With the Cheltenham Festival fast approaching, I felt it was time to bite the bullet, and start producing a few previews.
Those that know and love this wonderful sporting event, realise just how tough it is to make money during the stamina-sapping four days. If you are attending, then the difficulty is remaining disciplined with the betting, whilst inevitably consuming gallons of Guinness. Those watching from the comfort of their sofas, have a slightly better chance of making a profit.
It seems right and proper to start at the beginning, and I’ll therefore launch into the Festival opener; the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. Backed by ‘the roar’ of almost 70,000 fans, the contenders for the two-mile race usually scorch the turf at a frenetic pace. Runners and their jockeys often appear swept away by the excitement of the occasion, and consequently, the right mix of speed and stamina is needed to maintain a handy position, whilst having enough in the tank for the final hill.
In recent times the race has been dominated by Willie Mullins and Rich Ricci. The combination landed three-in-a-row from 2013 to 2015, and had hoped to make it four with Min well fancied to take last year’s renewal. Unfortunately for them, they ran into Altior.
The Closutton team have still managed to win four of the last 10 renewals, taking the Irish haul to six in that period. And it’s another Mullins trained challenger that heads the market for this year’s Supreme. Melon has only been sighted once during the winter, when winning a poor looking maiden at Leopardstown. Prior to arriving in Ireland, the son of Medicean had raced four times on the flat in France. He’s been talked of in glowing terms, but will need to be something special to take a Supreme off the back of just one outing over obstacles.
Next best in the betting is a pair of British contenders, Ballyandy and Moon Racer. Both are winners of Cheltenham’s Champion Bumper. Moon Racer is trained by David Pipe, and landed the Festival’s flat race in 2015. Now an eight-year-old, he’s proved tough to keep right, and has only run three times since that thrilling success. Nevertheless, he remains a leading contender, having lost only once in six outings under rules, and having won both his hurdles starts during this light campaign. The last eight-year-old to capture the Supreme was Like-A-Butterfly back in 2002, though in fairness, few of that age compete in this.
Pipe’s challenger also needs to overcome the lack of a prep-run, having been off the track since mid-November. Captain Cee Bee was the last to be successful after such a lay-off, when beating Binocular in 2008.
Ballyandy took the 2016 Champion Bumper, but has lost twice to Moon Racer over hurdles, and only broke his duck over timber at the fourth attempt, when winning the Betfair Hurdle at Newbury a couple of weeks back. He travelled beautifully throughout the valuable handicap, and quickened well to defeat Movewiththetimes. Those defeats to Moon Racer both came in muddling affairs, when Pipe’s fella proved the speedier gelding. The strong pace of a Supreme should better suit Ballyandy, and he arrives at Cheltenham ‘match-fit’. He’s also a six-year-old, which if trends are to be followed, is the likely age of a Supreme winner. Five-year-olds also have a cracking record.
Twiston-Davies appears to have settled on the two-mile option, and said of last year’s Champion Bumper winner: “We think we have just about totally decided to go for the Supreme Novices' Hurdle. He cantered to the last in the Betfair and quickened away nicely. We always thought a lot of him and we can't understand why he didn't do better in his first three races. He has got plenty of speed. He won there this time last year, although it was over two miles with no hurdles. We are really looking forward to it and hopefully we will be able to take our revenge on Moon Racer.”
Of the top three in the market, Melon needs to overcome inexperience, whilst Moon Racer is too old, and has been off the track too long. Ballyandy appears to tick more boxes. He is the right age, has enough experience, and has that all-important prep-run. He also scores on another important trend, being a winner on his last start. No fewer than 18 of the last 20 Supreme winners, arrived at the Festival having won their prep.
That’s bad news for fans of both Movewiththetimes and Bunk Off Early. The former got very close to Ballyandy at Newbury, having travelled every bit as well through the race. He’s by Presenting, and as such, should stay a fair bit further than the minimum trip. His proximity to Ballyandy makes me wonder if either will be quick enough to win a Supreme, and perhaps both would be better suited by a step-up in trip.
Bunk Off Early looked the likely winner of the Deloitte Novices’ at Leopardstown last month, until being outstayed by stablemate Bacardys. Champagne Fever and Vautour had took this race on their way to success in the Supreme, and it’s likely that better ground at Cheltenham will suit the Mullins trained five-year-old. He’s travelled powerfully in his two runs over hurdles, and despite being a little keen, has finished the races well. He’s attempting to emulate Menorah, who was the last horse to capture this after finishing runner-up in his prep.
Nicky Henderson often goes close in the Festival opener, and finally got a well-earned success in the race last year, when Altior romped to victory. It looks likely that he’ll have a pair of strong contenders once again, with recent Dovecote Hurdle winner, River Wylde, and Beyond Conceit both heading for this. The former has looked impressive in winning all three starts over obstacles. His jumping was slick at Kempton, and he finished the race off strongly, suggesting the famous hill at Cheltenham will prove ideal.
Beyond Conceit has made a sparkling return from a lengthy lay-off, having been a classy sort on the flat. He’s another eight-year-old, though like Moon Racer has few miles on the clock. He showed a great attitude to win at Ascot last time, and proved that he had the battling qualities to go with a touch of class. After the win, Henderson said that the strong pace of the Supreme would help him to settle, though the Neptune is sure to come under consideration. It’s clearly a worry that he was off the track for so long, and at Cheltenham he’ll be running for the third time in little more than two months. Ex-flat performers also have a poor recent record in the Festival opener.
Ben Pauling will be hoping for a huge performance from High Bridge. He was sixth in the Champion Bumper last year, and has won all three of his hurdles starts. He’s a strong galloping sort, that possibly lacks gears. He raced prominently in the bumper before being outstayed, and you’d expect similar tactics to be employed. He’s got place claims, though I’m not sure he’s quite good enough to win this.
One I fancy at a decent price, though he failed to win last time, is the Mullins trained Cilaos Emery. He disappointed somewhat, when losing out to Mick Jazz at Punchestown in soft ground. He was keen that day, and I fancy he’ll be better suited by decent ground and the guaranteed strong pace of a Supreme. He’s available at 25s, and I think that’s a fair price.
The Supreme Novices’ is a race that usually follows the trends. We’re therefore looking for a five or six-year-old, from the front half dozen of the market. He cannot be ex-flat, and is likely to be trained in Ireland, arriving here with three or four runs over hurdles, having won his relatively recent prep-run.
Sadly, I can’t find one that ticks all the boxes, but Ballyandy and River Wylde tick most. It’s the Henderson horse that I’m favouring, though I fancy both will go close. I’ll also be chucking a few quid at Cilaos Emery, as I’m convinced he’ll run much better than his odds suggest. Best of luck to those having a punt. And go easy on the Guinness.