What a winter it has been in the world of jump racing. We have seen new stars emerge, old heroes regain their crowns and even a cyclist having a ride at the Cheltenham Festival!
At this time time of the year, we find ourselves looking back over the winter so with that in mind we have decided to put together our review of the 2015/16 National hunt season. Each of the contributors to www.jumpsracing.co.uk have been asked for their response to five questions and here they are. Feel free to let us know your selections.
How many of us truly believed that Sprinter Sacre would return to anywhere near his best form? The answer is not many but that is exactly what he did this season which means that Sprinter has to be my horse of the year.
His wins in the Shloer and Desert Orchid Chases were impressive but the there is no doubt that his most impressive moment came at Cheltenham when he won the Champion Chase for a second time. The moment he drew alongside Un De Sceaux at the top of the hill was a spine tingling moment and he managed to throw in a Celebration Chase win before the season was out as well. Enough said.
Race of the Season
For my race of the season we have to go back to Boxing Day and the 2015 King George VI Chase at Kempton Park. We saw a titanic clash between three great chasers and a finish that will live long in the memory of all that witnessed the race.
Don Cossack fell when bringing a challenge which left Cue Card to chase down Vautour and nab the prize in the shadow of the posts. Vautour ran a massive race but Cue Card ran a sensational race to claim a famous win and a better race we could not have asked for.
Horse to Watch Next Season
Willie Mullins and Rich Ricci have a plethora of talented young horses as you would expect but the one that made the biggest impression on me at Punchestown recently was Koshari. By the same sire as Douvan and Min, Koshari looked every inch the star when winning the 2m Novice Hurdle at the Punchestown Festival, especially as it was his first start under rules and we can expect him to form a major part of the Mullins team next season over hurdles.
Disappointment of the Season
The potentially serious injury suffered by Don Cossack really took the wind out of the sails of the Punchestown Festival and may well have robbed him of the rest of his career. He was the brilliant winner of the Gold Cup at Cheltenham so owes his connections nothing but a tendon injury can be a major problem for a horse and we can only keep our fingers crossed he is on the start line for the defence of his Cheltenham Gold Cup in 2017.
And another thing......
The dominance of Willie Mullins on the sport continues to split opinions but there is no sign of the glory years ending anytime soon. The powerful Irish handler dominated Cheltenham with the likes of Yorkhill, Douvan and Annie Power claiming big race wins but as we have already seen this spring with brilliant bumper horses like Blow By Blow, Bacardys and Battleford all impressing, and all set for hurdles next season, we can expect more Willie Mullins dominance for some time to come.
Horse of the season The likes of Douvan, Thistlecrack, Annie Power and Don Cossack are just a quartet of names that came to mind when crowning my horse of the season. However, an 11-year-old has sparkled in the latter part of the season for the second year in a row, as the Enda Bolger-trained On The Fringe has dominated the Hunter Chase division, and emulated last year's heroics of winning the big hunter chase prizes at the Cheltenham Festival, Grand National meeting and at the Punchestown Festival.
Yes, it may not be the toughest division, but real credit must go to the aforementioned Bolger, who has masterminded another dominant campaign with his veteran inmate, and who's to say he can't notch up another spring festival treble next season.
Race of the season A plethora of Grade 1 events will last long in the memory, but the 2015/2016 National Hunt campaign will long be remembered for the sensational race for the Trainers' Championship, as Paul Nicholls and Willie Mullins battled it out to the end, with the former prevailing to retain his champion trainer crown.
A dominant force in the Graded division this season, Mullins picked up some huge pots, but the visual celebrations of Nicholls as Vicente launched him back into the lead by winning the Scottish Grand National just showed how much it meant for the Ditcheat handler, with him cementing his lead on a memorable final day at Sandown Park.
Horse to Watch Barters Hill may have lost his unbeaten run when fourth in the Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle, but on the front end for most of that staying Grade 1 event he lost little in defeat, and the Ben Pauling-trained star could shape up into a top notch performer last term. Pauling is undecided as to whether to stick over hurdles or venture over fences, with him hoping to avoid the dominant Thistlecrack, but whichever path he decides for his stable star then he is one to watch in a host of elite staying races in the 2016/2017 season.
Disappointment of the season For decades to come the National Hunt aficionados will debate long into the night the unanswerable question of whether Cue Card would've got the better of Don Cossack in the 2016 Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup. A late tumble saw the strong-travelling Cue Card dislodge Paddy Brennan from the saddle, and the Irish star's victory will always be somewhat tarnished by people debating whether he would've been eclipsed by the departing Cue Card in the closing stages.
Jumping is the name of the game, so Don Cossack was the deserved the winner, but o how we'd love to have seen the two superstars fight it out up the Prestbury Park hill.
