Sporting Life: Marcus Armytage previews the National Hunt season

For many racegoers, the changing of the clocks signals the start of the National Hunt season proper. Marcus Armytage reveals his top horses, trainers and jockeys.

Horses to watch

Last season’s two best horses, Altior and Native River, ran only five times between them and neither was out before Newbury’s February meeting. This time, however, both are, enticingly, set for full seasons.

The two-mile programme is written in stone, so trainer Nicky Henderson really has no choice but to start Altior, unbeaten in three seasons and unbeaten over obstacles, in the Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown on December 8.

He won’t need to have improved to hang on to his Queen Mother Champion Chase title at the Cheltenham Festival next March now that the Gold Cup has been mentioned as a possible target for Ireland’s Willie Mullins-trained Arkle winner, Footpad.

Cheltenham, UK. 14th March 2017. Altior ridden by Nico de Boinville wins the Racing Post Arkle Challenge Trophy Chase Grade 1 at Cheltenham-Cheltenham-Racecourse/Great Britain.  Credit: dpa picture alliance/Alamy Live News

Altior ridden by Nico de Boinville wins the Racing Post Arkle Challenge Trophy Chase Grade 1, Cheltenham, 14th March 2017.

The best race of last season was the Cheltenham Gold Cup, in which Colin Tizzard’s Native River (ridden by Richard Johnson) and Mr Henderson’s Might Bite (Nico de Boinville) went toe to toe heroic-ally for 3¼ miles.

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Native River will run first at Haydock in the Betfair Chase on November 24, which is where he’ll probably meet Might Bite again and, possibly, his stable companion Thistlecrack, depending on how he gets on in the Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby on November 3.

Tom George won the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle last season with Summerville Boy, despite him smashing the last two flights, and he can challenge Mr Henderson’s dual Champion Hurdler Buveur d’Air for top hurdling honours.

Summerville Boy will stay over hurdles and be aimed at the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle on December 1, with Mr George keen to get a run into him beforehand.

The trainer also has Black Op, runner-up in the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle. Despite being by the same sire, Sandmason, as Summerville Boy, he’s double the size and looks set for the top novice chases.

Kalashnikov, the runner-up to Summerville Boy at Cheltenham, is also going chasing, for Amy Murphy. He’s certainly built like a chaser and he has filled out and strengthened up, according to his trainer who, at 27, is the youngest in Newmarket.

Kalashnikov will start off over two miles at the end of October, but he’s from the family of 2005 Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Kicking King, so could easily get further.

2017 Randox Health Grand National Festival Day 2 Ladies Day Apr 7th

 Winner Lalor ridden by Richard Johnson races to the finishing post in the Weatherbys Private Bank Standard Open National Hunt Flat Race. April 7th 2017, Aintree Racecourse, Liverpool.

Another novice chaser to look out for is Lalor. He had a few near misses over hurdles before winning the Top Novices’ Hurdle at Aintree in April for north Devon trainer Kayley Woollacott, who had only recently taken over the licence of her late husband, Richard.

The jockey, Richard Johnson, suggested she keep him to two miles to start with. We know the horse likes Aintree in the spring, having also won a champion bumper there, but Mrs Woollacott would like to give him a run around Cheltenham before Christmas to see how he handles the chase course there with a view to the Festival.

Trainers to watch

Herefordshire-based Tom Lacey has been knocking around the coalface of racing for years, having started off working for the late Capt Charles Radclyffe, who used to break in the Queen Mother’s horses, near Witney in Oxfordshire. He rode pointers, assisted trainers, was a head lad and then trained pointers to sell on.

That evolved into a full licence and he’s upgraded his facilities accordingly. He sent out 39 winners last year and his strike rate is consistently between 20% and 25%, which is very high.

He’s good at sourcing horses and is only a matter of time and one special horse away from the big time.

In the north, Rose Dobbin, who’s based in Northumberland, started to have a few more winners last year. The former amateur jockey, who’s married to Grand National-winning jockey Tony Dobbin, can continue on a upward curve.

They always say that great jockeys gene-rally make awful trainers – Jonjo O’Neill is an exception – and that those who struggled to make ends meet in the saddle tend to turn out better. It’s a pretty good rule of thumb.

Christian Williams, who was constantly sidelined by injury when riding, but did manage to steer Denman to three wins, already seems to know the time of day with his horses. He started out with Welsh trainer Dai Walters and has already gone it alone by the sea in Glamorgan. It would be a surprise if he doesn’t do well.

Jockeys to watch

Richard Johnson will take some stopping in his quest to be champion jockey for the fourth time. Although Harry Skelton led him a merry dance over the summer, a bigger threat comes from Brian Hughes, who seems to have the northern circuit sown up.

He’s ridden some 140 winners for each of the past two seasons and his link with trainer Donald McCain should see him posting an even better score this season.

Cheltenham Festival - Gold Cup Day

Jockey Richard Johnson celebrates after winning the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup Steeple Chase on Native River during Day Four of the Cheltenham Racing Festival at Prestbury Park in 2018.

Page Fuller did well as a lady amateur and she can keep progressing through the conditional ranks, especially with the backing of Jamie Snowden’s Lambourn yard. Her spot at the top of the unpaid division has already been taken by Aine (pronounced like Tanya without the T) O’Connor.

She’s Dorset trainer Harry Fry’s sister-in-law, but, my goodness, horses seem to run for her. I first noticed her when she won on Drumcliff at Ascot – they were going well until falling in the Galway Plate in the summer. She stole stable jockey Noel Fehily’s thunder on his return from injury by beating him at Newton Abbot on the stable’s second string.


Not only is the 26 year old likely to be Mr Fry’s secret weapon this season, with her 5lb claim, but, with top lady jockeys Nina Carberry and Katie Walsh having retired, Miss Fuller could be the next big thing in the distaff department.

Marcus Armytage is the last amateur jockey to win the Grand National, in 1990