Cause for celebration at Sandown at jumping finale
As another jumps season draws to a close for racing fans, it’s difficult to know where attention should be focussed. Perhaps it should be on Nicky Henderson, who has beaten off pre-eminent handler Paul Nicholls and late blooming up-and-comer Colin Tizzard to surely secure a famous victory in the Trainers’ Championship. Or perhaps it’s Richard Johnson who deserves the plaudits, an unsung hero this year who will pick up his second Champion Jockey trophy, a year after finally dethroning the legendary AP McCoy at the top of the sport. There are several equine stars who deserve the limelight as well, though, from Henderson’s crack novice chaser Altior, who will be in action this weekend, to other stars of the season including triple-Gold Cup winner Sizing John, brilliant Champion Hurdler Buveur D’Air and the late, great Many Clouds, who died at Cheltenham in January shortly after becoming the first – and to date only – horse to beat the mighty Thistlecrack over fences. It’s been a mixed season in that way, seven months which have showcased just how much this sport is a rollercoaster of ups and downs.
On Saturday at Sandown, the official end of the 2016-17 National Hunt season, turf enthusiasts will not bear witness to the classiest card of the year, but clearly there’s plenty to reflect on, and in keeping with the name of the feature race of the day, the Celebration Chase, plenty to be happy about. But that shouldn’t overshadow some quality racing that will take place to draw the season to a close. Altior, the Arkle winner who has looked untouchable ever since being sent over hurdles almost two years ago, will take on shock Champion Chase winner Special Tiara in the final Grade 1 of the season. Henry De Bromhead’s charge may have been flattered at Cheltenham when odds-on favourite Douvan made a shuddering mistake at one of the first fences which caused him to come home lame, but there’s no doubt that this won’t be a walk in the park for Altior. Henderson maintains that he could be one of the best he’s ever trained, perhaps just as good as his imperious champion Sprinter Sacre, last year’s winner of this race and another horse who hasn’t come through to the end of the season having been retired in October.
Whatever happens on Saturday, we are left with so many questions as jump enthusiasts wait through the Flat action of the summer until October. Can Nicholls bounce back? Will Sizing John continue as the premier staying chaser in training? Who of the fine brigade of novices will come through to challenge for Festival glory next year? It feels like a long time until we find the answers to these mysteries, but don’t worry; before long, winter will be coming once more.
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