2016 Neptune Investment Management Novices' Hurdle Preview
The Neptune Investment Management Novices' Hurdle, or Neptune for short, is the opening race on Day Two of the 2016 Cheltenham Festival. Its roll of honour is illustrious and includes future Champion Hurdlers such as Istabraq, Hardy Eustace and Faugheen, as well as other luminaries of the turf like Sabin Du Loir, Danoli, Brown Lad and multiple Festival winner, Willie Wumpkins.
Indeed scanning the full list of past winners reveals that there is rarely a moderate animal claiming the spoils in a race that often takes more winning than the Supreme. That the shorter novice heat is the opening salvo of the Festival ensures it always has a greater focus than might be deserved, but this event can pay to follow the form: backing every horse in every subsequent run from the last four Neptunes would have returned 56.76 points of profit.
Moreover, three of the four Neptunes have been profitable to follow, and even The New One's 2013 race has only leaked 2.35 points since. Yes, make no mistake, the Neptune is usually a deep and high class heat.
Neptune Novices' Hurdle Trends
To the historical patterns, based on 18 renewals since 1997 - 2001 excepted (no race, foot and mouth) - and with thanks to horseracebase.com for much of the data.
We start with the bleedin' obvious: last time out winners have a good record. They actually have a better record than their numerical representation would expect - 13 winners (72%), 34 placed (53%) from bang on half the runners.
Sadly, as a group, they've been cripplingly unprofitable to follow blindly, mainly due to the top of the market holding a near monopoly on the Neptune in recent times.
On the negative side, those outside the first three last time managed no wins since at least 1997 and just three places (one of which was by a horse that unseated its rider last time).
The age of Neptune entries is of mild interest. While none of the 13 four-year-olds to have a cut at this made the frame, and five-year-olds performed in line with their numerical representation, the six'ers did well: eleven winners (61% of the available wins in the sample period) and 30 places (56%) from 44% of the runners.
Where there are winners there must inevitably be losers, and in this case if you like a horse aged seven or above, history is against you. The last horse older than six to win the Neptune was French Holly in 1998, and the only other one was eight-year-old Brown Lad in 1974.
Good luck then if you like any of Vigil, Up For Review and Open Eagle - all 7yo's and, in fairness, all 33/1 shots currently.
15 of the 18 winners since 1997 were priced in single figures, and only 20/1 'mild shock' Massini's Maguire won at bigger than 12/1 during that time. We're not really looking for a huge outsider to suddenly step forward.
Moreover, of the eleven horses priced 9/4 or shorter, six won - for a small profit overall - and all eleven were placed.
Days since a run has no meaningful impact on performance, though it remains an almost universal negative in the Grade 1's to have raced as recently as the previous fortnight. Just two places from 25 runners in this sample, which is half what would have been expected on population (very small sample size, however).
42% of Neptune runners since 1997 had failed to win over at least two and a half miles. Between them, they claimed just four wins (22%) and 14 places (26%). One of those wins was by a horse who had won over a trip 100 yards shy of 2m4f.
Those to have won over at least two and a half miles, then, won 78% of the Neptunes since 1997 from 58% of the runners, and hoovered up 74% of the places. Proven stamina seems a pre-requisite.
A trendy type might have won last time, and be aged six, fancied in the market with proven stamina. Yanworth anyone? Hardly earth-shattering stuff, I concede, but don't shoot the messenger!
Neptune Novices' Hurdle Preview
One horse holds its field in a half nelson with a week to go until tapes up: that lad is Yanworth, unbeaten in four this season and a runaway victor at Cheltenham when last seen. As a bumper horse, Alan King's son of Norse Dancer was good enough to run a close fourth in the Champion Bumper at last year's Festival. Checked on the home turn there, he stayed on best of all.
Kept to around two miles in his first three races this season, Yanworth oozed class in cosy wins over some fair opposition, most notably Charbel in a Grade 2 at Ascot. But it was when stepped up to the Neptune trip last time that he stamped his authority on the middle distance novice hurdle division.
A seven length verdict over the previously unbeaten Shantou Village with another almost unbeaten horse - Champers On Ice - ten lengths further back in third is outstanding form. If one can crab it, it could be argued that the heavy ground may have accentuated the margins and also could have been more to Yanworth's strengths than his rivals.
Perfectly true, of course, but he has plenty of top of the ground form to support this exciting visual impression, particularly that Champion Bumper run. His best NH Flat run and his best novice hurdle run have both come at Cheltenham and, with his versatility with regards riding tactics, it is very hard to see past him here, in a race where the cream has generally risen to the top.
