2014 Supreme Novices Hurdle Preview, Trends, Tips
The opening race of the 2014 Cheltenham Festival is the Supreme Novices' Hurdle, and the collective exhalation of breath as the tapes rise after 361 CheltFest-less days at Prestbury Park might be enough to create its own micro-weather system in the Gloucestershire hills.
The Supreme is always a strong race, bringing together the cream of the novice ranks from both sides of the Irish Sea; and that convergence of form lines has often seen lofty reputations lowered a peg or two. This year may be no different, as the market is dominated by two horses - one British, one Irish - and if both are beaten there will be jam aplenty on winning punters' bread.
This is also a race where the bookmakers focus a disproportionate number of their concessions, keen to get cash in virtual wallets, and I'll incorporate that into my tip suggestions at the close.
2014 Supreme Novices Hurdle Trends
Age: Thirteen of the last sixteen winners were aged five or six. But, from much smaller entry sizes, horses aged four, seven and eight have also won a Supreme during that time. The data is somewhat inconclusive as to whether there is a favoured age group, despite what some trends peddlers may tell you. In fact, five and six year olds won 81.25% of the races from 81.6% of the runners, meaning they very slightly under-performed against numerical expectation.
Last time out: Fourteen of the last sixteen winners also won their previous race, and it has been a profitable angle to follow progressive form displayed by under-rated horses against the 'reputation horses'. Indeed, backing all last time out winners during that period (from 1997) was worth a profit of 22.25 units at SP. Last time out winners have won 87.5% of the Supremes, from just 40% of the runners.
Days since a run: Fourteen of the sixteen winners (87.5%) under review last ran between 16 and 60 days prior to claiming their Supreme Novices' crown. They accounted for 73% of the runners. Not one of the 31 horses to be returning within two weeks even placed.
Experience: Fourteen of the sixteen winners (87.5%) had had between two and four hurdles starts, from 61% of the runners. The most inexperienced winner since 1997, in terms of total races run, was Menorah with five starts. This counts against the likes of Gilgamboa, Josses Hill, and Valseur Lido. This is a tough race, often with a lot of scrimmaging, and street smarts is a most desirable attribute.
UK vs Ireland: The Irish lead 9-7 in the period under scrutiny, and from far fewer runners. Their success computes to 56.25% of the wins (and 37.5% of the places - eighteen) from 31.75% of the runners, exactly a hundred.
Those trends point to the top four in the betting - Irving, Vautour, Wicklow Brave, and Vaniteux.
2014 Supreme Novices Hurdle Preview
The logical place to begin the form preview is with the trends horses, especially as they spearhead the betting lists too. Before that, though, it will pay to keep in mind the average improvement Supreme winners found from their previous run.
Using Racing Post Ratings as a guide, each of the last ten winners found significant improvement from their last run, and all bar Menorah scored a career top in the race. The range of improvement from last run to winning Supreme run was +6 to +36. The average was +14 and, even removing the outliers (+6 and +36), the average improvement from last run was +12.25.
What does this mean, and how can we use it? In a nutshell, it means that the winner can be expected to record a significantly higher performance figure in this race than he has previously, and most likely in the 7-14 range on RPR's.
The average winning Racing Post Rating was 152.9 in the past decade, so it is reasonable to expect an unadjusted (i.e. Racing Post card RPR minus seven pounds - trust me on this!) of 139 - meaning a published figure of 146 - to be the minimum to achieve the likely required improvement.
You know when you start trying to explain something, and you wished you hadn't... Let's move on!
The favourite, at around 5/2, is Irving. This decent flat horse in Germany - a son of Singspiel out of a staying German mare - has made a blemishless start to his hurdling career. In his four wins from four runs, he has won two Grade 2 events, both in taking style, and has been awarded a handicap rating of 149.
Aside from the form, Irving has no marked ground preference, which is one less thing to worry about if you're a fan. On the downside, he does still look a bit novicey at his hurdles, a comment which applies to plenty of his rivals too, of course.
Vautour is pushing him for favouritism as a 3/1 shot, and will be the first of many Willie Mullins-trained horses to run during the week. Since coming over from France, where he was second on both starts, Vautour has rattled off a two month hat-trick of wins, culminating in a cheeky defeat of The Tullow Tank in a Grade 1 event.
That last success earned him a rating of 154 from the Irish handicapper, which is a few pounds higher than Irving. I wasn't all that taken by the manner of his victory that day, as I felt the second was given plenty to do. The time before, Vautour just outgunned Western Boy when a 1-4 shot.
Overall, whilst I have no doubt he can win, I don't think he's any value whatsoever so to do, and my quest for a bet continues.
Stablemate Wicklow Brave took a little time to come to hand, finishing mid-division in a bumper on his first career start. That was at the Punchestown Festival and a month later he ran a very close second in a big field back at the same track.
The next stop on Wicklow Brave's Irish tour was the Galway Festival where he broke his maiden at the third attempt, again in a big field and this time on good ground. Since that day, he's been unbeaten in four further races, two bumpers and two hurdle contests.
