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Winless Ones To Watch: Henderson novice could be high class

By Dan Overall@OverandClear
Tue 20 Sep 2022

The fourth instalment of Dan Overall's five-part series outlining horses, who did not win last season, that he expects will pay to follow includes a youngster who Nicky Henderson believes could still develop into a high-class performer.


Click here to view Dan Overall's previous 'Winless Ones To Watch' columns.



AUTONOMOUS CLOUD

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Trainer: Fergal O’Brien.

Autonomous Cloud in action at Wetherby last season

Ideal races: Handicap chases over two-and-a-half miles plus.

Formerly trained by Colin Tizzard, for whom he won a bumper, he moved to Fergal O’Brien’s at the beginning of last season but didn’t get his head in front in three starts. However, it was a season of steady progression, which should stand him in good stead this time around.

Fairly weak in the market ahead of his stable, and hurdling, debut, he shaped with plenty of promise. Having raced a shade keenly in the early stages, he became outpaced on the run to the second last before staying on nicely, giving the distinct impression that he would improve for the run.

And he duly did when finishing a creditable third at Wetherby in a competitive novice hurdle and both the winner, and runner-up, in that race had amassed plenty of experience plus had achieved a solid level of form, with this trio pulling well clear of the remainder.

Ridden more aggressively on this occasion, Autonomous Cloud again looked one paced, but his finishing effort was strong.

He arguably should have won on his most recent start when narrowly beaten, and he made notable errors at two of the final three hurdles. The form isn’t easy to assess as the winner was making his hurling debut, and hasn’t been seen since, while the rest of the field, bar the front trio, were all sent off at triple-figure odds. The rival that dead-heated with Autonomous Cloud for second, Super Survivor, has won his other two starts over hurdles, though, so the race has some solidity.

While all three of his starts last season came over intermediate distances, he looks to be crying out for a step up in trip and his size, as well as his pedigree, would suggest that fences will be the making of him; by Flemensfirth out of a chase winner who is a sister to the formerly 140-plus rated Gala Ball, while she is also out of a sister to the top-class chaser, Voy Por Ustedes.

He will be effective over two-and-a-half miles when ridden positively, but he will be seen to best effect over three-miles plus, particularly as he begins to mature and fill his frame. Since the 2020-21 jumps season, Fergal O’Brien has an impressive 26 per cent strike-rate in handicap chases with chase debutants.

Owner Max McNeill says: “Autonomous Cloud will go novice handicap chasing. He’s a big brute of a horse who just needs time to grow into his frame”.


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BRIERY EXPRESS

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Trainer: Noel Williams.

Ideal races: Handicap hurdles over two-and-a-half miles.

Briery Express finished second at Wincanton in March

A mare whose last win came under Wayne Hutchinson, and who is now rated 99 wouldn’t be a conventional pick for a list such as this . . . but bear with me as I try to explain!

Briery Express showed a good level of promise during the 2018-19 jumps season. A winner of a mares’ bumper at Aintree, that is traditionally a strong race, she showed a good attitude and resolute stamina to beat a decent field, despite racing keenly in the early stages.

A good run in Listed company followed, which confirmed she was a good prospect without being a top-notcher before two rather disappointing efforts in the spring which, admittedly, came in strong contests.

However, given she would be off the track for 1045 days after her run at Aintree in April, it would be fair to forgive that effort.

Not many mares return from such large absences, so it was a pleasant surprise to see her back in February this year when making her hurdling debut as a nine-year-old. To call the race a mess would be an understatement; they crawled along over the first few furlongs before Billams Legacy carted her way to the front, forging a 20-length lead. Once the leader began to tire, Briery Express and the eventual winner, Corey’s Courage, went on before the former, rather understandably, tired late on. Given how long she had been off the track, and her pre-race market weakness, this was an encouraging effort.

She backed that up with a solid second at Wincanton, keeping on well to chase home the winner who made all. Again, she was notably weak in the market, which is worth bearing in mind.

Following those two efforts, she has been allocated an opening mark of 99. Based on the bare form of her starts over hurdles, this is about fair, but her earlier efforts in bumpers point to her being better than that and she appears to have retained plenty of ability.

