Asian Maze

Made excellent progress last season and will not have to improve much more to be rated the second-best hurdling mare of all time. Remarkably, the queen of the smaller obstacles hailed from the same yard, the Mullins family’s Doninga in Co Kilkenny. But whereas big, butch Dawn Run, trained by Paddy, was, essentially, a gelding in disguise, Asian Maze, in the care of Thomas, is strictly a female female — a smallish, pretty chestnut. Versatile as regards distance, the eight-year-old fell when travelling well in the Champion Hurdle. In receipt of the distaff allowance, she will surely be a serious contender come March.

Celestial Gold

Since 1988, Martin Pipe has sent out 31 horses to try to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup, without success. It would, therefore, be deeply ironic if his son, David, were to succeed in his first season. Yet, in Celestial Gold, he has a contender. David Johnson’s talented, but frustrating, eight-year-old is not easy; the former pointer tends to go through life with the choke out and has run only six times in the past two years, including two Gold Cup failures. But when on song — as he was at Aintree in April, when he gave weight and a beating to a clutch of high-class performers — his form withstands the closest scrutiny.

Monet’s Garden

A striking grey by Roselier, he has progressed through the disciplines and ranks in classic fashion, winning his bumper, excelling as a novice hurdler, showing himself a smart staying hurdler and then, last season, emerging as just about the best novice chaser. His sole defeat in four runs over fences came as runner-up in the two-mile Arkle Trophy, the chosen contest of the past two Gold Cup winners, War Of Attrition and Kicking King, as novices. A particularly powerful, athletic jumper, and it is not difficult to imagine him keeping up the white Christmas tradition at Kempton on Boxing Day.

My Will

As his trainer Paul Nicholls predicted, the precocious French-bred found his second season over fences more difficult than the first, when he was one of the best two-mile novices. But though he failed to win last term, he was commendably consistent in nine runs, with seven places in the best handicap chase company — as when he finished a close third in the Betfred Gold Cup — and earned more than £80,000. Still only six, he will go into his third season as a seasoned campaigner with a touch of class for the Stewart family to go to war with in the big staying contests.

Kicks For Free

Proved one of the best, though not quite the best, bumper performers of last season — he was third in the big Cheltenham and Aintree contests — and now one of the most exciting novice hurdling prospects in champion trainer Paul Nicholls’s powerful team. Bumper form does not always translate over obstacles, but if this Flemensfirth five-year-old, owned by Trevor Hemmings, does as well as some of his stablemates who have graduated from the NH flat sphere — like Noland, Cornish Rebel and Thisthandtother — he will be well worth watching. Reported to be jumping at home like an old hand.

Esprit Saint

This strapping French-bred five-year-old has yet to race in Britain, but on his last run in his native country — at Pau in February — he easily beat French Saulaie, who won by 16 lengths on his British debut. Esprit Saint, by Mansonnien, has made the transfer from Guillaume Macaire to Alan King, who acquired last season’s Arkle Chase winner Voy Por Ustedes from the same source. And the latest chasing recruit, who will run for the Million In Mind owners’ group, is well-regarded enough to have a date at the Festival already pencilled in, though probably over the longer trip of the Royal & SunAlliance Chase.

Noble Request

If there is to be a challenger to the Irish hegemony in the Champion Hurdle, it may come from this flat-bred five-year-old, who ended last season as an eye-catchingly progressive handicapper. Noble Request, owned by Karola Vann, was acquired by Philip Hobbs after winning a 10-furlong Longchamp claimer in March 2004. Although it took him a while to reveal his potential over hurdles, he did so with a vengeance from the turn of the year. In his final outing, the grey showed a tremendous gear-change to take a valuable race at Sandown. He has bags of physical scope.

Charlie Longsdon

His red-letter day was on 12 October at Ludlow, when Royal Katidoki gave him the relief of his first winner as a trainer, before Neysauteur and Kerstino Two made it three within a week. Longsdon, 30, started with 17 horses in his care at Sezincote, near Stow-on-the-Wold, and set up his fledgling operation after serving his time with some of the best. From an eventing background, he spent his university gap-year with Nigel Twiston-Davies, then three years with Kim Bailey, five with Nicky Henderson and, after being awarded the Alex Scott Memorial scholarship, a further year with Todd Pletcher in the US.

Knowhere

The Lord Americo eight-year-old looked a special talent when he won a Grade Two hurdle on his second outing two years ago this week, but a setback meant he did not reappear again until he was pitched into a Grade Two chase at Cheltenham last January on his fencing debut. It proved too big an ask, and that was it for the season. But this term he has already won twice, by wide margins, and looks capable of much better as a staying novice. Patience is an essential quality around horses and trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies and owner Ray Mould may now be feeling especially virtuous.

Tom O’Brien

Being Aidan O’Brien’s nephew may have opened doors when he first came to England, but his own natural talent and modest, yet steely, temperament have taken this young jockey sensation galloping through them. The 19-year-old, who is attached to Philip Hobbs’s yard, finished last season as champion amateur, turned professional in June, and is currently lying third in the senior table to AP McCoy and Richard Johnson. He looks set to become the first conditional rider to notch a seasonal century. One day, the master of Ballydoyle may be known as Tom O’Brien’s uncle.

  • This feature was first published in Horse & Hound’s National Hunt special issue (2 November, ’06)