The last of those was a Listed affair, where he strolled away from Lieutenant Colonel in the style of a most progressive animal. Indeed, his Racing Post Ratings have improved from 105 to 110 to 120 to 131 to 146, and that most recent number gives him little to find with the top pair.
I like this chap - he travels extremely well in his races - but I do have a concern about his hurdling, which was sloppy at the finish of the Listed win. If he can improve that side of his game, he's a major player in the Supreme at around 7/1.
Vaniteux has been the recent springer in the market, and that's primarily on the basis of improvement in his work at home, which is said to be scintillating. This Nicky Henderson inmate was looking like the stable second choice, after Josses Hill, but the indications are that Barry Geraghty will ride him now, and strong support has seen his price cut from 25/1 a week ago to a top offer of 12/1.
But for a blunder at the last in a good novice hurdle on Boxing Day, he might well be unbeaten in three starts since switching from point to points, and he has verdicts over Vibrato Valtat and Portway Flyer (effortlessly) either side of that last slithered landing.
His easy last day success was over two and a half miles and that strong staying aspect to his game - hinted at in his pointing career - will be a solid asset in a very fast race such as the Supreme. If his jumping holds up, there's a chance Vaniteux can find the required improvement to land those recent wagers.
Stablemate Josses Hill is on 16/1 alongside Gilgamboa and Valseur Lido, two Irish raiders. Josses Hill was comprehensively outpointed by Faugheen in a Punchestown bumper on his debut, but won well on his next two starts.
He was elevated to Grade 1 level last time out and just found wanting by half a length to another stablemate, Royal Boy. Josses Hill looked likely to prevail jumping the last and had the rail to guide him to the line, but was outbattled by his more experienced, and seemingly stronger staying, team mate.
I don't feel Josses Hill has the necessary combination of experience and class to beat all in a Supreme, though that was a significant career best last time out. It's a bit disconcerting, too, that he was beaten by a stable mate last time and has a better fancied stable mate entered in this.
Gilgamboa is a really interesting one. Although he's only had four career runs, they include wins the last twice in handicap hurdle company, the latter of which was the highly competitive Grade B Boylesports Hurdle. There he beat Flaxen Flare, himself a Festival winner last year, by an assertive length and a quarter, the pair a couple and more clear of some lightly weighted rivals.
Flaxen Flare was spotting the winner five pounds, taking his rider's claim into account, and was officially rated a stone better. Gilgamboa has been nudged up from 128 there to a new mark or 140, which seems sensible based on the figure and proximity of his nearest neighbour in the Boylesports.
That number gives him exactly a stone to find on Vautour, according to the Irish handicapper, and who am I to argue with him? The fact is, if the handicapper is even nearly right, it's asking an awful lot of Gilgamboa to improve not just the stone or thereabouts to catch Vautour, but also the extra seven pounds on top which is the usual improvement demonstrated by Supreme winners.
Valseur Lido was bought privately from France by Gigginstown's bottomless fund, after a narrow but comfortable win in a Lyon Parilly flat race. The second that day has won since, at Pau, and the form looks fair. His Irish contract has begun well with easy back-to-back victories over first Voluptueux and most recently King William.
I say "most recently", but it was in fact before Christmas, and that's a major concern. The balance of history - and common sense - says that a fairly recent run, and probably in higher class, is usually required to win a Supreme. Although he's 16/1 that's not enough to tempt me, given the big negative.
The rest don't look good enough, but there is one wild card left in the pack. If the aforementioned Faugheen was to show up here, he'd have a huge chance befitting his huge frame. This is a horse that walks over his hurdles rather than having to jump them, and he's a serious player for whichever race his connections pitch him.
He's won from two miles to three, from good ground to heavy, and in fields ranging from seven to 22. His cruising speed is so high, as a consequence of that massive stride, that he'd surely have no problem if rocking up here. But he is still more likely to take in either the Albert Bartlett or the Neptune.
2014 Supreme Novices Hurdle Tips
Plenty of unexposed material here, as you'd expect, and sifting through the strings of 1's by horse's names is a tricky task. It will clearly be no surprise if either Vautour or Irving win the 2014 running of the Supreme Novices' Hurdle, but nor does it look a value route to take into the race.
I quite like the look of Wicklow Brave, and he's worth backing with either SkyBet or Paddy or both, at 13/2.
If you back him - or any other horse in the race - with SkyBet, and the favourite wins, you'll get your money back as a free bet, up to £25.
And if you back him - or any other horse in the race - with Paddy, and your horse finishes second, third or fourth, you'll also get your money back as a free bet, up to £25.
Tentative Supreme Tip: Wicklow Brave 13/2 SkyBet (money back as free bet if favourite wins) / Paddy (money back as free bet if selection finishes 2nd, 3rd or 4th)
Each way choice: Vaniteux 12/1 Paddy (money back as free bet if selection finishes 2nd, 3rd or 4th)