Often won by a future star of the sport, the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle (formerly the Neptune) gets the action underway on day two of the Festival.
Istabraq took the race at the age of five back in 1997. He’d already announced himself as a horse of huge potential by winning the Royal Bond, the Future Champions and the Deloitte Novice Hurdle. What followed was a period of utter dominance from one of the all-time great hurdlers. He won a hat-trick of Champion Hurdles and won the Irish version four years in a row.
Hardy Eustace had also landed the Royal Bond prior to winning this event at Cheltenham (then known as the Royal & SunAlliance) in 2003. Like Istabraq before, the success proved a launchpad for a period of two-mile dominance. He won thrilling renewals of the Champion Hurdle in 2004 and 05, gaining a reputation as a front-running warrior.
Nicanor defeated Denman in the 2006 renewal and Massini’s Maguire got the better of dear old Tidal Bay in 2007. The pair had Imperial Commander behind them in seventh that day. First Lieutenant edged out Rock On Ruby in 2011, with the latter returning 12 months later to win the Champion Hurdle. Simonsig and The New One followed, before ‘the machine’ Faugheen romped to victory in 2014. He too returned a year later to win the Champion Hurdle and but for injury would surely have become the dominant force of two-mile hurdling.
Yorkhill has become something of an enigma over the winter, but he too followed his 2016 victory in this with further Festival success last year, when winning the JLT Novices’ Chase. Both he and Faugheen are likely to return to Prestbury Park next week in search of further Cheltenham glory.
But what of the Ballymore? And are we likely to witness the crowning of a new Jump racing star?
One horse that has the industry and its viewing public as excited as any other, is the undefeated Gordon Elliott-trained Samcro. Touted as the new sensation, the six-year-old is three from three over hurdles, including a devastating performance in winning the Deloitte Hurdle at Leopardstown in February. That victory came at two miles, though connections were adamant that the horse needed further and would head for the Ballymore. He has a high cruising speed and had far too many gears for a classy looking field last time. He’s looked stunning thus far, though there’s a couple in this that should give him his sternest test.
Willie Mullins has won four of the last ten and has a leading contender in Next Destination. Also three from three over hurdles, he’s another strong traveller though perhaps lacks the acceleration of Samcro. He does, however, look a powerful stayer and is likely to be storming up the hill, probably attempting to peg-back a slicker, swifter Samcro. He too has impressed over the winter, beating many of the best novice hurdlers in Ireland. He’s a major player.
Elliott and Mullins lead the way in the Emerald Isle and it’s therefore a thrill to see a Nicky Henderson-trained On The Blind Side taking on the Irish raiders. Undefeated under rules, and also three from three over hurdles, this son of Stowaway was mightily impressive when last seen at Sandown in December. He was giving a couple of decent horses 5lbs that day and thumped them out of sight. It’s a slight concern that he’s not had a prep-run, though Henderson had said that he was happy to go straight to the Festival. Expect him to be niggled along as they come down the hill, but I fancy he’ll be powering up the famous climb to the finish as he attempts to overhaul Samcro.
Willie Mullins has another contender in five-year-old Duc Des Genievres. Rumour has it that this youngster may be aimed at the Albert Bartlett, though I’d be surprised if they send such a young and inexperienced horse to one of the Festival’s most gruelling events. This fella has a huge amount of potential, having finished third to Next Destination and runner-up to Samcro in his two starts in Ireland. The Deloitte trip was clearly too short, but he ran a cracker when third in the Grade One Lawlor’s at Naas having been off the track for seven months. This is undoubtedly the race he should be heading for, and I fancy he’ll put in a huge performance. At 14/1, he looks an obvious each-way proposition.
Kim Bailey’s Vinndication is yet another undefeated challenger. He’s a lovely looking son of Vinnie Roe and will likely make a smashing chaser in time. He possibly needs testing ground to be seen at his best, and I’m not sure he’ll have the gears to challenge the leading contenders. That’s just an assumption of course, as there’s no doubting he’s a talented sort. He defeated Western Ryder last time at Huntingdon, and that looks strong form. He’s not easy to dismiss, but I just fancy there’ll be quicker horses in the race and he’ll be tapped for toe late on.
Black Op is another that looks certain to make a cracking chaser. French Holly was the last seven-year-old to win this race in 1998, though this fella could put up a huge challenge. He’s a smasher to look at and travelled beautifully last time at Cheltenham when chinned late-on by another beauty in the Henderson-trained Santini. The pair pulled miles clear of the remainder and look to have exciting futures. Black Op is a powerful galloper who really sticks his neck out. He’ll run well, though again may lack the gears of a few of these.
Of those at a bigger price I remain interested in Western Ryder. I tipped him up each-way for the Supreme and I think that race is an easier option. This renewal has greater depth, yet I would still be tempted to have a little on him each-way, with better ground likely to suit and his fondness of the track already proven.
I wouldn’t be upset if Samcro romped home and it certainly wouldn’t surprise me. Nevertheless, I’m taking On The Blind Side to finish the race stronger and nail the favourite up the famous hill. Despite Samcro’s reputation, I’m convinced that this race will be competitive, with several talented types taking their chance.
Best of luck to those having a punt.