Supreme Novices’ Hurdle 2011 Preview

Supreme Novices Hurdle winner, Menorah

Supreme Novices Hurdle winner, Menorah

The first race of the Cheltenham Festival 2011 is the Supreme Novices' Hurdle, run over two miles and a half furlong, for horses aged four or older. In recent seasons it has been dominated by the Irish, so it is interesting to see that this year's ante-post lists contain a proliferation of British-trained horses at the head of affairs, with just the occasional Emerald Isle interloper.

Perhaps this presents an opportunity to find some value, and to give us a flying start for the toughest, funnest, bestest, four days racing anywhere in the World. [Hyperbole? Actually, no, I don't think so...]

Last season's Supreme winner, Menorah, bucked a couple of pretty strong trends, with his victory coming off the back of a runner up finish the time before and also given that he was trained in the UK.

Let's take a look at the Supreme Novices' key profile angles, and see if we can't pare down the ante-post lists to a likely candidate at a fat, juicy price to give us a ticket on which to weave a dream of a winning start to the 2011 Cheltenham Festival.

First up, I mentioned a couple of points in relation to Menorah: the Irish have dominated in recent years, bagging seven of the last ten runnings of the Supreme Novices. And, eight of the last ten (and twelve of the last fourteen) Supreme winners won last time out.

If we extend the last time out performance to previous winners' entire hurdling careers at that stage, it's interesting to note that seven out of the ten had never been out of the first two. That stat includes Menorah. So we might very well say that we're mostly interested in a last time out winner, but we'll consider runners up if they've never been out of the first two.

Five and six year old's rule supreme in the Supreme. Although Captain Cee Bee won as a 7yo in 2008, and Like-A-Butterfly as an 8yo in 2002, only five horses older than six or younger than five have claimed the Supreme Novices' glory since 1974.

A really interesting point - at least, I think it's interesting - is that half of the last ten winners had never won better than a Class 2 novice hurdle and, whilst there's a hatful of last time out winners claiming the spoils in the Supreme, only one horse - Brave Inca in 2004 - actually won a Grade 1 event last time out. In other words, I suspect that the Supreme Novices Hurdle is typically won by a horse who has been brought along gradually; one undoubtedly with more potential than it has thus far demonstrated; and, consequently, one which usually pays a better odds multiple than the favourite (who is normally the horse with the best public form).

Eight of the last ten winners had between two and four runs over hurdles, with one of the exceptions - Go Native - having had five hurdle starts in 2009. Too bad for Toubab, then, who has already had six starts, and actually only managed to win one of them.

Perhaps lending some credence to my 'hiding their light under a bushel' notion is the fact that, perversely perhaps, nine of the last ten winners of the Supreme Novices have failed to run a previous Topspeed figure above 126. Whilst it is obviously harsh to penalise a horse for performing to a higher level, this does suggest that each year the winner runs a good bit faster than they previously have.

Moreover, horses who have shown only slow races prior to turning up at Cheltenham on a Tuesday in mid-March, do not win the Supreme. The Topspeed bracket for winners' previous best speed figure has seven of them in a range between 107 and 126. For the purposes of this study, I have elected for a range of 105 to 130.

On the other hand, Racing Post Ratings have more clearly pointed to the potential of Supreme Novices winners, by recording a rating of 137+ against the names of eight subsequent winners prior to their Cleeve Hill success. Indeed, seven of those eight had notched a 143 or better.

Stallions preclude no runners, with an even split of jumps and flat sires amongst the last ten winners. But Irish bred horses hold the upper hand, having grabbed seven to UK bred runners' three wins in the last decade.

An interesting sidebar on breeding is that Frenchies have a moderate (at best) record, with just the exceptional Hors La Loi III (subsequently Champion Hurdler) winning for the French-bred's from 42 starters in the last fourteen years. He was a 9/2 chance...

My penultimate pointer is that ten of the last eleven Supreme Novices Hurdle winners had their final prep race within 45 days of lining up at Cheltenham. Given that there are currently 48 days until tapes up in the Cotswolds, I'm expecting the winner to have another run between now and then.

Finally, and as a neat enough segue into this year's contenders, let's remind ourselves of the abominable record of Cheltenham Champion Bumper runners in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle. I researched this last year when pondering the case of early 2010's Pegasus, Dunguib (where are they now?!).

