Day one of Cheltenham has been hampered badly by the withdrawals of star names – most notably the previous two winners of the coveted Champion Hurdle: Faugheen and Annie Power.
Despite these stars not being able to travel, one superstar will be present.
Altior will be at centre stage with masses from around the world paying good money to catch a glimpse of what can only be described as a special horse. Nicky Henderson expects him to produce a big performance and he will undoubtedly deliver. The accuracy and fluency which he takes each fence is on par with some of the greats.
The Champion Hurdle may be missing some star names, yet it is still a highly competitive race and the head of the market features two JP McManus runners: Yanworth and B’uveir D’air. Both horses should be close by the time they have travelled the two miles, the pace is always a blistering one and it should be the same this year.
An intriguing inclusion in the race is Moon Racer, one would have assumed that he would have run in the race which will be the feature of this preview, the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. However, after some contemplation his owners have decided to try him in the Champion Hurdle. It seems a risky move as he is yet to have won a Grade 1 hurdle race – never mind a Champion Hurdle – but the owners seem confident and that reflects positively on the horses’ chance.
This article’s main focus will be the festival’s curtain raiser – The Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. Surprisingly there is not one previous Grade 1 winner included in the field which immediately conveys that the race is wide open. The race was dealt a few blows in the last week or so with Paul Nicholls’ Movewiththetimes, Harry Fry’s Neon Wolf, and David Pipe’s Moon Racer all being removed.
Regardless of this there are still some quality horses in this year’s line-up.
Firstly, a few outsiders have to be mentioned. Beyond Conceit, trained by Nicky Henderson, and piloted by Noel Fehily, has very respectable form coming into it, with two wins in a row. He was last seen in a close encounter with Topofthegame – luckily for him, he came out on top winning by a neck at Ascot. This was after he easily brushed aside Shantou Rock by ten lengths at Newbury. The field might be a bit too competitive for him, but at 16/1 he might be worth a look for some each-way value.
Next comes Capital Force, trained by Henry de Bromhead, and ridden by Davy Russell. To be fair, this horse looks way out of his depth in a tough race. It would be a surprise if he finished anywhere near the top three.
Bunk off Early and Crack Mome, both trained by Willie Mullins will be looking to run to form and if either of them do so they should go close. However, Bunk off Early looks like the better of the pair finishing only three-quarters of a length behind stable mate Bacardays last time out.
Elgin, trained by Alan King, and ridden by Wayne Hutchinson, has good form including defeating Jenkins who was fancied for a Cheltenham win early in the season. Unfortunately for Elgin he found a few horses too good in his previous races. He finished nine lengths behind Neon Wolf at Haydock and then he was beaten three-and-a-half lengths at Kempton by River Wylde, trained by Nicky Henderson and ridden by Nico de Boinville.
He too is entered in the Supreme Novices’ and the punters believe he has a solid chance. The money has been coming consistently for the horse during the last week. The only negative is his only previous run in Cheltenham was very disappointing. He finished twelfth in a sixteen horse race – a race in which he went off as the 13/8 Favourite. He’s definitely worth a market check in the morning and if the money keeps coming for him then maybe he has a serious chance.
A runner who has caught the eye is High Bridge, ridden by Alex Ferguson (Who needs the Champions’ League and numerous Premier League titles when you can win the Supreme Novices’ eh? No seriously, he’s a jockey. He has been riding since 17/06/13), and trained by Ben Pauling. High Bridge has some quality form including finishing sixth in last years’ Champion Bumper. He is also unbeaten in his last three starts, defeating Chelsea Flyer, Top Tug and Azzerti in the process. If replicating this form over two miles, the top three shouldn’t be unreasonable.
The two horses who will undoubtedly dominate the betting tomorrow though are Melon, trained by Willie Mullins, and ridden by Ruby Walsh, and Ballyandy, trained by Nigel Twiston-Davies, and jockeyed by Sam Twiston-Davies. The two are high quality horses.
Last year’s Champion Bumper winner Ballyandy has already defeated some of the horses entered in the race by impressive margins. He will also be thankful that the Pipe team have removed Moon Racer from the race. Moon Racer got the better of Ballyandy on a few previous occasions and if he had been entered in the race there would have only been one winner in this writer’s opinion. Ballyandy is a consistent sort though and one would expect a big run from the Twiston-Davies hopeful.
In stark contrast to the consistency of Ballyandy, we come to Melon. This horse is basically an unknown quantity. However, if you look back at Willie Mullins’ list of unknown quantities imported from France and who have ran in the Supreme Novices’ one must be wary. His previous entries include: Vautour, Douvan and Champagne Fever. If Melon possesses one-tenth of the quality of those horses then this field will not be a problem for him. Yet, he is a short price, and he has only had one run in Ireland. He ran at Leopardstown, defeating Broken Soul –a Gigginstown horse who was three pounds heavier than him – by ten lengths.
The race will be ran at a high tempo, and BALLYANDY has to be the one to back for me. His form is by far the best in the field and despite his losses he should raring to go for the occasion. Bunk Off Early and Melon for Mullins will be the main threats and for the each-way punter High Bridge looks like a nice price at 16/1 with Ladbrokes.
1:30 Ballyandy @ 7/2 with Ladbrokes
2:10 No bet – watch Altior.
2:50 Un Temp Pour Tout @ 11/1 (EW) with Ladbrokes – Last year’s winner has gone up seven pounds yet the former French Champion Hurdle winner should enter the equation in a big handicap field.
3:30 Petit Moucher @ 8/1 with Ladbrokes – a throw up between Petit Moucher and Moon Racer. I have reservations about the fact that Moon Racer hasn’t won a Grade One over hurdles, yet they must be entering him for a reason. Petit Moucher who is an elegant grey horse seems to be going from strength to strength winning the Ryanair Hurdle at Leopardstown as well as the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown which were both Grade 1’s and beating Footpad and Nichols Canyon in the process.
4:10 Limini @ 13/8 with Ladbrokes – if she’s good enough for Ruby then she’s good enough for me.
4:50 Edwulf @ 5/1 NAP with Ladbrokes – a horse who won with so much left in the tank on his last start the four miler will suit him to a tee and he is possibly Joseph O’Brien’s best chance of the week.
5:30 Bun Doran @12/1 (EW) – Seemed to be progressing nicely after he defeated Ash Park by five lengths at Newcastle in December, excuses latest and seems to be set for a good run.