With the Cheltenham Festival now just over a week away, multiple entries continues to be a major talking point. Thankfully in recent days several influential individuals have identified specific targets for a number of exciting novice hurdlers.
Gigginstown have a powerful team travelling over the Irish Sea and jockey Bryan Cooper has talked of his up-coming mounts and the likelihood of a memorable festival: “The ones I'm really looking forward to at the moment are Don Cossack, Road To Riches and No More Heroes,” said Cooper. The Gordon Elliott-trained No More Heroes, a leading hope in the Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle, worked after the Leopardstown meeting on Saturday. Cooper added: “They should all go there with great chances.”
No More Heroes was disappointing last time out, but was found to be unwell after the race. He had impressed prior to that at Navan when staying on strongly to beat Shaneshill. A powerful son of Presenting, he should appreciate a sounder surface and sits near the top of the betting.
Owner Graham Wylie has a number of decent chances over the four days of the festival, including Nichols Canyon in the Neptune Investment Management Novices' Hurdle, but appears most excited about the prospects of Black Hercules in the Albert Bartlett. The six-year-old was fourth in last year's Champion Bumper, and is unbeaten over hurdles. Talking to The Northern Echo, Wylie said: "He's a monster, and I'm sure he'll stay no problem. He's been in great form, although it's a bit of a shame that we haven't been able to get him out since December. Willie's looking forward to seeing him in action again."
That run in December saw him beat another Gigginstwon horse in Alpha Des Obeaux at Cork over three miles. He travelled supremely that day and has been heavily supported in to favouritism for Cheltenham’s staying novice hurdle crown.
Martello Tower is likely to be another Irish challenger. Seemingly out-paced when second to Outlander at Leopardstown over 2m4f, he had previously beaten the same horse over three miles at Limerick. That form looks strong and he has to have a decent each-way chance. He’s owned by Barry Connell who also has the exciting chaser Foxrock.
The English challenge is led; at least according to the bookies; by the Twiston-Davies trained Blaklion. Carrying the same colours as The New One, this diminutive stayer is all heart. Neat over his hurdles he has run consistently well over the winter and won the Albert Bartlett trial at Cheltenham back in December. Beaten twice by the classy Parlour Games over shorter, he is proven at this trip. As tough as he is, there’s just a feeling that he may find one or two a little too good for him on the day.
Value At Risk is expected to go well for the Skelton’s. He appeared to be caught for ‘toe’ when beaten over shorter in the Neptune trial at Cheltenham in January. That performance appeared to crystallise the trainer’s view on the festival target: “Value At Risk is a Grade 1 horse we think and we're looking at the Albert Bartlett for him," was Dan Skelton’s comment after that defeat. Ordo Ab Chao was his nemesis that day, but he was rallying strongly nearing the post and an extended trip should be ideal. Third in the Punchestown Bumper last April, he’s classy.
Nicky Henderson’s Vyta Du Roc may well step-up in trip and contest this race. The trainer could have three engaged with dour stayer Caracci Apache and the classy Out Sam also entered. Du Roc was just beaten by Parlour Games in the Challow Novices’ Hurdle at Newbury. He had Blaklion behind him that day and appeared to stay on well, closing on the winner nearing the finish. His participation in this is by no means certain as earlier in the season he won a Supreme trial at Cheltenham.
Caracci Apache got up late to mug Blaklion at Doncaster in January. Only a five-year-old, that performance put him in the frame for a festival trip. He is an out and out stayer, but this has proven to be a tough race for his age group to win. Very Wood managed it last year, though he was a forward looking beast of a horse. Prior to that win, six and seven-year-olds had dominated.
Out Sam lacks experience but has been very impressive winning his only two starts over hurdles. He comfortably accounted for Thomas Brown and Tea For Three at Newbury in November, and both have gone on to frank that form. He then won well at Ascot giving plenty of weight to all. If he gets the green light from his trainer, his price of 20’s could look very generous.
Rebecca Curtis won the Albert Bartlett in 2013 with At Fishers Cross and she has Beast Of Burden this time round. A huge son of Flemensfirth, he looks a chaser in the making but created a stir when effortlessly thrashing Mendip Express last time out at Bangor. He does look a little raw, but there’s no doubting his talent.
Noel Meade looks for lightning to strike twice with Snow Falcon currently 33/1 in the market. He won the race last year with Very Wood, also a 33/1 shot. He has put in consistently good performances during the winter, and was stepped-up in trip to great effect last time at Navan. Though only five, he is at least more experienced having run six times under rules and yet to be out of the first two.
Finally a mention for two contenders who fought out a terrific finish at Haydock a couple of weeks back. Definitly Red and Fletchers Flyer both look capable of huge runs in this competitive renewal. The two of them pulled miles clear of a horse called Ballagh who had run a cracker at Warwick previously. I fancy both come into the Albert Bartlett a little underrated. The former had great bumper form having finished seventh last March at Cheltenham behind Silver Concorde. He looks a gutsy, hardy performer and should be up to the rigorous battle that this race brings.
Fletchers Flyer is a lovely looking son of Winged Love who should make a smashing chaser in time. Trained by Harry Fry, he’s a seven-year-old with a bright future who looks to have a touch of class.
This looks a potentially top-class renewal. The novice hurdle division looks stronger than ever and this race in particular looks incredibly tough to call.