The Tolworth Novices’ Hurdle is often viewed as a stepping stone for the Supreme or Neptune at Cheltenham, with last year’s winner Yorkhill, taking the latter at the Festival in March.
Nicky Henderson has dominated the race in recent times, with four wins from the last six renewals. This Grade 1 was first run in 1976, and has gone to numerous classy types. The legendary Desert Orchid took the race in 1984, though failed to make much of an impact over hurdles. The same cannot be said when switched to fences. The glorious grey went on to become one of the all-time great chasers, winning the King George on four occasions, and the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
French Holly took the race for Ferdy Murphy in 1998. He went on to take the Neptune, then the Royal & SunAlliance, a few months later. A huge gelding measuring 18 hands, he finished runner-up in the Fighting Fifth later that year, before winning the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton. He chased home the mighty Istabraq on several occasions, getting within a length in a thrilling Aintree Hurdle.
Paul Nicholls struck four times in six years, from 2003 to 2008. The first of those victories went to one of my favourite horses of the period, Thisthatandtother. The race had been switched to Wincanton, a track he loved. He ran-out a comfortable winner, and a couple of months later finished fifth in the Supreme Novices’ at Cheltenham. He went on to become a high-class chaser, especially at trips around two and a half miles. He took the Ryanair back in 2005, then the Festival Trophy Chase, beating Fondmort and Rathgar Beau in a thriller.
One horse that is certainly worth a mention among the Tolworth roll of honour, is the Martin Pipe trained Marcel. He won his hurdling debut at Stratford in August 2004, and by the end of November had racked-up an incredible seven victories, including a Grade 2 at Cheltenham. Beaten for the first time at Haydock in December, he then won at Windsor before arriving at the Tolworth with eight wins from nine races in little more than four months.
In a classy looking nine-runner affair, Marcel proved a cut above the rest, running on powerfully to win by a couple of lengths. He had Noel Meade’s Wild Passion more than six lengths behind him that day. He was beaten at Exeter a month later, and by the time he arrived for the Supreme Novices’ at Cheltenham had clearly run out of steam. Sent off the 13/2 favourite, he faded badly late-on to finish well down the field. Wild Passion, beaten comfortably in the Tolworth, finished second. By the end of the season, Marcel had won nine of his 13 starts.
A year later, Paul Nicholls mapped a rather more conservative path for young novice hurdler Noland. He arrived at the Tolworth with a couple of hurdle starts under his belt, and romped to victory. He warmed up for the Supreme with a gutsy win at Exeter, before famously getting-up in the dying strides at Cheltenham to defeat AP McCoy on Straw Bear.
Last year was the turn of Yorkhill to take in the Tolworth with little hurdling experience in the bank. He had won a 2m4f maiden at Punchestown, and arrived at Sandown with a burgeoning reputation. He duly ran out an impressive winner in testing conditions, before again stepping-up in trip to win the Neptune Novices’ Hurdle at Prestbury Park. He currently stands on seven wins from eight career starts, and is one of the most exciting novice chasers.
A number of classy types are sure to line-up for this weekend’s renewal of the Tolworth Novices’ Hurdle, with the likes of Nicky Henderson, Paul Nicholls, and Colin Tizzard represented. Whether a Cheltenham Festival winner emerges from the pack remains to be seen, though history suggests there’s every chance.