If Yanworth is to taste defeat for the first time over timber, it will most likely be at the hooves of an Irish raider (given how far clear of his British rivals he's been). A Toi Phil, something of a 'now' horse for the Mullins juggernaut, could be the one. After an ignominious exit on his Irish debut just before Christmas, he was sent off at the juicy (hinidsight) price of 7/2 just after Christmas in a similar maiden hurdle event.
Value for more than the two lengths by which he beat Don't Touch It - two more back to Vigil in third, both winners since - he then bolted up in a Grade 2 at Leopardstown in late January from a horse called Acapella Bourgeois. That one franked the form in style by doing likewise in another Grade 2, at Thurles, under very similar conditions.
The question mark with A Toi Phil, apart from whether he's good enough, is whether he'll act on presumed quicker ground. Wins so far have been on soft and heavy, but his ol' man, Day Flight, has had winners on fast turf in a fairly truncated stallion career to date. Wullie's lad is open to stacks of improvement - more than most - and if he acts on the track and in the ground (rounded action offers plenty of hope) he looks a big player.
The Mullins stable has a phalanx of others entered here - twenty of the remaining 56 at time of writing are housed in Closutton - and attempting to form a Neptune hierarchy is complicated by owners and other race options. It looks like Yorkhill will go for the Supreme, and Bleu Et Rouge, in the same ownership as Yanworth, is presumed for the Albert Bartlett.
Bellshill looked wrong when labouring home behind Bleu Et Rouge in the Grade 1 Deloitte, but he'd previously bagged a top level prize over two and a half miles. He's 10/1 in a few places, which is not terrible value given he's likely to run here if anywhere at the Festival, but I'd want a little more meat on the bone after the Leopardstown capitulation.
Long Dog may also run here, and Willie might have to ride it himself such is the depth of cavalry he's loading up! A tough one to peg, he looked to be gobbling up some penalty kicks last summer, but has gone on to record back-to-back Grade 1's in the Royal Bond and Future Champions Novice Hurdles. That's not middling form, though the extended absence is a mild concern even after what was a hard campaign in 2015.
Ultimately, it has generally been the case that those at the top of the Wullie crop of entries have prevailed, in the Grade 1's at least. In fact I think it's the case that, excluding three runnings of the Champion Bumper (Briar Hill, Champagne Fever and Cousin Vinny) and Annie Power's last flight fall when set to win last year, the last Graded non-handicap that was not won by the stable first string was 25/1 Rule Supreme in the 2004 RSA Chase, a race in which the Wullie first choice was a 20/1 shot!!
In plain English, the best ranked of the Mullins horses in the market almost always wins when it's not a handicap or a flat race. That is a shortcut to defer delving deeper into the (relative) dregs of Team Closutton, and to hasten moving on.
O O Seven is a horse I've mentioned in passing in my Supreme preview. Nicky Henderson's six-year-old Flemensfirth gelding has allowed just one horse past in four hurdle starts. That one was Yorkhill, who I like a lot for the Supreme (given the game away there, no need to click that link now!). Yorkhill was only a couple of lengths the better of the Hendo hoss, with eight back to subsequent comfortable Betfair Hurdle winner, Agrapart.
At 25/1 NRNB, O O Seven could reward each way support, even though he has a lot to find with Yanworth on a literal view of the Champion Bumper form - like the jolly, he's come on in bounds since then.
Neptune Novices' Hurdle Tips
This may very well be the open and shut case it looks. Yanworth was a promising novice before a last day annihilation of a select field propelled him to the front of the market. He was actually available at 7/2 in the immediate aftermath of the race - well done if you got any of that - and now trades at a top price of 5/4.
That is at least fair, but as with all of the novice events, where form lines converge and most step forward on what they've displayed publicly previously, it is not banker territory (as if such a thing exists, Douvan aside, at the Festival).
Paddy has a 'without Yanworth' market in which A Toi Phil is 7/2 behind possible/probable non-runner, Yorkhill. I'm definitely interested in that, more so than the 8/1 each way. And O O Seven might be worth a very small dabble each way at 25/1 in a race that could cut up markedly between now and post time.
1 pt win A Toi Phil 'without Yanworth' 7/2 Paddy Power
0.25 pts e/w O O Seven 25/1 NRNB 1/4 1-2-3 888sport, racebets, Betfair sports
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