Who will be this season's headline makers in National Hunt?

By Cornelius LysaghtBBC horse racing correspondent
Tiger Roll jumping a fence
Tiger Roll has won the past two Grand Nationals

As BBC Sport makes its first visit of the season to jump racing's HQ at Cheltenham for a meeting between 15 and 17 November, I consider some of the names who are expected to make the headlines in the months ahead.

The trainer

Few rookie National Hunt trainers in recent years have made a bigger impression than Harry Whittington and his 43-horse string based on the edge of the Lambourn racing centre in Berkshire.

Whittington, who formerly concentrated on readying horses to join leading trainer Nicky Henderson, made an early impression when winning a Grade One race at the Aintree Festival just as his career was taking off in 2016.

But the celebrations were barely completed before the horse concerned, the highly rated Arzal, died as a result of a serious infection.

Now, however, Whittington looks to have a replacement rising star in smart chaser Saint Calvados, owned by Kate and Andrew Brooks.

A change from front-running tactics seemed to work well when successful in impressive style for jockey Gavin Sheehan at Cheltenham in October.

And despite a big weight in the handicap for the BetVictor Gold Cup, the track's autumn feature, a bold showing against warm favourite Slate House is expected, en route perhaps to even bigger and better things for all concerned.

The history-maker

No horse's reappearance during the 2019-20 jumps season will be more eagerly anticipated than that of two-time Grand National winner Tiger Roll.

Exact plans are still to be confirmed, but it's to be hoped that a historic third victory on the trot will be sought at Aintree in April.

While the Irish hero will never supersede 1970s star Red Rum, a household name with three (non-consecutive) successes and two runners-up spots, further glory would give new generations of enthusiasts an icon they have actually seen in action.

It was at Cheltenham a year ago that trainer Gordon Elliott began the last campaign by the nine-year-old - part of the Gigginstown House Stud racing operation, which aviation tycoon Michael O'Leary is cutting back - but he's expected to wait until after the new year this time.

And a landmark success at Aintree is not the sole target: the diminutive Tiger Roll is a giant at Cheltenham too. He will attempt to add a remarkable fifth Festival trophy to his tally in March when he contests the Cross Country Chase which he won in 2018 and 2019. He's also been successful in the Triumph Hurdle and National Hunt Chase.

Jockey Keith Donoghue has been the 'pilot' at recent Festivals, while Davy Russell is expected to be back at the controls for any Grand National tilt, though Gigginstown's exact riding arrangements have been the subject of feverish speculation.

The jockey (part one)

After living in the shadow of AP McCoy during his time as champion jump jockey, Richard Johnson has been the title-holder in the four seasons since McCoy's retirement in 2015.

But now the 42-year-old is facing what may prove his stiffest challenge to date, from Brian Hughes.

Brian Hughes celebrating a Cheltenham win
Hughes has ridden more than 100 winners in each of the past five campaigns

Hughes, who has worked his way up to become the leading rider based on Jump racing's north of England and Scottish circuit, would be the first champion based in the North since Jonjo O'Neill in the 1979-80 season - although Hughes and three other Northern-based riders have been champion conditional jockey (the competition for apprentice National Hunt jockeys) since the turn of the century.

The winner of 100-plus races for each of the past five campaigns, Hughes has enjoyed a lucrative run working with a long list of trainers, particularly Donald McCain and Keith Dalgleish.

While Hughes insists he won't be thinking about his championship prospects until Christmas, many good judges are predicting that, at the very least, he'll be pushing Johnson all the way through to the season's finale in the spring.

The jockey (part two)

Expectations are high for female jockeys in the new campaign.

Katie Walsh, now retired as a jockey, shares a joke with Bryony Frost and Rachael Blackmore at Aintree
Katie Walsh, now retired as a jockey, shares a joke with Bryony Frost and Rachael Blackmore at Aintree

Racing had plenty to shout about during the 2018-19 season with Bryony Frost champion conditional jockey in Britain and Rachael Blackmore running Paul Townend close in the title race for fully fledged professional riders in Ireland.

In addition, Frost, Blackmore (twice) and Lizzie Kelly all won at the Cheltenham Festival, 12 months on from Kelly, Bridget Andrews and two other female riders visiting the Festival's hallowed winners' circle.

Frost, Blackmore and Andrews all have the invaluable backing of prolific strings - respectively, champion trainer Paul Nicholls, Henry de Bromhead and Dan Skelton - while Kelly has recorded winners aplenty with the teams under the care of both her mother Jane Williams and - now separately - her stepfather Nick, so more stellar achievements are anticipated.

The returning heroes

Altior, winner of the past two stagings of the two-mile Queen Mother Champion Chase at the Cheltenham Festival and unbeaten in all of his 19 races over obstacles, is back - albeit in a slightly different guise.

Owner Andrew Gemmell enjoys Paisley Park's Cheltenham triumph
Owner Andrew Gemmell enjoys Paisley Park's Cheltenham triumph

Nicky Henderson and jockey Nico de Boinville are to increase the distance over which they ask the brilliant nine-year-old, owned by Patricia Pugh, to race, with the three-mile King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day the mid-season target, probably via a valuable prize at Ascot in November.

Some see it all as a bit risky, especially when Cyrname, the horse rated Paul Nicholls' latest standard-bearer, is a likely opponent - though maybe we're about to witness another high-profile rivalry, to match that of Nicholls' pair Kauto Star and Denman between 2008 and 2011.

Meanwhile, the Festival's champion long-distance hurdler Paisley Park, trained by Emma Lavelle for owner Andrew Gemmell and the mount of Aidan Coleman, is due back on the track at Newbury in late November as he starts the defence of his crown.

As a young horse, Paisley Park became dangerously ill and nearly died, while the colourful Gemmell has his own back-story having been blind since birth. With the engaging Lavelle and the ever-efficient Coleman, they have become one of the sport's most compelling stories.

The returning hero delayed

With four victories, three of them at Grade One level, from five starts in the 2018-19 season, Kemboy earned a place as favourite for the Cheltenham Gold Cup - a race in which he jumped awkwardly and parted company with his rider at the first fence.

Exactly when the horse, up to now trained by Willie Mullins for an ownership group including Ireland's Supreme Horse Racing Club, will next be setting foot on the racecourse isn't entirely clear.

The official registration of Supreme, which has had 14 horses in training with Mullins, has been cancelled by Horse Racing Ireland amid claims of the "over-selling" of the number of shares in its horses, and consequently no race entries are being accepted as the wrangle continues.

The dark 'un

Carlisle racecourse has become something of a go-to track for upwardly mobile young steeplechasers, and judging by the manner in which the Brian Ellison-trained Windsor Avenue bounded round recently, jumping impeccably and winning as he liked, he is one to follow.