2016 Supreme Novices' Hurdle Preview, Trends & Tips
As the tapes rise for the opening race, the Supreme Novices' Hurdle, on the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival, it will be as a pin prick to a balloon of anticipation that has been relentlessly inflating for 362 days.
But will it also signal the bursting of the Min bubble, or shall we witness the further elevation of another's upward trajectory? Enough with the hot air, let's take a look at the Supreme trends...
Supreme Novices' Hurdle Trends
As ever, we'll use that fine resource at horseracebase.com and focus on the 18 renewals since 1997 (reminder, no race in 2001, due to foot and mouth).
Back in 1998, 30 runners contested the Supreme. Four years later, 28 lined up. The field size has been smaller comparatively in recent times, but the average of the last five years is still just north of 15 starters. In spite of that, class tends to win out: the winner has emerged from the top three in the market in four of those five years.
The record of last time out winners is exceptional, for all that their claims are often obvious. 16 of the 18 winners (89%) also prevailed in their prep, from just 41% of the runners. Last day scorers also accounted for 70% of the places. That they were profitable to back blindly owes everything to the 40/1 triumph of Ebaziyan in 2007 for a bloke called Willie Mullins.
The other two Supreme winners finished second (Menorah, 2010) and third (Arcalis, 2005) on their prior starts. Keep it simple seems to be the message here: whilst it likely won't be profitable on its own, filtering out last time non-winners is a good way to whittle a packing field. Exactly half of the 46 horses still engaged won last time out.
A horse's age has had virtually no bearing on its Supreme prospects, with each of four-, five-, six-, seven- and eight-year-olds performing broadly in line with numerical expectation. Five- and six-year-olds may have won 15 of the 18 renewals since 1997 (83%) but they were responsible for 82% of the runners! Beware those telling you these age groups have a great record.
Those rested between two weeks and two months since their last race also have a good record in terms of winners, but in relation to the number of runners they too perform largely as expected. Days since a run seems to be immaterial, with the exception of those to have raced in the previous fortnight. That group is 0 from 33 (no places either) since 1997.
Irish-trained horses have won eleven of the last 18 Supreme Novices' Hurdles (61%) from just a third of the runners (32%). They've also bagged 41% of the places.
Supreme Novices' Hurdle Form Preview
There are often two established form hierarchies - the British and the Irish - coming into this race, and that is the case again in 2016. The Irish have had the best of it in recent times, and they will be confident of adding to that strong record, courtesy of a chap called Min.
Before even looking at his form, we need to consider his connections. The mildly nauseating silks colour combo of pastel pink with lime green spots has been worn to victory in this race for the last three years - Champagne Fever, Vautour, Douvan - so owner Susannah Ricci, and more specifically her bloodstock advisor, know what they're looking for.
Willie Mullins trained all three of course, and brings Min in a quest for what would be an historic four-timer. Not since Vincent O'Brien bagged an astonishing nine Supremes in six years between 1954 and 1959 - back when there were two divisions of the race - has a handler been so dominant. So Team Min know better than everyone what it takes to make this happen.
What of Min's form? Two runs in France, neither in the first two home, are a touch misleading; but the overall context of his race record is insufficient to legitimize his cramped odds. A 14 length drubbing of Gurteen (two low grade wins since) was followed by a Grade 2 score over Attribution and Ball d'Arc. Whilst the former failed to fire on his next start, Ball d'Arc has won both his races since, including in Grade 2 company last time.
Min has also raced a little inefficiently - with the choke out, as the cliché goes - to date so, while the pace in the Supreme might aid that tendency, if it doesn't he'll need to be very smart to get home in front.
His bare form is probably some way behind the pick of the entries, but that man Wullie has a whole raft of two mile novices and he believes Min to sit atop the pile. If that can be taken at face value, then Min's merit can be raised by association. What I'm trying to say is that it is nigh on impossible to peg his true talent based on racecourse evidence.
It almost always requires a horse to step forward on what it has previously shown to win the Supreme - and indeed any Festival novice event - so the question is around how much more there is in the Min tank. Those closest to Closutton have been barking about this lad since the start. They're not often wrong.
On the other side of that little slip of water separating Dublin and Holyhead, the top local dog is undoubtedly Altior. Hendo's head honcho is unbeaten in four hurdle starts, the pick of which might have been his last day demolition of Open Eagle in a Class 2 novice at Kempton. What was taking that day was the way he responded when looking like he might be beaten. A kick in the belly from Nico de Boinville and away Altior scooted for a clearcut 13 length verdict, seven more back to the third.
Open Eagle ran a good second in a Grade 2 next time, with the third placed horse, Marracudja, doing likewise, also in Grade 2 company. That form has a robust look to it, but the Cheltenham G2 Altior won is perhaps a cause for concern. On the upside, he won the race having been hampered by a loose horse.
However, the verdict was narrow over an ex-flat racer, Maputo, who sadly didn't race again. The third horse, Simon Squirrel, has done little since too. Perhaps it was the proximity of the Cheltenham race to his previous pair - three races in 35 days is a lot - and in his defence, he has a very good response when challenged. I'm just not sure I want to be involved at 9/2.
