Friday, May 01, 2020

A brief review of the 2019/20 jumps season

Champion jockey: Brian Hughes
Champion trainer: Nicky Henderson
Winning owner: J P McManus
Champion conditional jockey: Jonjo O'Neill Jr

On Tuesday 17 March Aidan Coleman rode the Charlie Longsdon trained Glencassley (9/4f) to victory in the concluding bumper at Wetherby in what proved to be the final race of a traumatic British jumps season brought to a premature conclusion by the coronavirus pandemic.

British racing went into lockdown and six days later the country followed suit.

The Racing Post's final print edition appeared on Thursday 26 March; with an estimated average daily circulation figure below 35,000, many commentators fear print publication may never resume. 

On Saturday 21 March ITV4 transmitted racing from Thurles held behind closed doors; the final meeting in Ireland took place at Clonmel on Tuesday 24 March.

Prior to that point the season had been characterised by bouts of torrential rain, abandonments, small fields and heavy going.

The omens weren't particularly good back in the autumn when I made my annual trip to the Ludlow races. Late to the track, stuck in traffic the wrong side of a road crossing, we were forced to watch my pick in the first, Balinsker, lead his field around the home turn; the beast went on to win comfortably at odds of 4/1.

Two mares caught the eye early season. Misty Bloom was backed from 16/1 to win the Richard Barber Memorial Mares' Handicap Hurdle at Wincanton at odds of 9/2 and a week later Happy Diva (14/1) collected the BetVictor Gold Cup at Cheltenham.

Lostintranslation put up an eye-catching performance when beating previous winner Bristol De Mai in the Betfair Chase at Haydock; afterwards connections anticipated the King George with some relish.

The Ascot duel between unbeaten Altior  and the higher rated Cyrname over a trip of two miles five furlongs had received appropriate billing as 'the clash of the titans'. Only other runner Solomon Grey was adrift after the first; Altior struggled to jump out of the soft ground and lost that unbeaten record.

Cyrname meanwhile was sent off 5/4 favourite for the King George at Kempton. The spark wasn't quite there on Boxing Day and he had no answer to stablemate Clan Des Obeaux who won the race decisively for the second consecutive year. Betfair Chase winner Lostintranslation proved a major disappointment and was pulled up; connections reported the gelding had suffered a breathing problem.

Cornerstone Lad was returned the shock winner of the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle, beating Buveur D'Air a short head. Jockey Barry Geraghty dismounted from the 2/13 favourite immediately after crossing the line; the gelding was found to have a splinter of wood in his off fore after making a hash of the penultimate flight.

De Rasher Counter brought home the bacon for connections in the Ladbrokes Trophy at Newbury; Ben Jones claimed five and held nearest rival The Conditional one and a half lengths.

Walk In The Mill beat Kimberlite Candy in the Becher and both names went into notebooks for a Grand National that would never take place.

Five weeks later Kimberlite Candy gained compensation, snatching victory from front-running Captain Chaos in the Classic Chase at Warwick. Captain Chaos - a sobriquet we often use to refer to the father-in-law - went to Doncaster the following month and claimed the Grimthorpe by an astonishing 54 lengths.

The ill-fated Warthog was generally known as something of a weak finisher but he proved doubters and critics wrong when fighting back to claim Cheltenham's Caspian Caviar Gold Cup from 40/1 outsider Spiritofthegames. On his next outing at the very same track the David Pipe trained grey cleared the first but injured himself in the process and could not be saved.

Members of the Wide Awake Club thought Not So Sleepy had the look of a handicap snip in Ascot's Betfair Exchange Trophy (also known as The Ladbroke) but even so Hughie Morrison's charge ran an extraordinary race from the front, beating nearest rival Monsieur Lecoq nine lengths. The standing start caught the front-runner dozing in the Betfair Hurdle - 33/1 shot Pic D'Orhy won - and he was subsequently pulled up in the Champion Hurdle.

Potters Corner, part-owned by Welsh rugby international Jonathan Davies, won the Welsh National for Welsh trainer Christian Williams with Welsh seven pound claimer Jack Tudor in the plate. After that performance the Grand National at Aintree was always going to be the next target.

It was decidedly touch-and-go whether this year's Cheltenham Festival would take place at all but, following advice proffered by government and the installation of temporary hand sanitizer stations, Cheltenham went ahead as planned. That decision has been the subject of some considerable scrutiny since and, you suspect, there will be plenty more to come.

Friday's Gold Cup saw a thrilling three-way finish between Al Boum Photo, the fast-finishing Santini and Lostintranslation on his first run after a breathing operation - and that was the order they crossed the line; Al Boum Photo became the first horse since Best Mate to win back-to-back Gold Cups.

2/1 favourite Epatante won an open-looking if somewhat sub-standard renewal of the Champion Hurdle in fine style but there were shocks in store in the feature races on both Wednesday and Thursday.

The defection on the day of both Altior and Chacun Pour Soi looked to have left the Champion Chase at the mercy of 2/5 favourite Defi Du Seuil but Philip Hobbs' charge found little when asked to close on Politologue; the Paul Nicholls trained grey made all to beat stablemate Dynamite Dollars nine and a half lengths.

Paisley Park was sent off 4/6 favourite for the World Hurdle but he trailed in seventh behind 50/1 winner Lisnagar Oscar; after the race Emma Lavelle's charge was diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat.

Many thought Samcro's nose defeat of Melon with Faugheen third in the Marsh Novices' Chase the race of the entire meeting while the turn-of-foot Champ displayed after the last in the RSA will live long in the memory.

For sheer drama though nothing could quite compare to Goshen's mistake at the last when ten lengths clear in the Triumph - footage clearly showed the gelding trapping his hind and front shoes together -  which resulted in the unseating of jockey Jamie Moore, the race at their mercy. Burning Victory, the principal beneficiary, was the first leg of a treble for Paul Townend and a four-timer for Willie Mullins on the day...

With the population in quarantine, 4.8 million viewers tuned in to watch the virtual Grand National, bookmakers donating profits of over £2.6 million to NHS charities.

The three previous renewals of the virtual race had proved remarkably prescient when compared to actual results; this year Potters Corner (18/1) came home in front but many thought Christian Williams' Welsh National hero 'an unlikely winner' given the virtual going was described as good while Potters Corner had shown his best form on heavy.
There was no fairytale ending for Richard Johnson when unseating from Westend Story at Exeter on January 21 - he suffered a broken arm in the mishap. 37 days later Johnson was back in the plate, riding a double for Olly Murphy at Musselburgh. but his hopes of retaining the jockeys' title had all but disappeared. Riding mainly in the north, Brian Hughes collected his inaugural jump jockeys' championship with 141 winners, 19 ahead of Johnson.

'Least said, soonest mended' would be the most succinct way of summarising a dismal season for the blog's selections; the imposition of lockdown has seen a slight amelioration in circumstances - never waste a crisis as they say. A small profit was realised at the Cheltenham Festival and for that reason Ultima Handicap Chase winner The Conditional is nominated as blog horse of the year.

On 30 April Cornelius Lysaght declared his 'BBC race is run' after 29 years and 8 months with the corporation but he was keen to emphasise that did not signal his retirement from the sport.

In these extraordinary times jump racing is provisionally set to return on 1 July, with winners since the beginning of February able to retain their novice status until 30 November. In the meantime, stay safe.

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