End of season awards: National Hunt 2019/20

Brian Hughes held a commanding lead over Richard Johnson in the jockey's title before the season was suspended.
Brian Hughes held a commanding lead over Richard Johnson in the jockey's title before the season was suspended.

With the British Jumps season now essentially over due to the current situation surrounding the coronavirus pandemic, Nick Seddon has picked out his best moments from the past six months or so…

We’re living through concerning times, and although there are far more serious things going on in the world at present, it seems likely that we’ll be without racing on these shores for the foreseeable future. 

Indeed, the BHA has cancelled all British racing until the end of April at the very earliest - with Irish racing soon following suit despite initially continuing behind closed doors - meaning it’s a very concerning time indeed for the industry. 

The BHA will undoubtedly be keeping an eye on how things unfold over the next few weeks, but it seems likely that we have seen the last race of the 2019/20 National Hunt season. If that is indeed the case, it’s almost certain that Brian Hughes and Nicky Henderson will be awarded their respective titles as Champion Jockey and Champion Trainer, though with that still up in the air, it feels like a good opportunity to pick out some highlights.

Jockey of the year - Brian Hughes

We’ll start with the main awards, and although he will undoubtedly be crowned as champion sooner or later, it feels fitting to recognise Brian Hughes for his outstanding season. The transition from an A.P. McCoy monopoly to a title that’s been controlled by Richard Johnson has been so seamless that we’ve found ourselves bypassing annual title talk, and instead speculating whether the latter can go on to ride more career winners than the former - which would be a staggering achievement if he could pull it off. 

However, Brian Hughes has rather expertly broken the trend, and he deserves extra credit for doing so as an ‘unfashionable’ northern-based jockey. Glamorous rides have been at something of a premium for him at the best of times, but when he has had the opportunities, he’s excelled, and the fact that he’ll be just the third different champion in 25 years isn’t something to be scoffed at.

Of course, we could well have been talking about a five-time champion in Richard Johnson if he hadn’t have missed 39 days of the campaign with a broken arm in January/February, though it’s worth noting that he was three wins behind Hughes when suffering the injury, so either way we were enjoying a rather novel phenomenon in the Jumps Jockey’s Championship - a genuine title race. Indeed, it sets the stage for a fascinating rivalry over the next couple of years (or however long Johnson decides he can go on for), and it seems likely that we’ll have to get used to having close races for the title from now on. 

Notable mentions: Richard Johnson will still be the Champion Jockey for many, and he will undoubtedly be back for more next season, though one rider deserving of a tip of the hat is Sam Twiston-Davies. Things never quite clicked into place for him during his time as Paul Nicholls’ stable jockey, but the pressure that built up on his shoulders during his time at Ditcheat seems to have lifted since he turned freelance just under two years ago, and he’s been rewarded with an outstanding campaign. He’s had to work hard for his opportunities, ridding at some of the more unglamorous tracks on a few of the bigger Saturdays of late, but top notch rides on both Clan Des Obeaux and Riders Onthe Storm have proven that he is a man for the big stage, and still only 27, there’s still plenty of time for him to become a champion in his own right. 

Trainer of the year - Paul Nicholls

Although this year's Trainers' title was likely to go down to the wire, it's more likely than not that Nicky Henderson would just have shaded things, bearing in mind that he had a lead of just under £200,000 before racing was suspended. There's no doubt that Henderson and Nicholls are the Messi and Ronaldo of the training ranks, and like with the football, opinion is pretty split on who is the top dog.

I was lucky enough to head down to both of their yards in the build-up to this year's Cheltenham Festival, and their respective approaches to training couldn't be more stark. While Henderson is the glitz and glamour of the sport, much like Messi, Nicholls has the kind of industry that you would associate with Cristiano Ronaldo, and his attention to detail has seen him enjoy yet another stellar season. He may not quite have the same firepower as his great friend and rival, but he is blisteringly effective with the resources he has - something he showed when dominating this year's Queen Mother Champion Chase with Politologue and Dynamite Dollars, despite being left out of all of the talk in the build-up. Admittedly, things went his way on that occasion, with Altior and Chacun Pour Soi both non-runners and Defi Du Seuil clearly below par on the day, but his confidence in the build-up in both the ability of his horses and his own methods was striking. So much is made about the Cheltenham Festival - and of course it should be - but Nicholls constantly reminds us that there is life away from the greatest show on turf, and crucially, that there is money to be made elsewhere, too. For instance, when presenting his stars to the media, Nicky Henderson mused about how important a run at Cheltenham was in terms of their respective seasons. Meanwhile, Nicholls was plotting, and his comments on McFabulous were particularly taking.  

