See You Then, Sprinter Sacre, Long Run . . . more wins at the Cheltenham Festival than any active trainer . . . Remittance Man, Binocular, Simonsig . . . champion British jump trainer three times . . . Punjabi, Bobs Worth, Oscar Whiskey . . . more than 500 wins in the last five seasons . . .
But English trainer Nicky Henderson will talk about Hunt Ball all day long.
The steeplechaser – who left the Lambourn yard for the United States last week – made that much of an impact. The 10-year-old gelding, owned by a partnership of Americans since 2013, runs in Saturday’s $300,000 Grand National at the Far Hills Races and will remain in the U.S. with trainer Elizabeth Voss. Henderson understands why, but is sad to see him go.
“Someone asked me the other day, ‘Do trainers have favorites?’ ” Henderson said Thursday. “I said you do and they’re not necessarily the best ones. You’ve got champion hurdlers, nice chasers, Sprinter Sacres in your barn, but that doesn’t make them your favorite. If I had to name one everybody would nominate as their favorite on this place it would be Hunt Ball. He’s a lovely horse.”
The Irish-bred has led a storybook life, rising from the bottom of English jump racing to the top with starts at Cheltenham, Aintree, Saratoga and Belmont Park on his 36-race chart. The latest chapter involves a return to the U.S., where he lost four times in 2013. Racing for Atlantic Equine, Henderson and English-based jockey Andrew Tinkler, Hunt Ball is one of nine in Saturday’s 2 5/8-mile Grade 1 test. He’ll have to improve off his American form to threaten the likes of Demonstrative, but arrives off three wins over hurdles for Henderson.
The trainer would not be surprised by a good effort.
“He’s in good form,” Henderson said. “I know it didn’t work the last time he was over and it might not work this time, but he’s in good form, doing everything well.”
That good form includes a final bit of work that impressed even his trainer. Hunt Ball will never be confused with American Pharoah in morning exercise, but gave it one final go last week.
“You would think he is absolutely useless in his works, his work is appalling,” Henderson said. “The last bit of work here I gave him a slap on the neck walking out of the yard and said ‘Go on old boy, it’s the last time you’re going to do this over here.’ It was the best work he’d ever done. Hysterical.”
Bred by Michael Slevin, Hunt Ball lost his first two starts by a combined 90 lengths, the second at 100-1 odds. He was pulled up in his third run, and placed fourth of five in his fifth. Undaunted, then owner Anthony Knott (a dairy farmer from Dorset) and trainer Keiron Burke pressed on. Hunt Ball won seven of his next eight starts – rising through the British handicap ranks from a rating of 69 to 154 after a handicap chase win at the Cheltenham Festival in 2012. Famously, or infamously, Knott was fined £100 for jumping on the back of Hunt Ball with jockey Nick Schofield after a victory at Wincanton.
Hunt Ball came back to earth a bit, but landed another handicap chase at Taunton in 2013 and placed third behind Champion Court at Cheltenham. Knott’s woes continued when he was fined for a publicity stunt involving bookmaker Paddy Power (and Hunt Ball and some paint) at the Cheltenham Festival. Led by Nick Carter and Steven Price, a group of Americans bought Hunt Ball shortly thereafter, though Knott wasn’t through as he was banned in England for three years for supplying inside information about another horse for a bettor.
Hunt Ball seems to have risen above it all, despite four failed starts with Jonathan Sheppard in 2013.
The son of Winged Love struggled with the quickness of American jump racing and returned to England where Henderson took over the training with the lofty goal of the English Grand National at Aintree.
Hunt Ball got there, finishing third in Ascot’s Betfair Chase in February and fourth in Cheltenham’s Ryanair Chase in March. He traveled and jumped well for more than 3 miles in the English Grand National, but tired late to place 17th of 18 finishers in the classic. Hunt Ball made seven more chase starts for Henderson, finishing second at Cheltenham at the start of this year and placing fourth in the Topham (over the Grand National course) at Aintree.
Looking for a way to get the horse prepped for another American campaign this fall, Henderson thought differently and went hurdling. The smaller English jumps normally reward speedy types, but Hunt Ball thrived – winning all three starts against overmatched novice foes.
“The point of that was he was a novice over hurdles,” Henderson said. “There are no steeplechases for a horse of his caliber at this time of the year. You can’t run horses as highly rated as he is. But, luckily he’d never won a hurdle race in his life. It was just a matter of getting three races before he went to America. He fit, no one took him on and they were three nice easy races.”
Hunt Ball won at Fakenham and Worcester in May, and returned to Worcester to win again Sept. 8 – all at roughly 3 miles. English hurdles are smaller than the American fences he’ll jump Saturday, but Hunt Ball has been schooling over what the English call brush hurdles at home.
“He’s very badly handicapped (over chase fences) in England,” Henderson said. “He’s 10 pounds below the top horses. He’s very difficult to win with. Now he’s had three easy races, and comes into this race quite confident in himself. He’ll give them some fun.”
Henderson won’t make the American trip, but dispatched Hunt Ball and an assistant to Michael Dickinson’s farm in Maryland for final preps. From there, the horse will ship to New Jersey Saturday before joining the Voss string. In addition to Hunt Ball, several former Henderson runners will be active on the day – One Lucky Lady in the Peapack, Jack Frost in the Foxbrook and Dawalan in the Grand National.
“I would have loved to have come because it’s been years since I’ve gone racing in America,” Henderson said. “Got to stick to the day job. We’ve got a lot on here. Dawalan should run well. I was thinking that by selling him to America he wouldn’t get in my way. I didn’t want to sell him in England and have to run against him, and here we are running against him.”