Declan Rix

In this week's column, Declan Rix takes a closer look at the season's top-class novice hurdling prospects.

  • Sunday 20 January
  • Blog
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In what continues to be a strange campaign thanks to unseasonably dry weather, there is still a feeling we haven’t got to see the very best out of this season’s novice hurdlers. Factor in Gordon Elliott and Willie Mullins maybe not firing on all cylinders, along with Nicky Henderson now reporting a few of his string to be under the weather, it likely doesn’t help in seeing this season’s Samcro.

We are of course still dealing with young, physically and mentally premature horses who are open to significant improvement. The dry weather means some trainers are probably weeks behind where they would like to be, but of those that have run, these are the novice hurdlers that have most caught my eye, accompanied with my own personal ratings.

I’ve been trying to compile my own numbers for a couple of seasons now and it’s an experience I enjoy. It’s nice to get a more concrete appraisal of a horse’s ability, put some flesh on the bones if you will. I haven’t got numbers for all horses as I tend to concentrate on the better racing and Grade 1 tracks in Britain and Ireland.

Starting with the 2m division, just about top of the list in terms of excitement is the Nicky Henderson-trained Grade 2 Kennel Gate Angels Breath (142P). The five-year-old really impressed in his 4½ lengths success over Danny Kirwan and Seddon pre-Christmas, winning a graded contest on just his second ever career start on his first run for a new trainer.

The former Irish point-to-point recruit did win an unsatisfactory race of sorts at Ascot, the field only jumping four hurdles after a quartet of obstacles were taken out for safety reasons due to high winds. While the case, it would be harsh to not rate his performance highly.

While it’s hard to read into his jumping ability on this evidence, the way he travelled through his race and how well he picked up for pressure was taking. The grey son of Shantou really lengthened his stride when Nico De Boinville used his whip before going on to bolt up. The form has a solid look and with him running to such a good level on his first track start, he rates an exciting prospect.

At this moment in time, he looks the right ante-post favourite for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and there is even a case to say he could be shorter than the top price of 6/1 available. Undoubtedly, he looks the best British contender on what we’ve seen.

Angels Breath wins at Ascot
Declan is excited about Supreme Novices' Hurdle favourite Angels Breath

The market just about considers Vision Dhonneur to be the strongest Irish challenger heading into the latter weeks of January, but that looks a price completely based on hype, because his form looks comfortably below that of Grade 1 Paddy Power Future Champions Novice Hurdle winner Aramon (142).

With his stablemate Quick Grabim out for the season, the Willie Mullins inmate looks to be the trainer’s best chance of winning the Cheltenham Festival opener for the fourth time in seven years. The strong-travelling hold-up performer put his slightly below par run in the Royal Bond Novice Hurdle behind him by bouncing back to his best over the festive period at Leopardstown.

The fluent-moving son of Monsun looked assured in the jumping department, but the way he hit the line was the real eyecatcher. In the end, he pulled 10 lengths clear of the runner-up Sancta Simona. She disappointed with her finishing effort, but still, Aramon impressed on the eye.

Owners Supreme Horse Racing Club & Michael Songer have a nice horse their hands with the right man handling his wellbeing. A best-priced 16/1 shot for the Supreme but as short as 10/1, the latter price is a better reflection of his ability and chance.

As the ante-post market for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle suggests, the race looks competitive. Al Dancer (138P) and Elixir De Nutz (140) are two British-trained runners that deserve positive mentions. The latter started his season in satisfactory fashion at Cheltenham but took a huge step forward to take the Grade 2 Sharp Novices' Hurdle at Cheltenham.

Colin Tizzard’s professional and tough inmate added a Grade 1 to his CV when winning the Tolworth Novices' Hurdle, beating Grand Sancy. The front-running son of Al Namix maybe doesn’t have the x-factor like some of those ahead of him in the Supreme market, but he is a quality animal and his experience gained is a huge positive.

On my figures, Al Dancer has a couple of pounds to find with Elixir De Nutz, but by the end of the season, I think there is a good chance of him improving passed him. Another son of Al Namix, Nigel Twiston-Davies’s charge looks a hugely progressive horse. His 11 lengths victory in a December Cheltenham handicap was impressive.

The official handicapper put him up 12lb, but on what he did, that looks fair. A sound jumper that travels strongly, he looks tailor-made for the Supreme test. He may well go close in the Betfair Hurdle on route to the festival.

Finally, where the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle discussion is concerned, one horse stands out as hugely overpriced, the Olly Murphy-trained Itchy Feet (142+). He looks to be very much a forgotten horse in the market, but it wasn’t too long ago he finished 1¼ behind Elixir De Nutz in the Sky Bet Supreme Trial Novices' Hurdle.

The fact he carried a 5lb penalty for his previous Kempton success, essentially means he is a 3lb better horse. The son of Cima De Triomphe made significant progress in a short space of time from September to November which suggests he is a naturally talented performer. Still green at Cheltenham, if he improves further in his time off the track, that 40/1 could look pretty big come March. He’s undoubtedly a forgotten horse.

Stepping up in distance, there are three horses who stand out for me in the 2m4f+ division, but I’m not so sure on Champ (144p) being as far clear of Battleoverdoyen (142p) and Beakstown (143) as many appear to have him. Visually, Champ has been impressive; his strong-travelling and sound jumping abilities continuing to catch the eye. There is substance off the bridle, too, but I don’t think his form is in any way outstanding, for all he has been winning with something to spare.

His victory in the Grade 1 Challow Novices' Hurdle saw him settle better, but it wasn’t the strongest of races, and the even-money favourite was entitled to win like he did. His 4/1 ante-post price for the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle has a fair bit of reputation built into it, bookmakers seemingly in the know the son of King's Theatre is named after legendary jockey AP McCoy.

Battleoverdoyen and Beakstown don’t have too much to find with the JP McManus-owned seven-year-old. Of that pair, where the Ballymore market is concerned, Beakstown looks overpriced for a horse on the upgrade. As discussed last week, his Grade 2 victory in the Ballymore Leamington Novices' Hurdle at Warwick impressed.

So too has the giant Battleoverdoyen. He is another to feature in this space in the past, but that was before his Grade 1 success in the Lawlor's of Naas Novice Hurdle. It was a positive to see the Gigginstown-owned six-year-old step up to top-level company from a maiden, not always the easiest feat to complete.

Like Beakstown, given his size, you’d hope there is more to come. He is in good hands with Gordon Elliott, whose team were a bit hit and miss around Christmas. Given Battleoverdoyen got the job done in that period, that may well be another potential positive.

Even at this stage of the season, I find it hard to get a handle on the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle. However, one horse that could go under the radar in this division is the Philip Hobbs-trained Samburu Shujaa, who was an impressive winner at Chepstow recently. He’s a big horse and been a slow burner but 3m is his trip and he is certainly improving.

Declan Rix
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