Plenty of epic battles in store over the sticks

THE National Hunt season starts in earnest today with the first Grade 1 race of the campaign at Down Royal.

Darragh O’Keeffe is setting the pace in the jockeys’ championship. Rachael Blackmore is back in the saddle and Paul Townend’s return from injury will also be welcome.

Many promising claimers have put their names in the mix. Jack Foley and Michael O’Connor are being touted and used by shrewd judges. Shane Fitzgerald and Jordan Gainford have hit the ground running this season, as has Mark McDonagh.

Philip Byrnes made a good start to his professional career before a fall in Galway put that on hold. Bryan Cooper is getting back to where we’re used to seeing him.

Jack Kennedy is back in the swing of things and, along with Denis O’Regan and the return of the evergreen Davy Russell, it bolsters a strong list of riders in the Elliott camp.

Mark Walsh, Sean O’Keeffe and Danny Mullins will be looking forward to good seasons too.

The amateur championship should be interesting. Patrick Mullins will be hoping to be champion once again and win a big pot or two along the way.

Jamie Codd ran him close in last season’s title race and, now that he has given up riding in point-to-points, he could put in a strong challenge, with the large Elliott bumper team at his disposal.

Given Gordon’s recent absence from the scene, he has virtually no chance of taking the trainers’ crown from Willie Mullins this season, though it is not impossible that Henry de Bromhead could give it a right go. Honeysuckle should continue to dominate the Grade 1 hurdles scene, and stable companion Bob Olinger is arguably her biggest threat. The yard has plenty of top-class chasers, such as Minella Indo, A Plus Tard, Put The Kettle On and Envoi Allen.

Mullins still holds the upper hand though, with the likes of Chacun Pour Soi, Allaho, Al Boum Photo and Energumene waiting in the wings.

Losing Monkfish for the season is quite a blow for connections. His closest rival from last season, Latest Exhibition, after finishing fourth in the Irish Grand National, will revert back to hurdling for the year and could be very interesting for the Nolans.

Across the water, two I like in particular are Shishkin and Jonbon, both trained by Nicky Henderson. A half-brother to Douvan, Jonbon cost Mr McManus £570,000 after winning a point-to-point and then looked very good in a Newbury bumper win at the end of March.

Having won his last eight starts, Shishkin looks set to follow in the hoofprints of Altior by dominating the two-mile chase division.

Plenty to warm the soul over the winter months. Bring it on.