The fact that connections have persisted with her must be somewhat of a pointer to their belief that she can win races over hurdles, and her lowly mark means there will be plenty of weak races to target. She will be of particular interest when stepped up in trip, having shaped like she wants further than two miles, and being out of a half-sister to Briery Queen (2m4f winner) and Briery Fox (3m winner).


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MACLAINE

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Trainer: Oliver Sherwood.

Ideal races: Handicap Hurdles over intermediate trips.

Watch how Maclaine fared on his latest outing at Newbury

Having fetched €70,000 as a three-year-old, Maclaine displayed a fair level of talent on his first three starts last season, despite clearly having plenty to learn.

Keen and green on debut, he arguably should have won but found himself blocked by a wall of horses as the race began to unfold. Once switched to the rail, it took a while for him to understand what was required, but he did keep on well to finish a close fourth. Admittedly, it was a weak bumper by Newbury’s standards, but Maclaine demonstrated enough to be optimistic about his future.

Keenness was his undoing on his hurdling debut, which came over two-and-a-half-miles. He was far from disgraced, though, and the race has worked out quite well, with the front three now rated 127, 134 and 138 respectively.

Dropped back to two miles for his most recent start, Jonathan Burke elected to hold him up in an attempt to switch him off. While still raw, there were signs that Maclaine was learning and the move he made to get into contention on the run to three-out was very eye-catching.

Ultimately, he was no match for Walking On Air and was narrowly denied by the 122-rated Hecouldbetheone for second, but it was another step in the right direction.

By Masked Marvel out of a full-sister to the useful stayer Wait For Me, his long-term future is likely to be as a staying-chaser, but he is capable of making an impact over hurdles in the meantime. He needs one more run to qualify for a mark, at which stage he will be of particular interest in handicaps over intermediate trips if learning to settle.

Oliver Sherwood says: “Maclaine was a very big backward baby last year, so we purposely didn’t give him much racing. He has summered very well and strengthened up quite considerably. He is a chaser in the making but will start over hurdles 2m-2.5m. I haven’t got any set plans for him at the moment.”


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RUSSIAN RULER

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Trainer: Nicky Henderson.

Ideal races: Novice hurdles (followed by handicaps) over two to two-and-a-half miles.

Russian Ruler shaped with plenty of promise in the Dovecote Novices' Hurdle

An impressive winner of a Warwick bumper in which he beat stablemate Surrey Quest, who is now rated 130 over hurdles, Russian Ruler was touted as one of the more promising novice hurdlers for Nicky Henderson ahead of the 2021-22 season.

And while it wasn’t smooth sailing, he showed enough to suggest it would be wise to keep the faith.

Not seen until January 2022, he raced with plenty of enthusiasm, giving his hurdles plenty of daylight in the early stages of the race. Having moved smoothly to challenge for the lead three out, he got in close to the second last, and didn’t respond to Nico De Boinville’s urgings as might have been expected, eventually finishing third. Henderson reported on his Unibet blog that he didn’t come out of the race well so, given the circumstances, this should still be considered a satisfactory hurdling debut.

By the time he was ready to run again, it was approaching the spring and connections were keen to preserve his novice status; or if he were to lose it, they wanted to win a big pot in doing so. As such, they targeted the Dovecote; a tough ask for an inexperienced youngster who has clearly had his share of training issues.

However, he ran a very credible race to finish fifth, although appeared to stumble after the last which may well have cost him a couple of places, as he looked set to finish third for much of the home straight.

Still only a five-year-old, he retains plenty of potential and he should have little problem winning an ordinary maiden/novice hurdle. Thereafter, he could develop into a useful handicapper although, being by Sholokhov out of a half-sister to the dam of Special Tiara, he may be at his best once sent over fences.

Nicky Henderson says: “He has just come in from his summer at grass and is looking and feeling very well. I’m afraid last season was an absolute disaster as following his win in a bumper the previous spring, I thought he would be one of our top novice hurdlers. I can only say we have done a minor wind procedure by cauterising his palate which may or may not make a difference. He will start as a novice hurdler this season although he will jump a fence in time. I thought he would be a high-class horse and hope that in time he will be one.”

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