With 19 races completed, the 2016/17 Challenger Series is now in full flow and we have seen some impressive performances and some horses to keep an eye on in the future.
The new Mares Chase Series has been embraced by many of the trainers and looks to be a great additional to the £300,000 Finals Day card at Haydock Park on 15 April 2017. So far two key races from last year have been ran, the 2m Hurdle at Kempton Park, where the eventual 2m champion Thunder Sheik succeeded and the Stayers Hurdle race at Cheltenham where Albert Bartlett winner Unowhatimeanharry gained his first win of the season.
2m Hurdle Series
The first race in the series at Kempton Park was won by Herons Heir for Bridget Andrews and Dan Skelton. Despite being keen for most of the race he was produced to lead at the last and ridden out to win by a length. Herons Heir has since made a step up in class, again raced keenly, and was beaten by 2+ lengths. That race was on a much slower surface and he could be a different animal back on a sounder surface in the spring.
Next up we had races at Wetherby and Huntingdon which looked much more competitive heats. Eyes Of A Tiger was a comfortable winner at Wetherby for the Brian Ellison team after an enterprising ride by conditional jockey Nathan Moscrop from the front. No qualifiers have ran since but there were a number of previous winners in this field and the form looks strong. Irish challenger Baby Jake came out on top in a thrilling finish at Huntingdon under a strong Rachael Blackmore drive. He was headed up the run in but managed to get back up close home and could be a big threat if making the trip back across the Irish Sea in April.
Wizards Bridge provided a first ever win for Angus Cheleda at Chepstow.
Stayers Hurdle Series
First qualifier in the series was a momentous moment for 17-year-old jockey Angus Cheleda on Wizards Bridge. A perfect start to his riding career at Chepstow made it a day to remember. Since then Wizards Bridge reverted to chasing and was soundly beaten (under a different jockey) but maybe come Finals Day we could see Angus back on him over hurdles which could bring a much different result.
The Conditional Jockeys Handicap Hurdle at the Cheltenham Open Meeting always produces a number of horses to follow through the season and this year looks no different. Behind Time was a good winner on only on his fourth start under Kieron Edgar, despite being very green up the run in, he could be anything. Another unexposed sort from the race that is worth keeping an eye on is Ballyarthur, who was sent off favourite and is sure to improve.
As the Stayers Series has gone on the quality has increased. The latest race at Uttoxeter was won by 2014 Gold Cup contestant Cloudy Too for Sue Smith. Despite some wild jumps to the right and being ridden a long way out, Cloudy Too stayed on gamely to shake off Lower Hope Dandy up the run in. Whether the conditions will be as testing come April is yet to be seen but this formally high class chaser could be a notch above the rest of the field.
Mares Hurdle Series
The first and third races in the Mares Hurdle Series are closely related on form. The first winner at Sedgefield, Ten Trees, made a good start to the season when coming out on top of Mo Chailin which turned out to be a two horse race up the home straight. Alan Swinbank’s mare was going for two series wins from two at Market Rasen. She looked to be badly outpaced three out but rallied strongly and looked the winner only to be beaten on the line by Pam Sly’s outsider Bonnet’s Vino.
Sandwiched in between these two races was the second qualifier at Towcester where Graceful Legend prevailed, making fitness tell against David Pipe’s Bella. She was unable to follow up at Uttoxeter on a much slower surface and may be another to watch in the spring on better ground.
For the final race of the series so far we went south to Ascot where Paul Nicholls’ Lifeboat Mona was impressive in taking her record to 3/4 over hurdles. She was shaken up 2 out and readily went clear to win easily by eight lengths. This lightly raced six-year-old looks sure to improve as the season goes on and is one to follow.
Vikekhal was successful for Gary Moore and William Clarke at Warwick.
3m Stayers Chase Series
The 3m Stayers Chase also provides races with interlocking form. The first race of the series was won by the Malcolm Jefferson trained Ballyben who came from off the pace impressively to beat the formerly high class Harry The Viking. He then tried to follow up at Ayr in the third race of the series (0-135) but was readily beaten by Viva Steve despite receiving 9lbs. Viva Steve ran at the Cheltenham Festival this year and if he stays within the handicap bracket could be a major player at Haydock.
The other race in the series hailed from Warwick in a small field affair. The form is hard to evaluate in what normally turns into a tactical battle in three runner races but the 2/5 favourite Brownville was readily beaten by Gary Moore’s Vikekhal. This seven-year-old looks relatively unexposed over the longer trips and and with valuable claimer William Clarke getting on with him so well, he could be one to follow.
Middle Distance Chase Series
The Middle Distance Chase Series started at Musselburgh, where Seefood benefited from this drop down in class on his fourth run for Dr Richard Newland. He is clearly highly regarded after being pitched into Listed company on his second start for the yard and if the handicapper lets him be kept at this level will surely go in again.
Next up was Bangor-on-Dee where Mumgos Debut made it 2/2 under Grant Cockburn for Lucinda Russell. The handicapper hadn’t moved him for his Hexham win and duly obliged again in this qualifier. However, he was put up 10lbs for that win and was found out at Uttoxeter when in receipt of 7lbs (10lbs with the riders claim) and looks too vulnerable at a higher level.
The final race of the series came from Kempton Park where there were four unseats, the most notable Uhlan Bute who was streaking clear when coming down at two out leaving the race at Mercers Court mercy. The win should not be understated, after some questionable jumping he still managed to get his head in front on what seems an unfavourable softer surface.
Kilronan High after winning at Hereford.
Mares Handicap Chase Series
The inaugural Mares Chase Series has been embraced by yards of all sizes and has produced some good winners. The first race of all the Challenger Series was won by Neil Mulholland’s Ballydague Lady under a good tactical ride from the Champion Jockey. She has since gone in again at Warwick despite a 6lb rise and clearly relishes a sounder surface.
The other two races have come from Hereford and Fakenham. The former was a closely contested battle in which Kilronan High came out a smooth winner after asserting off the final bend. She had been previously running creditably in Listed company and is another that if kept to this level could be a major player. The final mares races ended up being a two runner affair up the home straight, when the hat-trick seeking Dawnieriver was just touched off by Queen Spud. This mare clearly has a liking for Fakenham making it 4/4 at the track and will need to be able to transfer this course form in May.