Dark Horses – Ten to Follow in Novice Hurdles

The run up to Christmas is full of top-quality jump racing in Britain. Cheltenham’s November meeting is done and dusted. Next up is Haydock’s Betfair Chase, followed by Newbury’s three-day Winter Carnival featuring the Ladbrokes Trophy.

The following Saturday has the Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown and Aintree’s Becher Chase over the Grand National fences. Then it’s Cheltenham’s December meeting followed by Ascot’s Grade 1 Long Walk Hurdle. And before you know, it’s Christmas, with eight Boxing Day cards in Britain plus three in Ireland.

The top trainers have already run some of their leading hopes, although lack of rain has resulted in several holding fire with those who need cut in the ground. But there are plenty who may slip under the radar in the coming weeks. Where better to focus attention on those unexposed ‘dark’ horses than the yards of Paul Nicholls and Nicky Henderson. After all, between them they’ve won the trainers’ championships for the last 16 years.

Nicholls is well-known for buying young horses from France and turning them into top jumpers. But lately he’s also been going down the route of buying ‘store’ horses for the future. He’s made a flying start to the season, recording 50 winners by 1st November. He’d never done that before.

Henderson is a creature of habit. He tends to target Newbury’s three-day meeting at the end of November to produce his big guns. However, like Nicholls, he too has made a rapid-fire start to the campaign and is well ahead of last year’s schedule.

Both trainers have a glut of good novice hurdlers. Nicholls’ crop has included impressive Chepstow winners Brave Kingdom and Mr Glass. Henderson’s trump card so far looks to be Doddiethegreat, a 22-length winner at Kempton last week.

Here, then, are ten less obvious novice hurdlers – six from Nicholls, four from Henderson – who should be worth following during the season.

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Dark Horses to Follow

Balco Coastal (Henderson). He won by 17 lengths on his debut in a Kempton all-weather bumper in February. He then started favourite for a Grade 2 at Aintree’s Grand National meeting. He disappointed there, finishing seventh, beaten 24 lengths. He’s surely better than that and should prove an exciting recruit to novice hurdling.

Constitution Hill (Henderson). He was unlucky not to win on his debut in a four-year-old point-to-point in Ireland in April. He only went down by a head, despite having made a bad mistake at the last fence. He came to Henderson via Barry Geraghty, who had previously sent him the likes of Bob’s Worth and Brain Power. He’s entered to make his British debut in a maiden hurdle at Ascot on Friday (19 November, 12.20).

Grace a Vous Enki (Nicholls). He’s a half-brother to the yard’s popular stalwart Yala Enki. He’s already won twice over fences in France and finished second on his debut for Nicholls at Worcester. He then ran fifth over three miles at Cheltenham last month, overcoming a mistake two out and staying on well on the run-in. Look out for him in a three-mile novice hurdle when the rain comes and the going gets muddy.

Hob House (Henderson). He’s closely related to Henderson’s Champion Hurdle winner Epatante. He won a Southwell bumper in good style on his debut. The winning margin was only 1¼ lengths but he kept on well. He’s owned by JP McManus and looks a chaser in the making, but he’s only four and should be good enough to win over hurdles before switching to fences.

Huflower (Nicholls). He won two bumpers in France on soft and heavy ground. The horse he beat in the second of those went on to win a Grade 1 AQPS race at Longchamp in September. Huflower made his British debut at Exeter on 2nd November, finishing fifth of 15. Nicholls reckoned the horse needed the run and “will improve enormously for it”.

Iceo (Nicholls). This three-year-old won his only start in Dieppe for Guillaume Macaire. He’s unlikely to run before December but comes into the ‘could be anything’ category. Nicholls says: “We’ve not had him long but we love what we see so far.” His future may lie over fences but he could make a decent juvenile hurdler before then.

Jonbon (Henderson). He’s a full-brother to Douvan and won an Irish point-to-point on his debut by 15 lengths. He then joined Henderson and was an impressive 4¼-length winner of a Newbury bumper in March. He’s entered in an ‘introductory’ hurdle at Ascot on Friday (19 November, 1.30).

Largy Train (Nicholls). He won a soft ground Ayr bumper in May for Stuart Crawford, scoring by 4½ lengths. He’s just been given a wind operation and probably won’t be running until after Christmas but he might be worth waiting for.

Petrossian (Nicholls). He won a Newbury bumper on his debut in November 2020 by 7½ lengths on good ground. He ran too freely for his own good on his only other start when sixth over the same course in March. He’s entered in a novice hurdle at Kempton next Monday (22 November, 12.40) and should be ready to win first time over jumps.

Rubaud (Nicholls). A three-year-old by Air Chief Marshall, he’s a winner over 1m 7f at Saint-Cloud on good to soft ground. He also finished fourth in a Longchamp Group 3. He’s yet to run in Britain but could be another useful French juvenile recruit to the yard.

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Chris Pitt is an experienced journalist and author of several books on horse racing including the highly acclaimed ‘A Long Time Gone', charting the history of Britain's lost racecourses, and ‘Go Down to the Beaten', telling the stories of jockeys who didn't win the Grand National. He founded the Midlands Racing Club to encourage interest in the sport through organised visits to race meetings and trainers' stables, tipping competitions and club nights with well- known jockeys, officials and members of the media. A former racing correspondent for BBC Radio WM, he was also feature writer for the betting industry publication BOS Magazine prior to becoming involved with betting.com. He has visited every British racecourse and attended race meetings in a dozen countries. He lives in Birmingham, UK with his wife Mary, who is also a racing journalist.

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