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Jump racing in Britain is booming, with more trainers, more horses in training and significant investment in improved facilities. And on Saturday the winter sport comes into its own with Cheltenham’s Open meeting, highlighted by the Paddy Power Gold Cup.
Some things change. Martin Pipe, 15 times the champion trainer, lost the title last year to Paul Nicholls and retired. But some things stay the same.
The ante-post gambling excitement in the Paddy Power, of whose 10 runnings Pipe won seven, is still a horse trained at his Nicolashayne yard in Somerset.
Only now the man in charge is his 33-year-old son David, who has demonstrated his ability to handle top horses by winning the Charlie Hall Chase with Our Vic. Vodka Bleu is his main hope for the Paddy Power but he also runs Tamarinbleu, and the sponsor will only give you 11/4 against a Pipe-trained winner.
Paul Nicholls trains the favourite Taranis and looks set for another rewarding season with chasers such as Kauto Star, Star de Mohaison and Denman, while Desert Quest, a winner at Ascot under a big weight, provides his first serious contender for the Champion Hurdle. His West Country rival, Philip Hobbs, has Detroit City, with whom he won the Cesarewitch on the Flat, and Noble Request as challengers.
The man who could give them both a run for the trainers’ championship is Jonjo O’Neill. After two seasons blighted by a stable virus, he leads the table after the summer jumping phase with 66 winners.
Backed by owner and fearless punter J.P. McManus and with Tony McCoy as their contract rider, O’Neill could make a serious run at the championship this year with horses such as Black Jack Ketchum, the most impressive winner of all at Cheltenham’s Festival meeting in March.
Some big prizes could go north to Nicky Richards, who trains the thrilling grey chaser Monet’s Garden, and Howard Johnson, backed by millionaire Graham Wylie and with the exciting talent of Paddy Brennan as stable jockey.
The big question is whether the Irish will continue their domination. Last year they took a record 10 of 24 Cheltenham Festival contests. Gold Cup winner War of Attrition, owned by Ryanair chief Michael O’Leary, was followed home by two more Irish runners, and the Irish supplied the first four in the Champion Hurdle won by Brave Inca.
They had the first two as well in Numbersixvalverde’s Grand National. Only the third place obtained by Clan Royal (owned by McManus, trained by O’Neill and ridden by McCoy but at least trained in Gloucestershire) denied an Irish 1-2-3.
So far this season though it is the Welsh factor that has been in evidence. Second in the trainers’ table is Haverfordwest-based Peter Bowen with 45 winners and fourth with 40 is Evan Williams, who trains near Cardiff. Expect to hear a lot more of Williams, who has achieved first-class results with cheap cast-offs from better-known yards and who is now being sent better horses by owners such as Sir Robert Ogden. Another Welsh trainer doing well is Alison Thorpe.
Riding find of the season has been Tom O’Brien, who started last year as an amateur with Hobbs but who has ridden many of the Bowen horses. Only McCoy, who tops the table with 83 winners – despite a six-week absence with a broken wrist – and Richard Johnson, with 67, lead O’Brien’s total of 59.
A vintage season beckons. May they all come back safely.