Unlike the Supreme and Neptune, where flashy performances and a turn of foot in midwinter quickly earn Festival quotes, the Albert Bartlett is often the preserve of the grinder. With old-fashioned chasing types less likely to catch the eye in their early forays over hurdles, this race can often offer the best opportunities for ante-post value of any of the novice hurdles at the Festival.
DEATH DUTY heads the market at 5/2f. 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. After victory at Leopardstown in January – a race that saw Augusta Kate falling at the last when in contention – trainer Gordon Elliott was quick to nominate the Albert Bartlett as his Festival target. On current evidence there are few chinks in his armour, but at 14/1 the field bar the favourite it makes sense to dig deeper for each-way alternatives.
Predictably, Willie Mullins is responsible for the favourite’s closest market rivals. It’s impossible to say what may have happened had AUGUSTA KATE cleared the final flight when coming to challenge Death Duty at Leopardstown – 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 would be of significant interest in either the Neptune or in this race.
Aintree bumper winner BACARDYS stepped up on his Cheltenham bumper third – where he shaped as if a stronger pace might suit – to reverse the form with Ballyandy and Battleford at the Grand National festival. Defeat at Punchestown behind Blow By Blow and Moon Racer was no disgrace, and he was entitled to go into this season with plenty of promise over hurdles. After a first-time-out fall when coming to challenge, he duly got off the mark at Leopardstown over Christmas despite an error two out that checked his momentum and forced Ruby Walsh to drive him out to win. Like many smart bumper performers, a step up in trip may suit – although trainer Willie Mullins believes “he has the pace to run in a Supreme” – as will a return to spring ground.
Another contender from the Aintree bumper is fifth-placed WILLOUGHBY COURT, the subject of substantial late support when winning last weekend’s 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, and a step up in trip for this race looks likely to suit this strapping chasing type. His price was swiftly trimmed from 33/1 to 16/1 in the wake of that striking performance, and there is probably little value left in his price with other challengers still to emerge.
Paul Nicholls’s GIVE ME A COPPER, bought for £270k after a Cork bumper win, opened his campaign for the champion trainer with a straightforward success at Exeter in December. His trainer reports that “he needs about four miles”, so may appeal as the stout staying type who could run well given a little juice in the ground come March. He is entered in the River Don at Doncaster on Saturday – a race won last year by Barters Hill and in 2012 by Paul Nicholls with Rocky Creek – and a taking performance there might see him in contention for the Festival. Another entered in the River Don from the same yard is OVERLAND FLYER, who made a taking debut under rules at Exeter, easily drawing clear for a facile victory.
The Simon Munir-owned WHOLESTONE opened his account over hurdles in late September after ten months off, going on to win at the October meeting at Cheltenham before finding just Peregrine Run too good next time. A further Cheltenham victory followed, and while the form offers little to suggest he should be a serious contender in March his experience at the course will stand him in good stead.
Behind Wholestone on all three Cheltenham runs was WEST APPROACH. This half-brother to Thistlecrack, down the field in last year’s Albert Bartlett, has continued in novice company this season, showing glimmers of promise without ever threatening to fulfil the promise of his breeding, but he took a significant step forward at Ascot last time. In a deep field for the Long Walk Hurdle, a return to more positive tactics saw him in much better light, and he was unlucky to be badly hampered by the last-flight fall of Ballyoptic, unseating Tom O’Brien in the process. But for his ill-fortune he would likely have been placed, and with Un Temps Pour Tout, Ptit Zig, Reve de Sivola and Zarkandar all in behind, the form of that race would give him a leading chance if returning to novice company. His trainer suggests they may look to the Cleeve Hurdle this weekend, where even a competent showing would surely see him cut from his current 20/1 for the Festival.
Among those at bigger prices, PENHILL may be overlooked by some having had a summer campaign, but his Limerick win over Christmas came in a race won previously by Faugheen and Martello Tower, and the manner of his victory suggested he had plenty in hand. Rare among the Mullins battalion of novice hurdlers in not holding a Deloitte entry, suggesting his trainer sees him as a stayer. Owned by Brighton & Hove Albion chairman Tony Bloom, Penhill may avoid the deck-shuffling of the bigger owners, and may be worth a speculative each-way interest at 20/1.
Similarly, Henry de Bromhead’s MONALEE, who split Death Duty and Invitation Only at Navan, may be open to improvement next time. The Neptune may be the most likely target, but the Milan gelding would be of some interest if stepping up in trip for this race.
Death Duty sets an exacting standard, but a short-priced favourite at this stage creates plenty of opportunities elsewhere in the market. WEST APPROACH has failed to offer a great deal so far in novice company, but his stride forward in the Long Walk offers plenty of encouragement that under more positive tactics than were on display in last year’s Albert Bartlett he could produce a much-improved performance this time around. With connections targeting the Cleeve this weekend, he is clearly on the upgrade, and is worth supporting each-way at 20/1. A watching brief is also recommended on Bacardys, whose bumper form would entitle him to be involved here, but at 14/1 offers little appeal with so many doubts over the intended targets of the Mullins runners.
WEST APPROACH each-way 20/1 generally