Here is the final list before Christmas of horses to have caught the eye in the last couple of weeks. The previous lists continue to produce plenty of winners.
ARVIKA LIGEONNAIRE (WON, Fairyhouse Dec 2)
It’s a measure of how highly champion Irish trainer Willie Mullins regards his seven-year-old that he pitched him straight into this good, competitive Grade One event for his seasonal reappearance. But the French-bred showed exactly why with a blistering pillar-to-post victory that spiked some lofty reputations in behind. Helped by some fine, if occasionally low, jumping, he poured it on relentlessly on what was only his second outing since a two-year injury-absence. On this evidence, it will be impossible to keep him away from the spring festivals, and while his best trip might prove to be 2m4f, Mullins is sure he’ll act on better ground.
BEAR’S AFFAIR (WON, Aintree Dec 8)
A foray into novice chases by Nicky Henderson’s six-year-old did not go to plan last season when he failed to score on three starts. The aim is to try again at some stage, with the trainer confident that “he can go a long way”, but this win on his seasonal bow proved that he might be worth persevering with for a little longer over hurdles, in which sphere he remains unbeaten. Despite shouldering top weight in a competitive handicap, he tanked through the race and bolted up, even though he got tired late on. A horse to be followed for the rest of the season, wherever he turns up.
DON’T BE LATE (2ND, Warwick Dec 9)
Bumpers on Sunday afternoons at Warwick are not usually the place to find stars of the future. But this was a most persuasive debut by a four-year-old newcomer, trained by Jonjo O’Neill, owned by JP McManus and fathered by emerging sire Court Cave. It was a truly-run race, thanks to the front-running display of the winner, who not only had a race-fitness and experience advantage but also boasted high-quality form in Irish point-to-points. So, the merit of Jonjo’s horse running him so close, giving him 3lbs, cannot be under-estimated, especially as jockey Tony McCoy was understandably reluctant to give him too hard a battle first time up.
DREAMS OF MILAN (WON, Uttoxeter Nov 29)
I am confident this is a good horse in the making. Recruited from the point-to-point field in Ireland, the four-year-old son of Milan should have won on his UK debut in a Bumper at the same course. But he made no mistake this time on his first start over hurdles, courtesy of a professional, textbook performance in which he travelled strongly, jumped fluently and asserted from the third last flight. Trainer Donald McCain is very fond of him, and I’m sure he can win again under a penalty before stepping up in grade.
KINGS PALACE (WON, Plumpton Dec 3)
It’s not often I get so excited about a winner at Plumpton, let alone one in a Bumper on a dank and drizzly Monday, that I take to Twitter (@ScoopSilverwood) to tell everyone about it. But that’s what happened after an eye-popping debut victory by David Pipe’s five-year-old son of King’s Theatre. It was like the old days at Pond House as Tony McCoy made all. He set a generous gallop, despite testing ground, and then quickened twice to power clear before being eased down in the final furlong. My Twitter message did not go unnoticed. For it was re-tweeted by owner Bryan Dew’s son!
LIBERTY COURT (2ND, Fakenham Dec 10)
This maiden hurdle was at the mercy of the odds-on favourite Ericht who, this time last year, was regarded as one of Nicky Henderson’s best youngsters, only to flop every time he hit the track. He’d undergone a breathing operation to cure his problems and also had 10lb taken off his back by claimer Gary Derwin. He duly won, but for Tim Vaughan’s hurdling debutant to give him a fright in second marks him down as a prospect far more interesting. Given that he’s a big, strong sort, the tight course would not have been in his favour, yet he went through the race smoothly and although his jumping can be sharpened up, he gave every indication he’ll be winning soon.
LYVIUS (WON, Newbury Nov 29)
One of the disappointments of an otherwise superb three-day Winter Festival (Hennessy) meeting at Newbury was the small turnout for the long-standing Gerry Feilden Intermediate Hurdle, which was sensibly turned into the feature race of the opening day. But at least it yielded an impressive winner in Nicky Henderson’s German-bred four-year-old, owned By Trevor Hemmings. Well-regarded from the moment he stepped foot in this country, he never quite got his act together as a juvenile last term. But as a result, he has started the new campaign on an attractive mark and is capable of bagging one or two more decent handicaps.
MINELLA DEFINITELY (WON, Kempton Nov 26)
All the focus after this ordinary novice hurdle was on the Nicky Henderson-trained favourite who was turned over at odds of 1/5. But it would be wrong to ignore the performance of the horse who lowered his colours-- this five-year-old former Irish point winner, trained by the under-rated Neil Mulholland. With stamina guaranteed, he sensibly made all and impressed immensely with his game and genuine attitude at the business end of the contest. Fascinatingly, his dam is a sister to the brilliant Jodami, winner of the 1993 Cheltenham Gold Cup.
