The dilemmas of a trainer’s life are nowhere better illustrated than in the complexities of finding the right race at Cheltenham. For a trainer blessed with a decent novice hurdler, lofty ambitions must be matched with a hard-headed assessment of the way that races are likely to be run.
While the two-mile Supreme might be perceived as the ideal destination for the quickest and classiest, its breathless intensity demands plenty of an inexperienced, unfurnished novice, including the ability to maintain an end-to-end gallop in the white heat of the Festival’s opening race. Added to the fact that the early races on Tuesday often take place on the slowest ground of the meeting, it’s no surprise that many Supreme winners of the last decade – Menorah, Al Ferof, Vautour among them – have fulfilled their potential over further.
Conversely, the Neptune – contested over more than half a mile further, at 2m5f – tends to be run at a steadier gallop, and demands a horse that not only stays the trip but possesses the flat speed to quicken up the hill. The always-insightful @StopwatchRacing reminds us that in their Neptune victories both The New One and Faugheen recorded the fastest closing sectional of the week.
While we are accustomed to reading the tea leaves to discern Willie Mullins’s unenviable decisions in shuffling his enviable pack of runners, the trainers of the leading British-trained contenders face similar dilemmas this year.
Point winner FINIAN’S OSCAR, picked up by Alan Potts for £250k and sent to man-of-the-hour Colin Tizzard, justified plenty of market support in the run-up to the Tolworth by dispatching a decent field with the minimum of fuss. He cruised through the race, travelling powerfully before Tom O’Brien sent him on two out, where he quickly put five lengths between himself and two last-time-out winners, Capitaine and Chalonnial. While the visual impression was no doubt aided by Capitaine’s error at the second-last, the winner displayed a turn of foot that quickly justified his trainer’s confidence and earned his charge immediate favouritism for the Neptune. It’s difficult to find fault with such a taking performance, but quotes of 4/1 are skinny enough with the temptation of the Supreme and seven weeks remaining for challengers to emerge.
One such challenger burst onto the scene at Haydock last weekend. A point and bumper winner before a bloodless victory at Exeter on New Year’s Day, NEON WOLF was the subject of sustained support throughout the day. Going off 4/5f, victory was never in doubt as he travelled strongly before a huge leap and an eye-catching turn of foot three out put the race to bed with a finish timed at 0.3s faster than Champion Hurdle Trial winner The New One on the same card. While connections see him as a chaser in the making, and he may need soft ground to show his best, Harry Fry suggested last night that the Festival would be under “serious consideration”, with the Neptune the likely target. With arguably the best performance from a novice this season, 10/1 looks an attractive price.
Third in the market is Challow winner MESSIRE DES OBEAUX. A full brother to twice Festival runner-up Bouvreuil, Alan King’s horse only broke his maiden at Bangor in November. The way he bolted up that day from two subsequent winners in Tornado in Milan and Clondaw Kaempfer suggested that handicaps might be off the agenda, and an 11lb rise soon saw his sights raised to graded company. A hard-fought victory over Ballyandy followed, before a hugely taking performance in winning the Challow at Newbury on New Year’s Eve. While it may pay to take a realistic view of that race – well-backed favourite Robin Roe was yet to be asked a question when falling three out, and runner-up Baltazar d’Allier is unlikely to be seen at his best until he meets a fence – it earns this Saddler Maker gelding the right to be treated very seriously at the Festival, for all that, like his brother, he may find one too good.
On The Fringe
The rarity of three British-trained horses heading the market for a novice hurdle at the Festival reflects the uncertainty surrounding the pecking order across the water. At this point last year, seven of the first ten in the market, including eventual winner Yorkhill, were trained in Ireland; this year, just four Irish contenders currently trade at less than 20/1, with at least two having alternative engagements.
One of those with a clearly-nominated target is Gigginstown’s DEATH DUTY. Currently rated Timeform’s leading novice hurdler on 151p, Gordon Elliott’s horse is so far unbeaten over hurdles, with his only defeat since his debut coming at the hands of Punchestown Champion Bumper winner Blow By Blow (reportedly now waiting for next season to begin his career over hurdles). After a taking victory at Leopardstown in January, his trainer was quick to nominate the Albert Bartlett at the Festival, for which he is currently the 9/4 favourite.
