The 2017/18 National Hunt season is up and running, which means all the roads over the next few months will lead to the Cheltenham Festival in March. Here is a look at five horses who could have a big campaign and are worth keeping an eye out for throughout the season.
Jessica Harrington's runner is the reigning Cheltenham Gold Cup winner and is arguably the best chaser either side of the Irish Sea at the moment. The success in the Blue Riband event at the Festival was no fluke as he also prevailed in the Irish Gold Cup in February and the Punchestown Gold Cup in April. Since stepping up to the 3m division, he has shown an enormous amount of improvement. He goes into the 2017/18 campaign as the horse they all have to beat in the leading Grade One races.
Connections have been quite upfront in terms of revealing their targets this season. The Chase Triple Crown in the UK is their primary focus, and they will be hoping he can win the opening leg of that series when he opens up in the Betfair Chase at Haydock. If successful in Lancashire, he is likely to bid to claim the King George VI Chase at Kempton, before he tries to defend his crown in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. This season's Gold Cup could be one of the most competitive in many years, with the tips at Timeform updating each horse's rating after every run throughout the campaign.
Source: Racing UK via Twitter.
National Hunt racing fans are really looking forward to seeing Thistlecrack return to action later this year in what will be his first outing in 11 months as he picked up a leg injury back in January, which ruled him out of the 2017 Cheltenham Festival, where he was once the ante-post favourite to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Source: Chepstow Racecourse via Twitter.
Thistlecrack reached an official rating of 174 over hurdles with his biggest success coming in the 2016 World Hurdle. He made a seamless transfer across to fences in the early stages of last season with victories coming at Chepstow, Cheltenham and Newbury before he stepped up against the more experienced chasers to prevail in the King George.
Hopefully, Thistlecrack returns to his best, which will mean we will be set for an exciting renewal of the King George. Connections will also be targeting the Gold Cup, where they will be hoping their horse can make up for lost time and win the biggest prize in National Hunt racing.
Another horse who is set to make his comeback this year is the Willie Mullins-trained hurdler Faugheen. The 2015 Champion Hurdle winner has not seen a racecourse since January 2016, when he won the Irish Champion Hurdle by 15 lengths.
Mullins' seven-time Grade One winner was nicknamed 'the aeroplane' for the way he travelled through his races. He made the occasional mistake through a hurdle, however, his cruising speed allowed him to get away with it and pull away from rivals inside the closing stages of his races.
Faugheen has missed two Champion Hurdles now so it will be interesting to see how he fares with the best in the division today like Buveur Dair and Yanworth. He is rated at 6/1 with the bookmakers for the 2018 Champion Hurdle, therefore, they certainly believe he will be in contention once again.
One of the biggest stars of last season was Unowhatimeanharry. Harry Fry's stable star won four of his five races; sadly for connections, his defeat came in the Stayers' Hurdle at the Festival, the most prestigious contest in his division. There is no question that, barring injury, the nine-year-old will be in the mix for the feature race on day three of the meeting in 2018. He has already made his seasonal reappearance as he scored on his first run of the campaign at Aintree where he showed no signs of rustiness with a thoroughly impressive performance.
Source: At the Races via Twitter.
The stayers' division this season does not look as strong as the other categories, so there is a good chance that Unowhatimeanharry could dominate again. Connections will be concerned about overrunning their horse before March as they will be hoping he can peak for the 3m hurdle contest at the Festival, where he should take on last year's winner Nicholls Canyon again.
Might Bite was one of the standout novice chasers last season and that was confirmed when he held off the challenger of Whisper to score in the RSA Chase at Cheltenham back in March. Nicky Henderson's runner is evidently very talented and is popular given his style, where he takes up the running in his races and tries to make all. There is a quirky side to the horse which has cost him success in the past. At Kempton last season in the Kauto Star Novices' Chase, he fell at the final fence when he had the contest wrapped up. He also almost threw the race away at Cheltenham as he reared to the right up the hill. Fortunately, on that occasion, jockey Nico De Boinville was able to straighten him up in time to get up by a nose.
The challenge for Might Bite this season will be to take on horses who are more experienced over fences therefore if he does make a mistake, he is likely to be punished. He has already opened his campaign up with a win as he scored at Sandown by comfortable fashion in a Listed contest. The RSA Chase winner has entries in the King George and Cheltenham Gold Cup so it looks like connections are not afraid to take on the best in the division. Time will tell when it comes to determining if he is ready for open age company.
Enjoy all the action through the 2017/18 National Hunt season and good luck if you are backing any of the above horses in the big Grade Ones through the campaign.