It's just around the corner. The National Hunt racing season will be kicking into top gear soon and as always all roads lead to the Cheltenham Festival. Four days in March, when dreams are realised and legends crowned at Prestbury Park. This year we saw several stars emerge who will be looking to build on that success, whilst we can also lick our lips at some of the top class horses returning from injury. We could be in for one hell of a season, and here's five horses we can expect to be challenging for top honors.
We start with a horse returning from injury and there really was only one candidate to kick off the list. Oh yes, Sprinter Sacre is back! With the legendary Kauto Star enjoying retirement there's no question that Sprinter Sacre is National Hunt racing's superstar. We all feared the worst when Sprinter was pulled up sharply at Kempton in the Grade 2 Desert Orchid Chase in December, however reports suggest he is back in full health and ready to reclaim his position as the best jumps horse around.
Sandown's Tingle Creek is the likely returning point for the "Black Aeroplane", where he could take on Sire De Grugy in a mouthwatering early-season clash. There is no better sight than Sprinter Sacre majestically pinging over fences, so here's hoping he returns to his brilliant best.
Another horse returning from injury is Simonsig. Like Sprinter Sacre, Nicky Henderson also trains him and will be hoping the star duo can see him regain the trainers' championship from rival Paul Nicholls. After landing the prestigious Arkle Trophy at the Cheltenham Festival in 2013 he missed all of last season through injury, but is said to be back in top shape for the new season.
The early-season target is likely to be a tilt at Kempton's King George VI Chase on Boxing Day, a race considered the second-most prestigious chase in the National Hunt calendar behind only the Cheltenham Gold Cup, before being aimed for success at the Cheltenham Fesitval.
Switching our attention to some of last season's top performers, we start with the unbeaten potential superstar that is Faugheen. Irish trainer Willie Mullins has an almost embarrassing amount of talent at his disposal, however Faugheen is the one that stands out the most in the 'could be anything' category. Unbeaten in six starts after his P2P success, he has won over 2m, 2m4f and 3m on ground ranging from good to heavy, showing versatility as well as an abundance of class.
Faugheen rounded off last season with two dominant Grade 1 victories at the Cheltenham and Punchestown Festivals respectively, in the process elevating himself to the top of the market for this season's Champion Hurdle. We don't yet know just how good Faugheen is, but everything we've seen so far indicates he could be something very special indeed.
More Of That:
Another unbeaten star of last year is More Of That, who completed a meteoric rise from handicap company to Grade 1 victory at the Cheltenham Festival, landing the World Hurdle from the 'Irish banker' Annie Power in a pulsating finish. In a race previously dominated by the legendary Big Buck's, it really signified the new kids on the block coming of age.
It's not completely clear what path More Of That will be taking this season. He could remain over hurdles where he could dominate like Bug Buck's, however novice chasing may prove the smarter option. With just five career starts he remains with enormous potential, and it would be absolutely no surprise to see him winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup in the future.
We round off the list with Annie Power, who tasted the first defeat of her career against the aforementioned More Of That in the World Hurdle. Up until that point she had looked imperious with a perfect ten-from-ten victories on her CV. She got back to winning ways at the Punchestown Festival in a weak Grade 1 Mares Champion Hurdle, where frankly anything other than success would have been a huge shock.
There are reasons to suggest she didn't run quite to her best at the Cheltenham Festival and she remains with huge potential. Like More Of That she could stay over hurdles or go chasing, either way we can expect her to be a real force once again.
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