Kevin Blake

Kevin assesses the novice hurdle division following some key performances over the Christmas period.

  • Monday 04 January
  • Blog
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Assessing the impressive novice hurdlers from Christmas

The Christmas period saw a bunch of Graded novice hurdles take place, and the picture is now quite a bit clearer in terms of pecking orders at the various trips. Indeed, those races produced a few winners that will have strong claims to be at the very top end of their divisions at the end of the season.

First up to the plate was the Willie Mullins-trained Appreciate It in the Paddy Power Future Champions Novice Hurdle at Leopardstown.

Appreciate It was one the very best bumper horses in training last season. Despite doing his best to create the image of an embryonic staying chaser by winning a point-to-point and a bumper over two-and-a-half miles, he showed an altogether different side to himself when winning the Grade 2 bumper at the Dublin Racing Festival in electric style. That victory made him the one to beat in the Champion Bumper at the Cheltenham Festival and while he found Ferny Hollow too good for him on the day, he earned more credit than the bare result gave him as he fared best of those that raced handily and were put into the race early in the straight.

While Willie Mullins expressed that Appreciate It was likely to want at least two-and-a-half miles over hurdles to show his best, he started him off in a maiden hurdle over two miles at Cork in November. He looked to have a straightforward task on paper and didn’t blow too many people away in landing odds of 1/12, though the subsequent exploits of the clear runner-up Master Mcshee (won a maiden hurdle and a handicap hurdle off 132 since) have painted the form in a better light than it appeared at the time. On that occasion his jumping had been quite good in the main, getting slicker as the race progressed, and it served to lay a solid foundation for his imminent step up in class.

Appreciate It star of the show

Sent straight up to Grade 1 company for the Paddy Power Future Champions Novice Hurdle at Leopardstown on 27 December, Appreciate It faced a formidable rival in the shape of the Royal Bond winner Ballyadam. However, with that rival failing to fire on the day, Appreciate It was very much the star of the show. His jumping was assured and solid rather than slick, but he powered through the race and quickly put it bed when the time came, proving very strong up the run-in on his way to a nine-length victory.

With Ferny Hollow now on the side lines, Appreciate It looks to have taken over as Mullins’ main hope in the two-mile novice hurdle division. In fairness, he may well have ended up in that spot anyway even if Ferny Hollow was still on the scene. The Chanelle Pharma Novice Hurdle at the Dublin Racing Festival (6-7 February) is set to be his next port of call and if there is to be a threatening rival in opposition to him there, they haven’t made themselves known just yet.

Metier remains best of British

Over at Sandown, the Harry Fry-trained Metier put his unbeaten record over hurdles on the line in the Tolworth Hurdle. Formerly trained on the Flat in Ireland by Andy Slattery, he reached a career-high rating of 90 up to a mile-and-a-half prior to changing hands for 150,000gns in October 2019 and joining Harry Fry.

It took time for Metier to reach the track, and having had a breathing operation last summer, he made a winning British debut in a novice hurdle at Newton Abbot almost a year to the day after he had been bought. Three weeks later he followed up by winning an introductory hurdle at Ascot in similarly clear-cut style. On the first of those occasions, he ended up in front a long way out as nothing was able to give him a lead for longer than they did, and on the second occasion Sean Bowen decided to make the running on him as there was no other pace in the race. On both occasions his jumping looked a work in progress, with it being a bit deliberate and big in places. Thus, while he went into the Tolworth Hurdle as a favourite unbeaten over hurdles, he still had questions to answer as to whether he was up to such a stiff rise in class at this early stage of his hurdling career. He answered those questions in no uncertain terms.

In a more competitive environment and surrounded by a better class of horse, Sean Bowen was able to anchor Metier and ride him with patience. Metier responded well to the cover he was positioned in amongst, with his jumping being markedly slicker and more professional. It was clear from a long way out that he was travelling very strongly and once Bowen asked him for more after the penultimate flight, Metier responded generously and powered up the run-in to score by 12 lengths.

The depth of what finished behind him can be questioned, but the tangible progression Metier made from Ascot to Sandown and the style of his victory warrants upgrading of his bare performance. This was as impressive a performance as has been seen from a two-mile novice hurdler in Britain this season and Metier rates as an exciting prospect.

Bravemansgame displays power at Newbury

The Grade 1 novice hurdle action was rounded off at Newbury with the Paul Nicholls-trained Bravemansgame winning the Challow Novices’ Hurdle in taking style. The six-year-old had changed hands for £370,000 after winning a point-to-point at Lingstown in March 2019, but had been made to look expensive when beaten in two bumpers for Nicholls last season. However, having had a breathing operation, he made up for lost time in delivering on his promise this season.

While Bravemansgame started his season with defeat in a novice hurdle at Chepstow, he hasn’t been beaten since. Victories at odds-on in novice hurdles at Exeter and Newbury set the scene for his first venture into Grade 1 company last Tuesday and he didn’t disappoint his supporters. Showcasing a likeably uncomplicated manner, Bravemansgame jumped out and made his own running. For a big, scopey, chasing type in appearance, he exhibited a notably athletic and nimble jumping technique, making it look effortless. Clearly travelling best from a long way out, his supporters never had a moment of worry. The manner in which he powered up the run-in after being given a couple of reminders from the saddle was very likeable indeed.

Again, the depth of what finished behind Bravemansgame at Newbury can be questioned, but he can be marked up for style. Paul Nicholls made some very favourable and quotable comparisons between him and the great Denman after the race. While he has some way to go in reaching that sort of level, Bravemansgame looks to have all the potential to be a proper one.

Kevin Blake
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