He won the previous Champion Bumper in a similar fashion to Cue Card's rout last March. At that time, I mentioned that only Montelado had won both the Bumper and the Supreme Novices, making him the only horse ever to have won back-to-back Cheltenham Festival races. Of course, the Bumper is no longer that last race on the card, so Montelado will hold that unique position in history forever.

Casting aside the anorak momentarily, the material point in all this is that Montelado, way back in 1993, remains the only Bumper winner to have won the Supreme. AND... only Back In Front has joined him from the full casts of the previous year's Cheltenham Champion Bumper. Of course, these stats are made to be broken, but I'd be very cautious about piling into Cue Card at best odds of 5/2 in light of the above.

So, to the rest of this year's contenders and how they shape up against the profile we've created. It should be clear that there are currently more question marks in this puzzle than your average university entrance exam, and the ethereal nature of this conundrum is akin to the proverbial attempts to nail jelly to a wall. That's why those generous bookie types are still offering 14/1 bar two in the race! 🙂

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Cue Card is a standout form horse at this stage, but may not have as much improvement as others (may not need any improvement). But... he is up against the Bumper stat. And... he might still go for a different race. And... he's highly unlikely to be shorter on the day given his unfashionable connections and the strings of 1's adorning many contenders' form lines cometh the hour.

So, politely decline the Cue Card for now, with a view to possibly taking a 3/1 saver on the day, should he turn up. (Remember the clamour to 'give Dunguib away' last year? Many bookies would pay you back if Dunguib won - I'm sure there will be some doing likewise this year).

Next in, and the only other in single figures is Ireland's leading light - according to the odds board at least - Zaidpour. He's a Frenchie, which doesn't preclude him from winning, but does put me off, given their weak overall record. He's done little else wrong, being beaten a fag paper in a muddling race last time, and he's entered in the Deloitte Novices, a Grade 1, on February 6th.

He'll be around 5/1 for the Supreme if he wins that, and both Brave Inca (2004) and Like-A-Butterfly (2002) won that prior to Supreme Novices glory. Still, I'm looking for value with so many unanswered questions at this stage, so my quest continues, into the deeper double-digit depths of the oddsmakers.

The third choice with some books is Backspin, who ranges from 12's to 14's where offered. On Betfair, he is a 45 shot, which bears reference to the fact that he's probably going to run in the longer Neptune Investments' hurdle. Apart from that, all his wins have been in slow times, and his Grade 1 victory may actually count against him in the context of the Supreme. No thanks from this quarter.

The Neptune may also be the preferred destination for Rock On Ruby, and indeed Minella Class as well.

This leaves Hidden Universe as the only other contender in the top six in the betting more likely to run in the Supreme than the Neptune. On that score alone, Skybet's 14/1 may appeal. Factor in his trainer's 'softly, softly' approach so far and he's tempting. But... he ran in last season's Champion Bumper, and he's yet to reach the requisite speed and form figures, albeit off just the one hurdle run.

Hidden Universe has two entries later this week, which will tell us more about the horse. On the basis of what he's achieved, his current price seems to factor in quite a lot of what he might be projected to do going forward. So, reluctantly, no thank you.

From the chasing pack of potential protagonists emerges Spirit Son. With just two runs, one of which was in France, he 'could be anything' (couldn't they all?!). Nicky Henderson has a pretty poor record in this race in recent years, and hasn't won since Flown in 1992, despite saddling plenty of fancied runners (including Binocular, Khyber Kim and Oscar Whisky in the last three years).

And he's a Frenchie with their accompanying poor record, and he's got more to prove on the ratings - which he likely will do.

I could go through the top 22 in the betting with cases for and against (as I have done in the document at the bottom of this post), but you might be getting bored of all this dessert decoration (jelly-nailing, if you prefer), so let me cut somewhat belatedly to the chase and tell you who I like at the prices and with all foregoing caveats in situ.

Prince Of Pirates, a Henderson inmate, was traveling as well as the leader, Al Ferof, when that one fell at odds on last time, and won cosily up Cheltenham's hill on his only hurdle start so far. As a McManus-owned horse, you can expect money for this one on the day should he line up. A possible but 33/1 is only fair in my view (57 on the Betfair site).

