Until last year, the Supreme seemed an easy challenge for punters. Put an ear to the ground in midsummer, wait for the jungle telegraph to rumble with the name of the next Willie Mullins superstar, take the fancy prices and sit pretty until March.
In 2016, though, those who do their Grade 1 business in August had their fingers burned twice: first by Altior’s turn of foot when flying up the hill to deny backers of Min at 50/1, and then by the rapid ‘pop’ of this season’s supposed second coming.
This year’s talking horse, Senewalk, failed to fulfil expectations on his Irish debut, the even-money favourite jumping poorly before finishing well down the field at Punchestown.
The Irish Challenge
In the absence of an obvious candidate from the Mullins-Walsh-Ricci production line, attention turns to the stable’s alternatives – and it’s a murky picture. At 10/1, CILAOS EMERY is currently the shortest-priced of the Mullins brigade. A well-backed bumper winner at the Punchestown festival, the Califet gelding dotted up in a Navan maiden just before Christmas.
The second that day, Joey Sasa, gave 7lb to subsequent winner Barra when winning on Boxing Day, giving some substance to the form, and an entry in the Deloitte at Leopardstown in February suggests there could be more to come.
Another with a Deloitte entry is the Eddie O’Connell-owned CHATEAU CONTI. Unextended to win on his debut for the yard on bottomless ground at Cork, he is already a winner on better ground in France and might reasonably be expected to improve once his sights are raised.
Also prominent in the market is the mysterious MELON, the subject of fierce ante-post chatter but yet to be sighted on a British racecourse. One of five entered this week by Willie Mullins for the Gowran maiden won last year by Au Quart de Tour (aka “3:45”), Melon would need to win handsomely to begin to justify his 14/1 quotes for the Festival.
In a reflection of the yard’s strength in depth – or perhaps simply the market’s obsession with Closutton – Willie Mullins has three more contenders at or below 20/1. Royal Bond winner AIRLIE BEACH reportedly heads for the Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle, while second that day and subsequent Leopardstown winner SATURNAS – rated the leading Irish challenger by Timeform with a rating of 148p – is expected to run in the Deloitte before stepping up again in trip for the 2m5f Neptune.
The third of the trio, CRACK MOME, was this year’s Mullins representative in the Moscow Flyer at Punchestown, the race taken in by Vautour, Douvan and Min on their way to Cheltenham. Despite travelling strongly throughout and jumping with fluency, a juddering error at the last cost him all momentum as he was beaten a length by JP McManus’s Any Second Now, whose trainer Ted Walsh seemed reluctant afterwards to commit him to the Supreme.
Opinions differ on the likely outcome barring that last-flight mistake, with Ruby Walsh suggesting he didn’t pick up as he’d hoped, but a quicker leap would have seen a much closer finish. One thing is for certain: trainers are creatures of habit, and Crack Mome’s participation can likely be taken as a strong pointer as to the pecking order at home. Quotes of 20/1 may be an overreaction to defeat, with Mullins and Walsh confident that better ground will see him in better light.
The Home Team
This year’s opposition to the Mullins bandwagon is headed by lightly-raced Champion Bumper winner MOON RACER. Winner of two early-season novice hurdles, David Pipe’s charge sets a fair standard, even if he has so far lacked the opportunity to post a performance worthy of an ante-post favourite for the Supreme.
Given his performances in bumpers at Cheltenham and Punchestown, where he was beaten only by Gigginstown’s well-regarded Blow By Blow, it is not unreasonable to expect significant improvement, though he would need to step up considerably given better company at the Festival.
Representing the all-conquering Colin Tizzard is £250k Potts purchase FINIAN’S OSCAR, well-touted by his trainer before his debut at Hereford, and well-backed as he brushed aside a Tolworth field that included last-time-out winners Capitaine and Chalonnial. Reactions after the race focussed on this point winner’s leading chance in the Neptune (4/1f), but given how strongly he travelled at Sandown he would have to be taken seriously if taking his chance in the opening race of the Festival.
Rounding out the British challenge is Haydock winner NEON WOLF. Backed in from an overnight 5/2 to 4/5f, Harry Fry’s point and bumper winner travelled strongly before displaying an eye-catching turn of foot after three out to put the race to bed. The excellent @StopwatchRacing timed Neon Wolf at 0.3s quicker from three out to the line than Champion Hurdle Trial winner The New One, despite only cruising to confirm his superiority over Elgin.
Quotes from connections after the race suggested they would mind him this season, and as a half-brother to mudlark Lake View Lad he may need soft ground to show his best, but quotes of 14/1 may underestimate his chance if heading to Cheltenham. [Update: Harry Fry suggested this evening on At The Races that Cheltenham will be “seriously considered”, with the Neptune the most likely target]
A final angle to keep in mind in an open year is the possibility of a challenger from the juvenile ranks. With JP McManus reportedly stepping up his investment in juvenile stock and Joseph O’Brien targeting the race for his principal benefactor, the Triumph is likely to be strongly contested, leaving the tempting option of splitting the green-and-gold challenge and diverting a promising type – as with Binocular in 2008 – to the Supreme.
Nicky Henderson’s Kempton winner CHARLI PARCS and Philip Hobbs’s DEFI DU SEUIL currently look the likeliest candidates, with both already posting figures that could see them competitive outside of juvenile company (rated 141P and 149p respectively with Timeform ). Both are entered at Cheltenham on Saturday, and a taking performance from either one could see the Supreme enter the equation. [Update: Tom Segal, Pricewise of the Racing Post, put up Charli Parcs as one of his ante-post selections for the race. Given his apparent insight into the prospects of the JP McManus string over the years, this could be taken as a strong hint on his intended target]
While nothing has yet taken the eye with a performance equal to that of Altior last Christmas, FINIAN’S OSCAR and NEON WOLF have thrown down the gauntlet to the Irish challenge with impressive graded performances: Timeform have Harry Fry’s charge rated 148P, with the Tizzard horse 6lb behind on 142P. Both may be likelier to run in the Neptune, but Sky Bet’s NRNB for the Supreme makes Neon Wolf one to keep onside at 10/1.
A close eye should be kept on Willie Mullins’s entries in the Deloitte and on plans for JP McManus’s juveniles, but for now the one who looks overpriced is CRACK MOME. The generally-available 20/1 marks an overreaction to defeat at Punchestown, and the experience of that run plus the likely better ground at Cheltenham could see him prosper come March.
Neon Wolf 10/1 NRNB SkyBet (14/1 generally)
Crack Mome 16/1 NRNB SkyBet (20/1 generally)