Newbury hosts the prestigious Betfair Hurdle on Saturday, with prize money of £155,000. The two-mile handicap hurdle is renowned for uncovering classy types who go on to strike gold at the highest level.
The race was established in 1963 and originally known as the Schweppes Gold Trophy. The three times Champion hurdler Persian War took the event in 1968. He’d taken the previous season’s Triumph Hurdle and had to haul a hefty 11st 13lbs to victory against 31 opponents.
Make a Stand was another gifted hurdler who won the race during a dominant 1997 campaign. Trained by the legendary Martin Pipe, the six-year-old went on a stunning run of victories culminating in the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham. He improved by an incredible 55 pounds during the season, taking the opposition apart with a string of devastating front running performances. Having taken the Newbury event by nine lengths he won the Champion Hurdle by five in a performance described by Alastair Down as “a remorseless display of speed and precision hurdling”.
In recent years the race has become a successful target for those looking to head for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at The Festival. Two names in particular stand out, and both carried the famous JP McManus silks.
Get Me Out Of Here took the race in 2010, displaying a stunning ‘turn of foot’ from the last flight. In hindsight he was clearly ‘thrown in’ off a handicap mark of 135. He headed for the Supreme at Cheltenham and came agonisingly close, when beaten a head by Menorah, with the Irish odds on shot Dunguib back in third.
Three years later My Tent Or Yours carried the famous green and gold to victory in the Betfair Hurdle. He oozed class when taking up the running between the last two hurdles and storming to a five length success. So impressive was the performance that he headed to Cheltenham as a strong favourite for the Supreme Novices’ hurdle. Sadly for JP McManus, Nicky Henderson and AP McCoy, a certain Champagne Fever refused to be passed on that memorable Tuesday in March.
It would be remiss not to mention the ill-fated Darlan, who was unfortunate not to win the race in 2012. He was still travelling powerfully when coming down two from home. He too went on to finish second a month later in the Supreme at Cheltenham. Tragically just a year later he was fatally injured when falling at Doncaster. He was a hugely talented horse, and one feels that his loss left an indelible mark on his trainer Nicky Henderson.
On Saturday it’s the turn of Paul Nicholls to send a JP McManus contender into battle. The famous colours will be carried by several challengers, but it is Modus that looks set to head the market, and has the potential to move on to bigger and better things. A terrific second place in last year’s Champion Bumper identified him as a classy individual, and he followed up with a brilliant third behind Bellshill at the Punchestown Festival.
He’s two from three over hurdles having had his stamina stretched under a penalty when third last time at Taunton in testing conditions. He has course form having won at Newbury back in November, though is likely to be at his best on a sounder surface which he certainly will not get on Saturday.
However, a handicap mark of 139 could prove lenient, and yesterday Nicholls said of his runner: “He was a good bumper horse and we bought him in the summer and sold him to JP. He's a much more mature horse and is getting better all the time. We like him a lot and it's a good race for a novice in that you might be well handicapped whereas in a year you might not be.”
The Champion trainer went on to say: “He's got a lot of ability, but one thing I think is he'll be a lot better on better ground. He can cope with the soft ground. He just lacks a bit of experience, but one thing he does do is jump well. I'm very happy with him and he's a high-class horse. He's a horse who's going to get two and a half miles in time, but he's not slow.”
It’s more than likely that Barry Geraghty will be onboard, further enhancing the chances of the famous green and gold capturing this prestigious event once again. An impressive win would ensure that Modus heads to Cheltenham as a major contender for the Supreme.