Paul Nicholls is aiming to cement his dominance over the British National Hunt scene by winning an 11th champion trainer title in 13 years this season. He was usurped by Nicky Henderson last season, but is currently leading the way this time around and looks a good bet to pull it off.
Over in Ireland, Willie Mullins is even more dominant as he has been named champion trainer in his homeland for the past decade. The real fun comes when Mullins heads over the Irish Sea to pit his wits against Nicholls in the big races, and he has enjoyed plenty of success. In 2015/16 he came within a whisker of becoming the first Irish-based trainer to win the British champion trainer title since Vincent O’Brien in the 1950s, only to lose out to Nicholls on the final day of the season at Sandown.
Their rivalry at big meetings like Cheltenham has captured the public’s imagination for years and it will be no different this season. Between them they have some of the most exciting horses of the season and we have picked out the leading lights to follow:
Nicholls singled out Politologue when asked about his stable’s best chances of success this season and it is easy to see why. He put in several commanding performances to win novices’ chases and was leading the brilliant San Benedento in the G1 Maghull at Aintree in April, only to stumble after jumping the last to hand victory to his stablemate. He will start his autumn campaign at the Haldon Gold Cup and will surely spark a lot of interest in the Sporting Index spreads due to his considerable reputation.
Mullins’ bay gelding was the star performer last season as he extended a superb 13-race winning streak with a number of victories over triple Gold Cup winner Sizing John. He destroyed all and sundry and looked unbeatable, only to break his pelvis and finish seventh in the Queen Mother Champion Chase. He has since been recovering, but Mullins is positive about his fitness and will reintroduce him to competitive action this winter, while Ruby Walsh is upbeat about his ability to bounce back. Once he gets into his stride, Douvan is a force to be reckoned with and if he returns to his best he will be invincible.
Benie Des Dieux
Mullins and Rich Ricci look to have another in a long line of excellent mares on their hands in Benie Des Dieux, who put in a stunning performance to claim the Closutton at Limerick on her debut. It was not the most competitive of races, but she travelled extremely well and looks a natural chaser.
The six-year-old chestnut gelding won four out of five races in 2017, including the Group 1 Maghull, and did well to hold onto Altior’s coattails in the Celebration Chase at Sandown. Altior is the best in the business over two miles, so to have stayed with him is a real achievement and if San Benedento can kick on Nicholls will have a real talent on his hands.
Mullins snapped up the son of Fragrant Mix after he won a maiden hurdle in France and he has since won all three of his contests. The first came at Limerick in December 2016, where he did well to hold off the charge of Surf Instructor and win by a head. He stepped up in trip to three miles at Wexford this summer as Walsh guided him to a 2 3/4 lengths win over Amaulino. In his last race, at Cork, he gave weight to all his competitors and thrashed the lot, finishing eight lengths clear of Jaime Sommers. Sterner tests await, but Coquin has strong breeding and fantastic potential.
Brighton & Hove Albion owner Tony Bloom has seen his beloved team reach the Premier League this season, but his sporting success does not end there. He also owns Penhill, a superb dual-purpose horse that has made a splash in both the jumps and flats. Trained by Mullins, Penhill romped to victory in the hugely prestigious Albert Bartlett at Cheltenham and looks to have a great future ahead of him. Mullins guided Wicklow Brave to phenomenal success in both disciplines and Penhill could follow in those giant footsteps.
This horse is a real giant and seems built for three mile trips and larger obstacles, so he should show his true ability this season. He is a 139 rated novice hurdler and has performed creditably thus far, but this should be the year when Nicholls gets the best out of him and spurs him on to success at his preferred trip.
Like San Bernedeto, Frodon has bags of experience and has always been there or thereabouts in all contests as he has stepped up in class. He has won seven of 14 career starts for Nicholls and has the ability to get much better, but he will find it difficult to deal with heavier weights this season.
Mullins’ mare draws an eclectic and famous group of owners: former England striker Alan Shearer, golfer Lee Westwood and TV stars Ant & Dec among others. They are likely to be well-compensated for their investment as she looks a terrific prospect. She has the pedigree – Yeats and Feathard Lady – to be a star and she blitzed the field on her bumper debut at Listowel. Expect to see her at Cheltenham, where she will be a threat to all comers.
Martin Green is an experienced tipster and horseracing correspondent.