FOR many racing fans, this is quite simply the most wonderful time of the year.
On Friday, we return to Cheltenham as the 2023-24 jumps season kicks into gear.
Templegate has already been busy, telling you his top four punts for the season ahead.
But he's not the only one with high hopes, because at this time of the year, the dreams of trainers, jockeys, owners and punters are still burning bright and anything is possible.
Unless you backed Energumene antepost for the Champion Chase, in which case, my sympathies.
Yes, it’s time to dust down your flat cap, get the tweed to the dry cleaners and dig out your hip flask — an absolute essential to help you through those freezing afternoons at the races.
There will be more stories than you can shake a going stick at this jumps season — there always is — but one man in particular will be hell-bent on dominating once again.
Big horses in action this weekend
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Paul Nicholls has won 14 trainers’ titles and he is extra hungry to make it a fab 15, with good reason.
Another championship would draw him level with Martin Pipe, with whom, it’s fair to say, big Paul had a pretty feisty relationship.
In fact, their bitter rivalry very nearly came to blows after the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 1998 when Nicholls was left with steam coming out of his ears.
Pipe poached A P McCoy off Nicholls to ride Cyborgo — with the champ originally booked to ride See More Business — only for Pipe’s horse to carry See More Business out of the race.
As they waited in the chute at the track afterwards, Nicholls admitted he wanted to “wipe the f***ing grin” off Pipe’s “foxy face” before others intervened to cool the situation down.
The big five and their targets
1 Constitution Hill – Champion Hurdle
2 Galopin Des Champs – Gold Cup
3 El Fabiolo – Champion Chase
4 Bravemansgame – King George
5 Corach Rambler – Grand National
Nicholls later recalled in his autobiography: “Frankly, I was in the mood for violence and part of me still wishes I’d clocked Pipe.”
Absolutely tremendous stuff — so it’s a cast-iron guarantee Nicholls will celebrate another championship with extra gusto.
If he gets over the line, mind, because all-conquering Willie Mullins has long had a beady eye on the British trainers’ crown.
He has come close on a handful of occasions, most recently in 2015-16 when he took it down to the final day of the season.
It would not surprise me if Mr Mullins had a right good crack this winter . . . especially at some of Britain’s big early season races like the Betfair Chase with Galopin Des Champs and Tingle Creek with El Fabiolo.
If he is within striking distance of Nicholls post-Cheltenham, he will throw everything bar the kitchen sink at the title, of that there is no doubt.
Of course, Mullins is way ahead of everyone else at the Cheltenham Festival. He is just six short of the magic 100 winners at the meeting. Expect him to smash through that this season.
The jump jockeys’ title race is far from a foregone conclusion, too.
Sean Bowen has had a sensational start to the year and has raced onto 91 winners and is already the thick-end of 40 clear of Brian Hughes and Harry Cobden.
But I reckon it won’t take long for Cobden to begin eating into the deficit, especially with the proper winter horses starting to come out of hibernation. Bowen will have the support of Olly Murphy and Harry Fry, but I can see a big momentum shift coming and reckon it will be pretty tight when we head into the final knockings of the season.
By the time we crown the latest champion jockey, the beast that we know as Constitution Hill will — barring accidents or injury — have completed another perfect season and banked his second Champion Hurdle.
No matter what you think about Nicky Henderson’s decision to keep him over timber, Con Hill is the superstar of the jumps.
When he inevitably equals — or indeed breaks — Istabraq’s Cheltenham record of three Champion Hurdles there won’t be a dry eye in the house.
Key dates for 2023-24 jumps season
4 – Charlie Hall Chase (Wetherby), Ladbrokes Champion Chase (Down Royal)
18 – Paddy Power Gold Cup (Cheltenham)
19 – Greatwood Hurdle (Cheltenham)
25 – Betfair Chase (Haydock)
26 – Morgiana (Punchestown)
2 – Fighting Fifth (Newcastle), Coral Gold Cup (Newbury)
3 – Hatton's Grace (Fairyhouse), Scilly Isles (Sandown), Royal Bond (Fairyhouse)
9 – Tingle Creek (Sandown), Becher Chase (Aintree)
12 – John Durkan (Punchestown)
23 – Long Walk (Ascot)
26 – King George (Kempton)
27 – Welsh Grand National (Chepstow)
28 – Savills Chase (Leopardstown)
30 – Challow (Newbury)
7 – Lawlors Of Naas (Naas)
20 – Clarence House – (Ascot)
3 – 4 – Dublin Racing Festival (Leopardstown)
10 – Betfair Hurdle (Newbury)
17 – Ascot Chase (Ascot)
12 – 15 – Cheltenham Festival
11-13 – Aintree Grand National Festival
30 – May 4 – Punchestown Festival
Nor will there be if Corach Rambler, the Grand National hero who has quickly become the public’s horse, becomes the first since L’Escargot in the 70s to win the big one at Aintree and the Gold Cup. Whisper it, but there are quite a few shrewd judges who — despite the long shadow of Galopin Des Champs — reckon the 20-1 about Corach for Cheltenham’s showpiece is far too big.
But let’s not forget, it’s NOT all about those four days in March.
Nicholls would certainly agree about that as he loves nothing more than to plunder the big Saturday prizes.
In particular, we are about to embark on a golden period of jumps racing, starting here with the first day of Cheltenham’s October meeting.
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Next week it’s Charlie Hall Day at Wetherby, followed by the Badger Beers Chase at Wincanton and the Paddy Power Gold Cup back at jumps HQ.
Then the show rolls onto Haydock for the Betfair Chase, the Coral Gold Cup — formerly the Hennessy — at Newbury and the Tingle Creek at Sandown before the festive fun at Kempton a few weeks later.
What a time to be alive, and what a time to be a jumps fan.
And all you anoraks out there will notice it is a jumps season with a slightly different feel to it in 2023-24.
That’s because the boffins on the BHA’s Quality Jump Racing Review Group have tinkered with the fixture list to try and beef up competition on the track and get the Brits in fighting shape before the Irish invasion in the spring.
We will have to wait and see how it all plays out, but something tells me we will need more than just a shake-up to our programme of Graded races to stem the Mullins onslaught.
Anyway, that’s for another day.
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For now it’s all about the racing and the return of the jumps.
I, for one, can’t wait.
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