Gibb River may be yet another Henderson hoss, but he's had a very covert preparation so far. Two wins in Class 4 big fields at short prices offer hope that he's got more in the tank, and I'm very keen to see where he turns out next. The 25's generally (44 Betfair) looks worth a speculative couple of quid, as he's likely to be half those odds if winning next time.

Extremely Tentative Selection: Gibb River

Below is the 'working out', and below that, my current ante-post portfolio.


Supreme Novices Hurdle 2011 [Open Office Document - download Open Office free here.]

Supreme Novices Hurdle 2011 [Excel file]

Ante-Post ups and downs...

Ante-Post ups and downs...

Master Minded still the one to beat in Champion Chase

Master Minded can still win the Champion Chase

Master Minded can still win the Champion Chase

Master Minded fans may have had a shock on Saturday, when the Victor Chandler winner's lead was diminished to a disintegrating short head by the line, but the Paul Nicholls-trained eight year old is still the one to beat in the Champion Chase come March. Or so I reckon.

Let's consider the facts. Firstly,  Master Minded won the race. Okay, he looked like he'd win by as far as he liked after Petit Robin fell and severely hampered Kalahari King (more on those two in a moment). Granted, he was all out to prevail by the narrowest of margins as they smiled for the photo finish. And of course, Somersby would have won in another stride.

But the Ascot race is a furlong further than the Cheltenham race. And the ground on Saturday was on the soft side of good, which it is unlikely to be come March. Master Minded is probably losing a yard of that brilliant speed he possessed earlier in his career (indeed one idiot on here - me, I think it was - suggested he might be a throwaway bet for the Gold Cup. Suffice it to say, I've thrown away that throwaway voucher!). For all that, he retains plenty and, bar the second horse, the remainder were seen off by twenty lengths and more.

The runner-up Somersby is both consistent and frustrating. Consistently frustrating, one might say, if one keeps backing him. Clearly, he has huge talent, as podium positions in five consecutive Grade 1 and 2 contests testify. As a reliable punting proposition, he's a swerve for me though. I mean, even his trainer doesn't know what trip he wants and reckons he's a monkey... sorry, I mean a difficult horse to ride and train.

She, Henrietta Knight - trainer of Best Mate and Edredon Bleu, no less - said, "I was really pleased with him as he is not the easiest horse. We were so sure that we wanted the Ryanair but after today's performance he showed that he is still able to hold his own at two miles so we might go for the Ryanair next year now."

In other words, we don't know what trip he wants and he's a bloody nightmare to train. That is of course excessively harsh, but where my equine investments are concerned, I'm generally looking for a combination of greater certainty about ideal conditions and a bigger price than the 10/1 which is the best of the bookies' odds.

Mad Max was third, and well beaten, seemingly without excuses. 40/1 for the Champion Chase is about right, I'd say, though again it wouldn't tempt me. I can't see how he could possibly reverse this form, and a place is as good as it can get for this chap.

Kalahari King could be the surprise in the Champion Chase.. if he runs

Kalahari King could be the surprise in the Champion Chase.. if he runs

Fourth home was the desperately unlucky Kalahari King. Now, let me place on record my distaste for 'unlucky' horses. Unlucky horses tend to lead to unlucky punters and, if you want to do your dough, keep following a small herd of unluckies... But don't come crying to me.

Kalahari King was not only unlucky, but he has been excessively well-touted as unlucky too. This means that everyone says 'he was unlucky'. Watch the race, and you'll see that - just as he was beginning to make his run from off what looked a strong gallop - Petit Robin decided to ground Geraghty and then swerve violently left.

In so doing, he very nearly carried Kalahari King off the course (easy for me to say!), and fair stopped him in his tracks. His resolution in re-rallying all the way to the line has led many, including connections it would seem, into believing the Ryanair is the optimum route around Cheltenham's Grade 1 action in March.

I don't agree, but then I don't own, train or otherwise contribute to the wellbeing and financing of the horse. I wish I did! For me, he's an ideal type for the Champion Chase, having finished third in the race last year off a single prep run; and second in the Arkle in 2009.

Further, the only time Kalahari King has won beyond 2m1f is when he scraped home in a Musselburgh novice chase two years ago. Hardly Ryanair-winning form, I'd conjecture. But, what do I know? Well, I know this. I would back him if I thought he was running in the two miler, and I won't be backing him in the 21-furlonger.