If Wullie and Hendo look to have a tight grip on the Supreme's destiny with the first two in the market, then that stranglehold becomes suffocating with news that the next pair in the betting are also housed one apiece between the two.
Wullie's second runner is Yorkhill, unbeaten in four Rules starts - two bumpers and two novice hurdles - culminating in a Grade 1 victory in the Tolworth. That was on heavy ground but this son of Presenting is arguably bred to go better on a sounder surface. Even if he's only as good on, erm, good, that Tolworth run looks the best piece of form to my eye (others disagree) and it has been franked twice since.
Runner up O O Seven stepped up markedly in trip to win a Class 2 over three miles on his next start, and third placed Agrapart also won next time, bolting up in the Grade 3 Betfair Hurdle, normally a highly competitive handicap. That was O O Seven's only defeat in four hurdle runs, and Agrapart's only defeat in his last three.
Yorkhill's bumper form is working out well too, his win at the Punchestown Festival having been franked by the third horse winning a Grade 2. Yup, it's easy to like this fellow. I'm not entirely sure how much he finds off the bridle - or maybe he's just idling a bit in front - but he looks a player.
Buveur d'Air has done less, but done it well. Second and fourth placed bumper finishes behind the stout stayer, Barters Hill, implied promise; and those portents were manifested in a brace of novice hurdle wins, at Newbury and Huntingdon. However, the form is a little hard to quantify. Second placed Wait For Me has won twice since, in egg and spoon races and at long odds on; the third, Big Chief Benny, was beaten the same distance by Charmix next time, that one having previously been beaten by Modus, a 33/1 shot for the Supreme.
The form of his most recent run - an extremely straightforward win - has been let down eight times out of eight subsequent starters. Of course, it is hard to fault the winner for cantering all over his field, but it does rather check the ocular impression. He's too short for my tastes at 7/1 despite obvious upside potential: after all, he's far from the only one in the Supreme with that in their corner.
While Tombstone might be a better horse on better ground, I can't entertain a last day loser - still less a last two days loser - so he's readily struck out. Cue egg on face?
Supasundae is more interesting. Henry de Bromhead is just a fantastic trainer, and he has all sorts of live ones at the Festival this year. This fellow was good enough to beat Yanworth in a bumper and ran a seven length sixth in the Champion Bumper at last year's Festival, that race normally offering solid pointers to this one.
The problem with Supasundae is his jumping. Sloppy at best on his hurdling bow, it was a bit sticky early at Leopardstown last time too. Still, he warmed to that task sufficiently to put 13 lengths between himself and the 2014 Champion Bumper winner, Silver Concorde (re-opposes).
Both he and Dermot Weld's runner should improve for better ground. The Concorde was more of a 1920's biplane in the mud that last day and he's better than that, potentially a lot better. A flat rating of 97 was earned via a win in the November Handicap on good to yielding, and easily his best of three hurdle runs was when fourth to Nichols Canyon in last year's Grade 1 Deloitte Novices' Hurdle on yielding. If it comes up good, he has place claims.
This year's Deloitte winner was Bleu Et Rouge, who beat Tombstone there. Bleu Et Rouge, who perversely runs in the vert et or of JP McManus, shaped like a stayer over that two and a quarter miles on heavy ground, and his trainer is talking about more demanding distances as a Cheltenham target. McManus also has Winter Escape as a possible for this, that one being unbeaten in three including a Grade 2 verdict last time in the Dovecote; and Modus, who looks an attempted plot for the County Hurdle.
The Pipe camp are making bullish noises about last year's Champion Bumper winner, Moon Racer, but it is hard to fancy a horse yet to top timber in public and who was last seen on the track 370 days ago. Whilst the Wellington boys can get one ready after a break, this isn't your average race: it would be a truly stunning training performance.
Supreme Novices' Hurdle Tips
A very difficult race to call being as it is a confluence of Anglo-Irish form lines, many of them uncharted against each other. Moreover, improvement has to be factored into most of the runners' hitherto demonstrated ability, though not an equal amount. In such circumstances, I am happy to look to the horse with the most in the book, still more so when that one can be expected to step forward again.
For me, that horse is Yorkhill, whose verdict over O O Seven in the Tolworth, Agrapart further back, reads very well. He's bred to be better on a firmer lawn and has a very high cruising speed. With Paul Townend likely to ride (I presume), and that another positive in my book, everything looks set for a big run.
There remains a concern that Min is different gear, but he's no price to be finding out at sub-2/1. The likable Altior ran his least visually impressive race at Cheltenham, albeit in Grade 2 company and when possibly feeling the effects of a hard micro-campaign, and he too is short enough despite having form claims.
The likes of Supasundae and, on top of the ground, Silver Concorde could challenge for places, but Yorkhill looks a robust alternative to the very top of the market.
2 pts e/w Yorkhill 6/1 Skybet, bet365 NRNB BOG 1/4 123 (7/1 available without NRNB, BOG and at 1/5 123)
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