger Roll won the 2019 Grand National as though he'd joined in at the last.

Cue pandemonium.

Letters were written to The Times comparing the feats of Red Rum and those of Tiger Roll with readers making the case for their own particular favourite. The BHA handicapper certainly knew what he thought of it all.

Takingrisks took a few in the Scottish Grand National but they paid off handsomely for Nicky Richards' inmate while a slog in the Chepstow mud suited Elegant Escape down to the ground in the Welsh Grand National; the following month Colin Tizzard's charge was beaten threequarters of a length by Frodon in the Cotswold Chase at Cheltenham.

Bryony Frost and Frodon struck up the partnership of the season. Prior to that win in the Cotswold Chase the pair had won the Old Roan at Aintree, finished second behind Baron Alco in the BetVictor Gold Cup at Cheltenham and won the Caspian Caviar Gold Cup at the same track.

Connections were sorely tempted to take their chance in the Cheltenham Gold Cup but in the end the pragmatic decision to run in the Ryanair was rewarded with a thrilling victory, Frodon dismissing the early attentions of Sub Lieutenant and regaining the lead from Aso after the last.

Against a backdrop of Brexit brouhaha and innumerable indicative votes, other Festival winners included Espoir D'Allen, the surprise package in the Champion Hurdle; Altior, 'workmanlike' in the Champion Chase; and Paisley Park, maintaining his unbeaten run for the season, in the Stayers' Hurdle.

Before the start of this season Willie Mullins had never trained a Cheltenham Gold Cup or Irish National winner.

The maestro held four chances in this year's Cheltenham showpiece but poor Willie must have thought the racing gods were conspiring against him with Kemboy unseating at the first, Bellshill pulled up before the ninth and Invitation Only falling fatally at the tenth.

Al Boum Photo's jumping could be described as scratchy in the early stages but he warmed to his task through the race; Paul Townend sent his charge on as they turned for home and the pair were not for catching, finishing clear of Anibale Fly, Bristol De Mai, Native River (poor start proved costly) and Clan Des Obeaux (did not come up the hill).

Five weeks later Mr. Mullins added the Irish National to the curriculum vitae courtesy of Burrows Saint.

Previously Bristol De Mai had repeated his party piece in the Betfair Chase at Haydock and Clan Des Obeaux had established himself as a chaser to reckon with by winning the King George at Kempton but Kemboy didn't always enjoy the best of luck during the season.

Apart from unseating David Mullins at the first in the Gold Cup, the gelding was unable to run in the Ladbrokes Trophy at Newbury following the cancellation of his intended ferry service from Ireland - Sizing Tennessee was the principal beneficiary.

Kemboy's connections claimed ample compensation with wins in the Savills Chase at Leopardstown, the Betway Bowl at Aintree (Clan Des Obeaux nine lengths adrift) and, with Ruby Walsh up, the Punchestown Gold Cup where he beat stablemate and Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Al Boum Photo two lengths.

Victorious jockey Ruby Walsh dismounted and promptly announced his retirement - with immediate effect:

"When you're going out at Punchestown, you go out on a winner. You'll never again see me on a horse - I'm finished. That's it - it's all over."

While McCoy will forever be associated with the number of winners he rode, Walsh will forever be associated with the big winners he rode, primarily for Willie Mullins and Paul Nicholls. A supreme stylist, he remains, for many observers, the greatest rider of his generation.

The BHA didn't have the best of years. Their decision in early February to suspend all UK racing after three of Donald McCain's horses tested positive for equine influenza didn't meet with universal approval. With the Cheltenham Festival on the horizon, emergency regulations were passed requiring all runners to have received appropriate vaccination within the preceding six month period while any horse receiving a new vaccination could not run for seven days.

The arbitrary, immediate introduction of those regulations definitely favoured trainers who habitually vaccinate around Christmas and January time. Racing resumed after a six-day shutdown.

When Cyrname won Ascot's bet365 Chase by 21 lengths in January, many struggled to believe what they had just seen - and I was one of them. Four weeks later the same horse put in a similar performance at the same track to collect the Ascot Chase, beating Waiting Patiently 17 lengths - in so doing, he became the highest rated chaser in training.

Paul Nicholls recorded his 3,000th jumps winner in Britain courtesy of Kupatana while on Easter Sunday Dan Skelton became only the second trainer to have sent out 200 British jumps winners in a season. Martin Pipe predicted his all-time record of 243 winners was under threat from Dan; Richard Johnson's jockeys' title looks under threat from Dan's brother, Harry.

The eagerly anticipated clash between Altior and Cyrname in Sandown's Celebration Chase on the final day of the season failed to materialise on account of the ground.

At odds of 1/6 Altior collected the spoils and in the process became the first horse to win 19 consecutive jumps races. Trainer Nicky Henderson has indicated a tilt at the King George in December is now on the cards. Half an hour or so after Altior's record-breaking victory, Talkischeap looked like something to keep in mind for future discussion when winning the bet365 Chase in taking fashion.

This blog has been called plenty of names in the past but this year PG can say the teas are on me.

Sainsbury's singing chief executive Mike Coupe warned me that publicly celebrating a financial success can backfire badly when things subsequently go wrong - far better to just keep schtum. The trouble is I wasn't listening.

This season the blog's highlighted selections show a profit of 45 points to advised prices and over 30 points to starting prices (detail here).

When New Agenda (6/1) covered the expenses at Ludlow's second October meet, little did I realise what was in store. Two days later Relentless Dreamer obliged in a 16 runner Cheltenham handicap and we were up and running.

Put simply, I have never known the like - and it's highly unlikely I ever will again.

Blog horse of the year goes to Crosspark for his thrilling win in the Eider Chase and then a battling second behind Takingrisks in the Scottish Grand National.

And, bless my old boots, in February that New Agenda went and won again - on the snow in St Moritz!