Death Duty’s market rival that day was the Willie Mullins-trained mare AUGUSTA KATE, who fell at the last when coming to challenge. It’s impossible to say what may have happened had she cleared the final flight – Timeform ratings have them finishing in a dead-heat – but to mount such a challenge on just her second start over hurdles bodes well for the future. She will have a plethora of options at the Festival, including the new mares’ novices’ hurdle won last year by Limini, but in receipt of the 7lb mares’ allowance she could go close over further in the Neptune. Odds of 16/1 would be inviting given greater clarity over her destination, but for now a waiting game is advised. Similar caution may be applied to Gigginstown’s BARRA, who should prosper for the step up into tougher company in the spring but may also be tempted by the mares’ option at the Festival.
Also in the ownership of Neptune-winning owner Graham Wylie is INVITATION ONLY. Behind only Blow By Blow among Willie Mullins’s bumper horses last season, he was a well-backed evens favourite when beaten comfortably by Death Duty at Navan in December, never getting into the race and finishing a disappointing third. Another of the Mullins brigade entered in the Deloitte at Leopardstown, he now faces a challenge to restore his once-lofty reputation and makes little appeal at 12/1.
Another Deloitte entry, the JP McManus-owned ANY SECOND NOW has been well-supported in the wake of his win over Graham Wylie’s Crack Mome at Punchestown, though trainer Ted Walsh is making no secret of his preference to skip the Festival this year: “I’d be surprised if he were to want a test like the Supreme at this stage in his career,” he told the Racing Post, “I’d say he’s unlikely to run at Cheltenham.”
Down The Field
Predictably, Willie Mullins has multiple other entries, including Leopardstown winner SATURNAS. Second in the Royal Bond to stablemate Airlie Beach, he took a step forward in winning next time, and currently ranks as the highest-rated novice from the Mullins yard (Timeform 148p). His second-string status thus far (ridden by Paul Townend the last twice) may mean he’s been underestimated by the market.
BRAVISSIMO, BACARDYS and CHATEAU CONTI are all available at 20/1, but assessing the form of their single victory apiece is nigh impossible at this stage. All three are entered in the Deloitte: a keen eye on confirmations, market moves and jockey bookings in early February may begin to shed some light. The most intriguing one for now might be Rail Link gelding EPICURIS, a smart (if temperamental) performer on the flat for Criquette Head-Maarek, picked up for 140,000 guineas by Harold Kirk on behalf of Willie Mullins in October. It’s unlikely that he’d make his hurdling debut this late in the day, but he may be one on whom to keep a watchful eye.
Rounding out the possible contenders is Champion Bumper winner BALLYANDY, put in his place so far over hurdles by Moon Racer and Messire Des Obeaux but with potential to improve. Trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies is targeting Newbury’s lucrative Betfair Hurdle off a potentially-lenient 135, and a step forward there could see him back in contention for the Festival.
The last contender worthy of mention is WILLOUGHBY COURT, the subject of substantial late support when winning the Grade 2 Leamington Hurdle at Warwick. Ben Pauling’s charge made every yard, striding clear on the turn for home before finding plenty for pressure at the business end. Jason Maguire, racing manager to owners Paul & Claire Rooney, suggested that Cheltenham would be very much on the agenda, though the three-mile Albert Bartlett may suit better for this strapping chasing type.
Until the Irish picture becomes clearer at Leopardstown in February, this race revolves around three graded-winning British novices. While Finian’s Oscar and Messire Des Obeaux both took the eye with visually-impressive performances, the former is short enough in the market, and there remains a question mark over the form of the Challow. However, the impression left by NEON WOLF was backed up by the evidence of the clock, and both his fluent jumping and striking change of gear stand him in good stead for stiffer tests down the line. Having initially been reluctant to commit him to the Festival, trainer Harry Fry is already making more positive noises, with this race nominated as the likelier target. Having backed him NRNB for the Supreme, it would be remiss not to follow up here, and at a generally-available 10/1 the disparity between him and 4/1f Finian’s Oscar is too great to ignore.
On the Irish front, it is impossible to discern with any confidence the probable runners from the Mullins yard, or their likely pecking order. Her performance when coming to challenge Death Duty means that Augusta Kate would be of significant interest were she to come here in receipt of 7lb, but the option of the mares’ novices’ hurdle may prove too tempting. Finally, caution is advised, but a close eye on noises emanating from the yard in the run-up to the Deloitte may pay dividends, with Ruby Walsh usually dead-eye accurate in his choice of mounts.
NEON WOLF 10/1 generally [Update: he’s been well-backed today after Harry Fry’s ATR interview last night. Pricewise put him up this evening at a general 8/1, so the price will swiftly disappear!]