With less than a fortnight to go until the Cheltenham Festival, the time has come to start previewing some of the action.
The Supreme Novices’ Hurdle opens the show and is a race that has been kind to Willie Mullins in recent times. With three wins and a trio of runners-up finishes in the last five renewals, the Closutton team are the ones to watch in the Festival opener.
Many of those Mullins winners have carried the silks of the Ricci’s, and this year’s race favourite Getabird is hoping to continue that successful run. He’s a six-year-old, which is handy, as those aged five and six dominate the race. Unbeaten under rules, he’s two from two over hurdles and owes his place at the head of the market to the devastating performance last time at Punchestown in the Grade Two Moscow Flyer Novice Hurdle.
Getabird sprinted clear of Mengli Khan that day (was in receipt of 6lbs) causing connections to change focus from the Ballydoyle to the Supreme. He’s slick over the obstacles and clearly has gears. He’s also a beautiful mover, and I’d be stunned if better ground (he’s been winning on heavy) was to cause any concerns. His odds of 13/8 look skinny, but he ticks so many boxes, especially the Mullins/Ricci box.
Mengli Khan is not your typical Gigginstown contender. He learnt his trade on the flat under the guidance of Hugo Palmer. He’s taken a while to get the knack of hurdles, however is now maturing into that sizeable frame. A decent juvenile though some way off the best, he’s improved plenty this winter and may well take another step forward on better ground at Cheltenham. I don’t think he has the gears to cope with Getabird, but he may well be good enough to hit the frame. Gordon Elliott was responsible for last year’s surprise winner Labaik.
Many pundits believe that Amy Murphy’s Kalashnikov is the main danger to the favourite. Three from four over hurdles, this five-year-old (box ticked) suffered his only defeat in testing ground at Sandown. He bounced back to form with an impressive victory at Newbury in the Betfair Hurdle, defeating Bleu Et Rouge by four and-a-bit lengths.
A son of Kalanisi out of an Old Vic mare, he has the size and scope for fences, but therein lies my concern for this contender. He’s a huge unit and can take some time to get stoked up. Though there’s the famous hill to climb, Cheltenham’s Old Course (used on day one and two) is a sharper track than the New, and Kalashnikov may find himself too far back when it counts. He’ll be charging home, but I fancy the bird will have flown.
Summerville Boy defeated Kalashnikov at Sandown in the Tolworth Novices’ Hurdle and is a major player if the ground on the opening day is testing. He’s already suffered two defeats at Cheltenham this winter, though reversed form with one of the adversaries, Western Ryder, in the Sandown race. A fast run two-miles will help this fella, but he needs the ground to be in his favour if he’s to land a telling blow.
At a decent price I quite fancy Tolworth flop Western Ryder. Prior to the Sandown run, this Warren Greatrex-trained six-year-old had landed a couple of races, including the win at Cheltenham in December (Summerville Boy almost six-lengths back and receiving 6lbs). He clearly likes the track, having finished fifth in last year’s Champion Bumper, despite interference late in the race. He’s already run 11 times under rules, which suggests he’s somewhat exposed. But I fancy that experience will prove useful and at 33s I think he’ll run well.
Like Willie Mullins, Nicky Henderson has a cracking record in the opener, though his Claimantakinforgan looks set for a place finish at best. He was third in the Champion Bumper 12 months ago and was two from two over hurdles until disappointing somewhat last time at Musselburgh. He lacks gears and though a decent sort I’d be surprised if he had the ‘Va Va Voom’ for this.
Henry De Bromhead could have an exciting opening day (has Petit Mouchoir in the Arkle), and his Paloma Blue looks capable of running well in this. He travelled like a dream last time at Leopardstown before being outgunned by Samcro late-on. He was a little keen that day and should appreciate a faster run race on a sounder surface. He’s an each-way player.
I’d also give Vision Des Flos a mention, following his return to form last month after having a wind-op. He was a seriously good bumper horse in Ireland but had disappointed in his three starts over hurdles this term. An operation in January coupled with a drop back in trip at Exeter last month seems to have brought about an improved performance. He probably didn’t beat much, but at 33s, Colin Tizzard’s five-year-old is sure to attract each-way money.
I’ve already got a few quid riding on Getabird and I think he’ll win. Mullins has a terrific record in the race and this fella looked special last time. I fancy Mengli Khan will get nearer and I’m also a fan of Paloma Blue. The Irish have a great record in the Supreme, and I can’t see this year’s race being any different. The one UK contender that could break their stranglehold is Western Ryder. I’m hoping he comes here rather than taking in the Ballymore. If he does, I’ll be having a bit of that 33/1. He may be bigger on the day, and there’s a chance that a bookies special may give us an extra place for our each-way cash.
Best of luck to those having a punt in what is sure to be a fabulous curtain-raiser to this wonderful festival.