“I’ve entered quite a few of the handicappers knowing that they’ll get balloted out. For example, if McFabulous is balloted out of the Coral Cup - which he will be - he can run at Kempton in a £35,000 race on the Saturday, which will be made for him, so I put them in just because I know they’ll get balloted out," he said, when asked about the likely destinations of his handicappers. McFabulous would of course be balloted out of the Coral Cup as anticipated, and duly scooped the very pot his trainer had eyed up just 24 hours after the Cheltenham Gold Cup had finished. 

Notable Mentions: It would be rude not to tip the hat to Willie Mullins, whose unfashionable campaigning of Al Boum Photo duly paid dividends for the second year running. It's the sort of path to the Festival that doesn't buy you many supporters, as we of course want to see the big stars as much as possible, but nobody can get a horse to peak after a light campaign as expertly as Mullins, something he showed year after year with the wondermare Quevega. The likes of Presenting Percy and Native River have proven that it can be difficult to peak in the Gold Cup after light campaigns, something that the masterful Mullins has down to a tee.

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Horse of the year - Al Boum Photo

We're in a rather strange situation this year, as the majority of the horses who were established stars coming into the campaign have had their bubbles burst at some point along the road. Such comments ring particularly true for Paisley Park, who was the undisputed king of the ring in the staying hurdling division coming into the Festival, but something clearly wasn't right on the day (subsequently found to have a heart irregularity), allowing rank outsider Lisnagar Oscar to take full advantage. The same can be said for Altior, who never quite managed to bounce back from a bruising first try at two and a half miles on reappearance against the fearsome Cyrname - who came out on top on that occasion, but it clearly left its mark on him, too. A case can be made for awarding this to Epatante (we'll include her 'notable mention' write up in here), and although her two wins in Grade 1 company this term were certainly decisive, it can also be said that the two-mile division is the weakest that we've seen for a while, meaning she will need to prove her dominance against the graduating novices next term.

We're therefore rather quickly left with Al Boum Photo, who if you were describing in Jose Mourinho's terms would almost certainly be 'the unfashionable one'. It's hard to buy into a chaser who makes just the one outing before the Festival, but his annual pilgrimage to Tramore on New Year's Day has twice paid dividends, and while the rest of the division have struggled for consistency in gruelling assignments, he became the first horse since Best Mate to win back-to-back renewals of the Gold Cup - and just the seventh ever. There's still a feeling of doubt hanging over him, considering that he didn't do it by far this term - holding off Santini by just a neck - while his defeat to Kemboy at Puunchestown last May is still fresh in the memory. However, both of those rivals are above average staying chasers for this sphere, who were very much on home their respective home turfs, and unlike plenty in this division, Al Boum Photo gets the job done at Cheltenham. As a consequence, Al Boum Photo probably doesn't get the credit he deserves, and he'll likely be overlooked again next March after his one start of the campaign, but it's a method that works for him, and, like it or lump it, there can be no doubting that he's a star. 

Notable mentions: While it's certainly been the season of the burst bubble, it has allowed the nearly men to have their day, namely Politologue and Min. Both horses have found themselves firmly in the shadow of Altior over the past few seasons, but neither have ever done an awful lot wrong, and are top-class performers on their day. With Altior away this year, both were able to strike, with Min heading down the two and a half mile route in the Ryanair, and Politologue striking in the holy grail of the two-mile division itself. It was always said that good things come to those who wait! 

Race of the year - Yorkshire Silver Vase Mares' Chase, Doncaster

Much has been made of the revamped mares' programme in recent years, and the decision to add a Grade 2 Mares' Chase to the Cheltenham Festival schedule has certainly been met with skepticism in some spheres. However, some of the most likeable horses in training at the moment are mares, and three of them helped to serve up the race of the season over at Doncaster in December. Although there were at least five of the seven-runner field with legitimate claims, this quickly boiled down to a match race between three; La Bague Au Roi, Lady Buttons and Happy Diva. Unlike the other two protagonists, the first-named had endured a rather sticky start to the season, which came as something of a surprise on the back of a stellar season as a novice, which saw her win twice at Grade 1 level. However, she duly bounced back to form here, and it looked for a long way as though she would return to winning ways. She would eventually be outbattled by the tremendously game Happy Diva - who had won the BetVictor Gold Cup on her previous start - before Phil Kirby's Lady Buttons got in on the act down the outside, leaving it late in the day but eventually prevailing by an absolute whisker in a photograph.

Notable mentions: Nicky Henderson's Champ can certainly feel hard done by, considering he produced one of the most remarkable and unlikely-looking performances we've seen for a number of years to win the RSA Chase. Carrying the famous green-and-yellow silks of J.P. McManus, he showed the sort of never-say-die attitude we haven't seen in those colours since the likes of Synchonised and Wichita Lineman, and how he only hit a mere 719-1 in-running on the Betfair Exchange, I'll never know.

