Jess Stafford's top 10 Irish horses to follow this jump season
3 January 2024
It is the worst kept secret in racing that the Irish dominate and have been dominating National Hunt Racing for the last ten plus years. Glancing over Timeform’s top jumpers list, twelve out of the twenty current top chasers are trained in Ireland and sixteen of the top twenty hurdlers are also Irish based.
It is not just at the top level but within the handicap division too with Irish runners claiming five of the Cheltenham Festival handicaps. It is therefore crucial to keep on top of the plethora of Irish maidens, novices, handicaps, graded races across the twenty-four tracks in the island of Ireland as well as the Irish trained horses who opt for opportunities in the UK.
Here are my Irish horses to follow for the 2023/24 season…
GERRI COLOMBE (Gordon Elliott)
A horse who broke many hearts at the Cheltenham Festival in March, running a muddling race in the Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase, missing a few fences, getting slightly outpaced before staying on strongly to get within a short head of the winner, The Real Whacker. The son of Saddler Maker has the perfect profile pedigree wise to develop into a better, stronger stayer as he gets older so it was a relief as well as a thrill to see him win on his first run back in the Down Royal Champion Chase in November. That was his first go in open company and although it wasn’t the perfect performance he grinded it out against some class horses including Envoi Allen and Conflated. With the Gold Cup picture looking murky and the first & second in the 2023 renewal already being beaten this season, I think it is open for a new pretender to claim the title. How Gerri Colombe will be campaigned prior to that will be fascinating, the King George at Kempton mooted as an option.
GAELIC WARRIOR (Willie Mullins)
A Grade 1 winning hurdler as a five year old, this son of Maxios has switched to the bigger obstacles this term, the prospect of battling against his stable companion State Man over hurdles not that tempting (not least Constitution Hill in England!). That decision looked exactly the right one when he made a sparkling start to life over fences at Punchestown at the end of November. He had the field running ragged from a very early point. He looked like he was over racing but in fact his natural speed took him to the front and he kept the momentum up effortlessly, pinging the fences, eased down by 15 lengths at the winning post. Trip wise he looks versatile, having won a Grade 1 over hurdles over three miles but spending the majority of last season over two miles. He is a frighteningly exciting prospect.
BALLYBURN (Willie Mullins)
A striking looking individual, he has a classic NH pedigree – by the great Flemensfirth and out of an Old Vic mare. His dam matched so well with Flemensfirth that the breeders sent her to him seven times – producing two graded performers over staying trips including Minella Daddy and Novle Endeavor who was third in the Ultima at the Cheltenham Festival. However, Ballyburn looks like he could be the best of the lot. He has been campaigned patiently by his master trainer as Cheltenham was sidestepped for the Punchestown Festival last season. He comes into this season, looking to remain unbeaten and prove himself capable over hurdles. I have no qualms that this PTP winner cannot prove high class and fences one day will bring out even more in him.
AN TABOR (Henry de Bromhead)
He was well supported to win on debut over hurdles at Fairyhouse and he duly obliged, showing a very natural proficiency over hurdles. He barely had to break sweat on very testing ground and pleasingly the horse he beat into second has since come out and won. He will be worth following in all the top end novice hurdles this season.
ONLY BY NIGHT (Gavin Cromwell)
A daughter of Affinisea, a NH Sire to follow this season, this 5 year old mare is 2 from 2 since joining her new yard. She is a strong travelling type who was a winner of a listed bumper earlier in the season. She will be exciting over hurdles.
BRIGHTDAYSAHEAD (Gordon Elliott)
She’s made a perfect start to the season for her connections and is currently four from four, taking the step up into Graded company in her stride last time – winning a Grade 3 Mares Novice fairly effortlessly. She will be one for the Mares Novice Hurdle at Cheltenham.
FIRM FOOTINGS (Gordon Elliott)
He had a decent novice season which included a 6th place in the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockey’s Handicap Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival – a race that continues to turn out very well indeed. His stable companion, the very classy Imagine, was just ahead of him that day and looks to be a force to be reckoned with himself over fences this season but Firm Footings has stayed over hurdles. He is currently on a rating of 135 which could be just about right for a big field handicap over a staying trip over Christmas time.
JUDICIEUSE ALLEN (Willie Mullins)
Second on debut at Pau for her former trainer Gabrielle Leenders, she switched hands to Willie Mullins and will begin her campaign over hurdles around Christmas time. She comes from the prolific ‘Allen’ family which includes the Champion hurdler Espoir D’Allen, Envoi Allen and Il Etait Temps.
ONE LAST TANGO (Eoin Griffin)
For a trainer who has had a top start to the season, Eoin Griffin has a very interesting handicapping hurdler in the shape of the JP McManus owned One Last Tango. He returned from a break to run a very eye-catching fourth in a competitive handicap at Navan in November, shaping like a step up in trip will be worth exploring this term.
JOYSTICK (Willie Mullins)
In a division which the champion trainer is extremely strong in, this son of Coastal Path will be worth following wherever he goes. He’s described by his trainer as a ‘long, lean, real staying type’.
3 January 2024