Five Grade 1 Winners on the Comeback Trail This Jumps Season

Recent National Hunt horse racing history has its share of Grade 1 comeback stories. Think Sprinter Sacre achieving his “impossible dream” of the regaining the Queen Mother Champion Chase or the “Second Coming” of Samcro at the Cheltenham Festival this spring.

An injury is not necessarily the end for racehorses. Returning from a spell on the sidelines is not easy, but part of the challenge of this sport.

Looking ahead to the new jumps campaign, here are five previous winners at the highest level out for their very own Grade 1 comeback. Don’t forget about or discount these National Hunt horses, because they still have something to offer.

Topofthegame

Paul Nicholls lost 2019 RSA Chase winner Topofthegame before last season had even begun in earnest. Through tender handling of this eight-year-old son of Flemensfirth, however, he has been getting this horse ready for this season.

Topofthegame has the ultimate target of all RSA victors, the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Getting there and earning a Grade 1 comeback sees Nicholls taking the so-called “Denman route” with him.

For those who don’t understand that jargon, Topofthegame must prove he still retains ability by going for the Ladbrokes Trophy. On the face of it, that means carrying (close to) top weight in a Grade 3 handicap.

However, this is a race of that level in all but name. The 3m 2f event, known for many years as the Hennessy Gold Cup, is the centrepiece of the Winter Carnival at Newbury.

Nicholls holds the rare distinction of riding and training two different horses to win it. Recent renewals haven’t lived up to the race’s illustrious roll of honour, though.

Can Topofthegame reverse that trend? The bookies clearly think so as he is a top-price 8/1 favourite with Betfair for Ladbrokes Trophy glory.

It will then be a Gold Cup prep run on the upgrade in the Denman Chase, also at Newbury but in February. Topofthegame also holds ante post quotes of 16/1 with BetVictor for the big one at Cheltenham in March.

Those odds won’t be that long if he wins one, other or both of those outings. That is because the RSA form has been held up by those who finished in-behind Topofthegame – Santini and Delta Work.

Sam Spinner

Grade 1 staying hurdler Sam Spinner won his first chase starts by hook or by crook last season before picking up a pelvic problem. Very much the stable star at the yard of Yorkshire trainer Jedd O’Keeffe, it will be fascinating to see how this northern raider is campaigned upon his autumn return.

It is a good thing that the handicapper did not take 38 lengths win in a Grade 2 novice chase at Doncaster literally. A 3lb rise for that puts him on a mark of 162 over fences – just 2lb below his peak hurdles rating.

A graduation or intermediate chase, like those run at Carlisle and Sandown with Listed status, seem obvious starting points for Sam Spinner. The Colin Parker at the former venue is over 2m 4f, while the latter race is a 3m test.

Sam Spinner could clash with Topofthegame in the Ladbrokes Trophy with bookmakers pricing him at a general 25/1. He will need to jump with greater fluency to make an impression in a race like that.

If able to brush up on his technique over fences, then a tilt at the 2021 Grand National does not seem so outlandish. You can get 66/1 at Unibet about Sam Spinner for the Aintree showpiece.

That may seem far-fetched for a horse with so little experience over fences, but the son of Black Sam Bellamy shouldn’t be found wanting on stamina ground. Watch this space with Sam Spinner!

Next Destination

It’s not just Sullivan Bloodstock switching horses from Willie Mullins’ yard in Ireland to Ditcheat. Malcolm Denmark is another owner to send Nicholls a top prospect in Next Destination.

Off the track since the 2018 Punchestown Festival where he landed a second Grade 1 novice hurdle, there is much to establish about him. After over two years on the sidelines, can Next Destination make up for lost time and into a novice chaser?

It will be a free hit however and wherever he makes his debut for Nicholls. The penalty structures in National Hunt horse racing are not so cruel that they stretch back two seasons.

The bookmakers are unlikely to miss Next Destination when next in action, though. Like fellow eight-year-old and new stable companion Topofthegame, he holds a victory over Irish Gold Cup winner Delta Work.

Next Destination is highly likely to need his comeback run, but a watching brief could be wise for punters. Nicholls says the plan is to take him over fences.

That means there are a couple of Cheltenham Festival quotes to note. Next Destination is 33/1 ante post for both the RSA and National Hunt Chase races next March.

Champagne Classic

Nine-year-old Stowaway gelding Champagne Classic has already had an injury interrupted career before his latest setback. The 2017 Martin Pipe winner at Cheltenham went on to Grade 1 glory at Punchestown and then spent 641 days off.

His Festival win over hurdles there reads very well indeed. In behind Champagne Classic that day were Penhill, Al Boum Photo and Presenting Percy. Unless you have been living under a rock, there are or were all serious Grade 1 horses.

Unfortunately, Gordon Elliott’s charge has not been straightforward. Champagne Classic has shown plenty of ability over fences when making his first return, however.

While a Grade 1 comeback looks unlikely, could this Gigginstown House Stud owned horse be a Grand National contender? Champagne Classic was prominent in the National Hunt Chase betting off the back of three fine runs last year.

Although another injury put paid to another Cheltenham Festival outing, the bookies don’t quite know what to make of his Aintree chances. It’s rare to find a horse varying so wildly in price with Champagne Classic as big as 50/1 and short as 20/1.

He will be 10 come the Grand National, but is on an attractive chase mark of 151. That is 1lb higher than his hurdles rating and should get him in on a handy weight at Aintree.

Buveur D’Air

Equine injuries have rarely looked so gruesome as what happened to Buveur D’Air when bidding for his hat-trick in the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle. If horses could talk, they would probably tell you the last thing they want is a piece of hurdle sticking out of a hoof.

It is not certain that Nicky Henderson’s dual Champion Hurdle hero will return. However, if there is one horse at Seven Barrows capable of making a Grade 1 comeback, then it’s Buveur D’Air.

Like long-time stable companion Altior, whose own lameness ruled him out of Cheltenham, he has been a magnificent servant. Owner JP McManus could pack Buveur D’Air off to Martinstown for retirement and nobody would think less of him.

Who doesn’t like seeing these popular veterans, these old favourites taking one more tilt at glory? If Buveur D’Air does return, then he won’t have long-time partner Barry Geraghty on board following his own retirement.

It’s a nasty injury for a horse rising 10 come the winter to bounce back from. Odds of 25/1 with William Hill for a belated third Champion Hurdle crown in 2021 are available.

That suggests Buveur D’Air may have had his day, but the 2m hurdling division is not what you would call strong. Altior, who is older, arguably looks more vulnerable pursuing a Grade 1 comeback.

Henderson brought Sprinter Sacre back to Cheltenham Festival glory. It would be brave to bet against him doing likewise with Buveur D’Air, for all the yard has reigning champion hurdler Epatante in it too.

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