Rising Star (equine) - Truckers Lodge

There are plenty of obvious contenders for this award - who I'll mention below - though it was hard not to be taken by Truckers Lodge this term. The eight-year-old has become such a staple fixture in the staying chasing division this term that it's easy to forget that he's still a novice, and he followed up a fine effort to finish second in the Welsh National at Chepstow in December (on just his fourth start over fences), by going one better in the Midlands National at Uttoxeter earlier this month. He's going to be a regular in this sphere for several more years yet, and it definitely feels as though there's room for manoeuvre off his revised official mark of 155, despite being put up an eye-watering 14 lb by the handicapper. He has stamina in abundance, and although his last two starts have come in bottomless conditions, it isn't a necessity. It seems likely that his campaign will be tailored around a tilt at the Grand National next term, and he'll be fascinating to follow. 

Notable mentions: Staying out of the box for a moment, another eight-year-old who looks a staying chaser to follow is Bob Mahler, who himself won a regional variation of the Grand National up at Musselburgh last month. He's since finished a fine third in the Kim Muir, staying on all the way to the line, and his trainer Warren Greatrex has indicated that he too will be aimed at Aintree next season. Meanwhile, in more conventional circles, it's difficult not to be impressed from what we've seen from each of Goshen, Envoi Allen and Champ this season - and all three will almost certainly enjoy stellar careers (the latter looks a Gold Cup winner in the making).

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Rising Star (human) - Phil Kirby

It's perhaps unfair to refer to Phil Kirby as a 'rising star' considering that he's been around for quite some time now, but slowly but surely, he's getting opportunities to make his mark on the bigger stages - and he's taking them. The influx of several big-name equine stars into the yard courtesy of the flamboyant owner Darren Yates in early 2019 felt like a watershed moment for Kirby, and although that particular partnership ended bizarrely and as quickly as it had started, it's something that hasn't phased Kirby. Indeed, while he hasn't quite matched the previous campaign numerically, Kirby's consistently been in the limelight thanks to his star mare Lady Buttons, while his training performance with Top Ville Ben has been particularly taking. The eight-year-old looked a clear non-stayer when being collared in dramatic circumstances in the Rehearsal Chase over three miles at Newcastle in November, but Kirby was adamant that the key to his horse was getting him to settle, a theory supported by the fact that he had run far too free in the Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby earlier that month. Top Ville Ben would be back in Yorkshire for his next start, and under a more cunning ride from Thomas Dowson, he duly took apart the field to win the Rowland Meyrick Handicap Chase over the same trip. It was a win which allowed his owners to dream of a tilt at the likes of the Grand National and the Cheltenham Gold Cup, and it's likely that Top Ville Ben won't be the last graded performer to hail from his Richmond yard.   

Notable mentions: The talents of Jonjo O'Neill Jr are far from a secret, but the young rider is going from strength to strength, and February felt like a breakthrough month for him. Racking up notable wins on the likes of Native River, Copperhead and Mister Malaky, O'Neill is quickly proving he's a jockey capable of operating on the big stage, and it won't be long before his name is cropping up far earlier in this article. 

Story of the year - Lostintranslation

While Lostintranslation is clearly a star in his own right, his owners have a heartwarming story of Hollywood proportions, something which came out in full and emotional detail following his emphatic win in the Betfair Chase at Haydock in November. The horse was purchased in the aftermath of a terrible tragedy suffered by co-owner Paul Taylor and his family in 2015 - which saw Charlie Taylor, three, accidentally run over and killed by his own grandfather. While nothing can ever compensate for such a terrible accident, the fact that the sport of racing has been able to offer some comfort and delight to his owners is heartwarming, and long may he continue to shine in the little boy's memory - carrying the bright yellow colours of his favourite cartoon characters the Minions.

Notable mentions: Everyone loves a stout old veteran who carries on performing into his teenage years, and it was heartwarming to watch the battle-hardened Loose Chips pick up his 11th career success in a veterans' handicap at Plumpton in January at the ripe old age of fourteen - and not only did he win, he did it comfortably! 

Wooden Spoon Award - Ghost Serge

Like with everything in this world, it can't all be positive, and the five-year-old Ghost Serge certainly can't be commended for his attitude. He was a regular performer for both Archie Watson and Sophie Leech, but he mustn't have liked the feed at the David Pipe yard, refusing to race in each of his first two outings for his new trainer - with the first of those being at Lingfield in December. Both of those starts came over hurdles, so Pipe switched his maverick back to more familiar territory on the all-weather, and while the penny seemed to have finally dropped when he put everything together to win on his fourth start for the yard at Wolverhampton in January, he duly refused to race on his follow up bid five days later. Go figure!

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