Petit Robin had a lot made of his fall, because he was going well at the time. They were a bloody long way out, and he's never beaten Master Minded, so I've no idea why people would believe that Saturday was his day. He wouldn't have beaten Kalahari King, or Somersby, or Master Minded, in my opinion.

Of those who were absent on Saturday, Big Zeb has some strong rivals to contend with but won't have been unduly bothered by Ascot's leading actors. Woolcombe Folly is unlikely to be good enough, though he has an excellent win strike rate; and Sizing Europe is not yet a confirmed starter (my Gold Cup wager means I'm hoping he runs in the longer race - he's also in the Ryanair, further muddying the waters).

So, in summary, if you liked Master Minded for the Champion Chase before Saturday, there's no reason to change your mind now. The fact that he's skidded out to 11/4 with Ascot's big race sponsors, Victor Chandler, just means you'll get more jam on your bread if you're right.


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Hopping across the pond, as one can so very easily metaphorically do, Sunday's Leopardstown card had some excellent action and some mixed news for the Bisogno / Geegeez ante-post portfolio.

Hurricane: The Fly in the Champion Hurdle ointment?

Hurricane: The Fly in the Champion Hurdle ointment?

The big race of the day was the Irish Champion Hurdle where, in one of the most predictable finishes for years, Solwhit finished second to Hurricane Fly for the fourth time in their last five starts! Solwhit was beaten eighteen lengths by Binocular in last year's Champion Hurdle, and has never been beaten more than three and a half by Hurricane Fly.

Despite the apparently facile nature of the Fly's recent small margin victories, it is notable that he has either won easily or not won. In other words, he might be truly exceptional. But he doesn't look to relish a fight, and it is almost impossible to entertain the Hurricane blowing all-comers away to such a degree that he doesn't need to battle up the hill. Moreover, he has yet to travel to Britain to race, and that is a significant negative in the context of the Champion Hurdle, about which I've pontificated at length elsewhere.

In summary, Hurricane Fly may not have as much in reserve over Solwhit - let alone Binocular and co - as might appear at first glance. His lack of UK racing experience and fragile limbs mean if you really want to back him, you should probably wait until the day of the race. And if you're me, you will be looking for one (or two or three) against him.

Hurricane Fly might be brilliant, and win the Champion Hurdle in a canter. I'll be betting against that eventuality.


Elsewhere on the Graded stakes card, there was a win for Realt Dubh, who just got the better of Noble Prince in a head-bobber for the Grade 1 Arkle Novices' Chase. Having backed Noble Prince (£100 at 25's with Bet365) for the Cheltenham Arkle, I was quite pleased with this performance.

Whilst Realt Dubh is a very good horse and, probably so is the faller Flat Out, Noble Prince is in there pitching and should give a good account of himself at Cheltenham. He should also go off somewhat shorter than the 25's I've secured and hopefully than the best priced 20's he is currently (only 10/1 with Paddy Power, who believe the Irish have a strong hand in the 2011 Arkle).

More adverse weather as the Cyclone blows 'em away

More adverse weather as the Cyclone blows 'em away

The Grade 2 novices' hurdle over 2m4f had still more promising news for the portfolio, as Hidden Cyclone (backed at 46 for £12 for the Neptune, and 95 for the same stake for the Supreme) reverted to winning ways, with a bit in hand. Despite bungling the last he was comfortably too good for Ballyhaunis and the rest.

He's a best priced 20's for the Neptune Novices at the Festival, but trainer Shark Hanlon sounded the alarms when he warned, "I'll have to talk to the owner Pierse Mee about Cheltenham, if he goes he'll probably go for the Neptune Investments but I wouldn't be keen on going. If he got cut in the ground at Cheltenham I wouldn`t mind going but he wants cut in the ground."

Thanks Shark! Not...

Lastly, in the opener on the card, it was another notch for last season's Cheltenham Champion Bumper, as Day Of A Lifetime sauntered home in the opening maiden hurdle. He'll be tilted at bigger pots now and has the Supreme Novices Hurdle as a Festival target.

I'll be back tomorrow with an ante-post look at another of the major Cheltenham Festival races, so stay tuned for that.