RUACANA (WON, Catterick Dec 5)
I suspect this was an above-average juvenile hurdle for the track. It was certainly run at a strong gallop, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see the runner-up and third, Totalize and Docs Legacy, also in the winner’s enclosure soon. But the main protagonist to concentrate on is John Ferguson’s victor, recruited from the Flat where he achieved a rating of 88 for Michael Bell in middle-distance and staying handicaps. He travelled powerfully throughout, jumped well for a newcomer and responded doggedly when challenged late on. Jockey Denis O’Regan feels he can progress from this.
SALDEN LICHT (2ND, Hereford Dec 5)
Alan King’s son of top-class Flat horse Fantastic Light was so good as a hurdler that he finished third in the Grade One Aintree Hurdle of 2011 before injury intervened. As a result, it might be viewed as disappointing that he was beaten on this, his belated chasing debut, especially as he’d reportedly schooled so well. But in fact, it was a perfectly pleasing performance, considering his 18-month absence from action and also considering his progressive conqueror, Vulcanite, is beginning to look a class act. At eight, age is catching up with Salden Licht, but he has the ability to go far over fences and it’s not hard to envisage him tackling one of the big novice or handicap chases at the Cheltenham Festival next March.
TANERKO EMERY (WON, Sandown Dec 7)
Considering David Pipe’s improving six-year-old was the subject of a hefty gamble, jockey Connor O’Farrell scared the life out of punters by giving him a genuine balls-of-steel ride to land this novices’ handicap hurdle. Not only was the gelding held up out the back, O’Farrell did not begin to make his move until the second-last flight and then chose to squeeze between rivals on the run-in before getting up on the line! But his expert judgement paid off, and the result should be that his mount will not be forced up too much in the handicap. Expect one or two more prizes to come his way before the season is out.
THE WESTENER BOY (WON, Navan Dec 8)
It’s always wise to keep an eye out for quetly progressive horses owned by JP McManus who might be capable of making a splash at the Cheltenham Festival -- and this five-year-old fits the bill perfectly. Bought by the great man after he landed a Bumper in eyecatching fashion at Fairyhouse in January, the point-to-point graduate was switched straight to fences. His first three outings barely registered a nod of approval but, switched to a more suitable trip of 3m this time, he was a completely different proposition, thrashing by 25 lengths an odds-on favourite trained by Willie Mullins and finishing the race like a fresh horse. It would be no surprise if trainer Colm Murphy has the Festival’s four-miler on his agenda.
TWO ROCKERS (WON, Towcester Dec 1)
For those of us who fancy Michel Le Bon to pay for Christmas by winning the Welsh Grand National on December 27, it was encouraging to see a young relative advertising the credentials of the family so positively. Alan King’s five-year-old son of Milan, described by connections as “a gorgeous, big horse”, has been bought as a long-term project, with staying chases in mind. But given the way he won this novices’ hurdle, they’re going to have fun with him before then too. Despite keenness early on and greenness late on, he galloped gamely up Towcester’s testing home straight and must have some engine.
URANO (2ND, Thurles Nov 30)
Given that he had been just touched off by the subsequent Grade One Royal Bond winner, Jezki, on his previous outing, Noel Meade’s 2/5 favourite, Ally Cascade, had every right to take this novices’ hurdle. So Willie Mullins’s four-year-old purchase from France, where he was unbeaten in three Bumpers, warrants rich praise for coming within a whisker of upsetting the odds. A son of Enrique, the same sire as former Champion Hurdle winner Binocular, he travelled and jumped and could hardly have done any more. He looks a serious prospect and a banker to pocket good races. Keep your eye on the third, the beautifully-bred Speckled Wood, too.
YUROK (WON, Wetherby Dec 8)
As followers of Raceline’s Tip Of The Day section will know to their financial cost, I could not countenance defeat for Aland Islands in this decent novices’ chase. But instead of crying over spilt milk after he went down by a neck, let’s get positive by acknowledging the undoubted ability of the rival to beat him. Not surprisingly for a half-brother to the 2006 Champion Hurdle winner, Brave Inca, Sue Smith’s eight-year-old charge has always been highly rated and, in a lightly-raced career, his form stands up too. But only now, after a year off recovering from injury, is he likely to fulfil his potential -- courtesy of a switch to chasing. As this display underlined, he jumps, he stays and he digs deep.
HORSES TO FOLLOW SUPPLIED BY SCOOP RACING (RICHARD SILVERWOOD).