Something Else....... With Channel 4 Racing now passing the television baton to ITV racing for the 2017 Cheltenham Festival, many will have their say on the presenting squad for the new-look terrestrial coverage, but we can all live in hope that the camera work for next year's National Hunt extravaganza can provide the top-notch pictures the passionate fans deserve.
An obsession of zoomed in camera angles on the horses in the front rank can often leave punters unaware of developments behind the prominent horses, whilst a look back at Racing UK's coverage of the 2016 Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup handed more coverage of the C4 Range Rover down the back straight than the Gold Cup runners
Horse of the season Pretty hard to look beyond Don Cossack - four wins from five starts this term, with an averaging winning distance of 8.5 lengths is more than impressive, with the only loss coming when falling two from home in the King George, where there's no doubting he'd have given Cue Card plenty to think about on the way to the line. His win in the Gold Cup was hugely impressive and capped a great season for Gordon Elliott, providing enough evidence to suggest that the nine-year-old will be back in 16/17 to defend his
Race of the season It's not the obvious choice amidst some of the performances and finishes there have been this season, but the Foxhunter Chase was great for the profile of National Hunt racing. Victoria Pendleton's ride on Pacha Du Polder meant that the race rivalled the Gold Cup on day four of the Festival as far as press coverage went, and the Olympic gold medal winner didn't let her fans or media down by giving the Paul Nicholls trained runner a fantastic ride to finish fifth.
That was before favourite backers let out one of the loudest cheers of the week as favourite, On The Fringe, won the race for a second year running, but only after giving his supporters a fright, before taking the lead on jumping the last, before holding on to win by the narrowest of necks.
Horse To Watch Next Season It's been a while since the National Hunt had a legend and it would be nice to see Douvan and Thistlecrack to build on what they've achieved so far, and build a legacy within the sport.
However, in terms of one that excites from this season's novices ranks, Altior's Supreme Novices Hurdle victory at the Festival for Nicky Henderson seems to have got lost amidst the wealth of Willie Mullins winners. However, it was a mighty performance to blitz 13 rivals in the way he did and whether he stays over hurdles or is tried over fences, the six-year-old is one to be excited about come the Autumn.
Disappointment of the season Coneygree's leg injury. The 2015 Gold Cup winner breezed to victory on his seasonal debut at Sandown in November, before a setback in December saw him ruled out for the season. Fingers crossed he's back in full health next term.
Something Else....... I think special mention should go to Kerry Lee, in her first season as a trainer. Taking over her father, Richard's, license, Kerry had a tremendous season with a number of big race on Saturday afternoons, none more so than Mountainous in the Welsh Grand National. National Hunt racing doesn't have enough females standing toe-to-toe with their male counterparts, but this young and enthusiastic trainer has a very bright future.
Russell Palmer - Contributor
Horse of the Season -
I'd love to put up Cue Card having won three Grade 1's this season. However, with the Gold Cup the fly in the ointment, my selection goes to stablemate Thistlecrack who blitzed all-comers in the staying hurdle division this season. Five straight wins culminating in Grade 1 victories at both Cheltenham and Aintree Festivals amassing 40 lengths in winning distances in the process, Colin Tizzard has a special talent at his disposal.
Race of the Season -
There have been plenty of thrilling displays this season and the way Sprinter Sacre turned back the years winning the Queen Mother Champion Chase will live long in the memory. There wasn't a dry eye in the house as the Black Aeroplane soared up the hill at Cheltenham to win his second Queen Mother and a fifth success at Prestbury Park.
Horse to watch for next season -
When it comes to truly dominant performances, I won't be forgetting Apple's Jade obliteration of the 4yo's at Aintree last month. Reversing the Cheltenham form with Ivanovic Gorbatov, the filly absolutely destroyed the field in the AES Champion Four Year Old Hurdle in Liverpool by a massive 41 lengths. Staggering effort and one can only hope she's not restricted to mares contests next season.
Disappointment of the season -
Bishops Road. Pocket talking but it was gutting for Kerry Lee and connections that the eight year old missed the ballot for the Grand National by one. Compensation was sought in the Topham Chase 24 hours later but Jamie Moore was unseated at the first, a low point in what has been an unbelievable first season for Lee who I've no doubt will be back for another stab next Spring.
And another thing... -
When Rich Ricci casually stated on the Tuesday of the Festival that Vautour wouldn't be running in the Gold Cup but the Ryanair, contrary to what had been made public in the lead up to the Festival, it didn't sit right. Ultimately, connections hadn't broken any rules and Vautour went on land the Ryanair in fine fashion.
However, it leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of those who took Mullins and Ricci to their word and effected the betting for both races. Ironically, the two and a half mile trip of the Ryanair looks to be the horse's ultimate so let's hope there's plenty of transparency regarding Ricci's burgeoning fleet of horses next season.
Your Opinion Matters
As well as our opinions, we thought it was important to gauge our readers thoughts at the end of the season. We asked our social media followers who their horse of the year was and the results are in.........