LEADING SECTIONAL RATINGS (as of 14/02/2020)
2m to 2m 5f 2m 5f plus
The problem of “but which race?” which affects any long-range forecasting for the Cheltenham Festival is magnified where the novice hurdlers are concerned. Two miles for the Supreme, the traditional curtain-raiser on Tuesday, two miles five for the Ballymore on Wednesday, or three miles for “The Potato Race” (Albert Bartlett) on Friday?
The conundrum is made more difficult by the fact that the last-named is usually slightly easier to win or run well in than the Ballymore (147 five-year average winning rating with Timeform compared to 150) and that both are easier than the Supreme (157).
In addition, a couple of leading novices are being spoken of as Champion Hurdle candidates, in what seems to be a weak year. Still, if it is a headache for pundits it must be even more so for connections!
The Supreme could be exceptional, or slightly disappointing, depending on whether ENVOI ALLEN and ABACADABRAS turn up or not. They finished first and second at Fairyhouse in December in the Royal Bond Novice Hurdle, a race run in a smart overall time and with solid splits, and which looks even better now than it did at the time due to the subsequent exploits of third-placed Darver Star, among others.
The sectionals that day suggest Abacadabras could narrow the one-and-a-half length margin but not necessarily overturn it (he ran 60.6s from three out compared to Envoi Allen’s 60.9s).
Since then, Envoi Allen has been less impressive (despite what you might have read) in beating 142-rated ELIXIR D’AINAY by three and a half lengths in the Naas Novice Hurdle, while Abacadabras smashed up three rivals in the Future Champions Novice Hurdle at Leopardstown at Christmas.
That latter race was an interesting one from a sectional point of view, in that everything finished slowly, but Abacadabras finished less slowly than the others. My inference is that he could be very good indeed in a strongly-run two miles on soft going. Will he get that at Cheltenham? We do not know yet for sure.
ASTERION FORLONGE won in similar style (he finished slowly, others finished slower still) at the Dublin Racing Festival at Leopardstown in February, and his clear defeat of EASYWORK (150) and MT LEINSTER (147) reads very well. Given such stamina, and his limited experience to date, the temptation must be to run Asterion Forlonge in the Ballymore rather than the Supreme, however.
His owners also have SHISHKIN, who is a sectionals horse par-excellence, in that his fast late ones at Newbury had him as 141 minimum and his fast late ones at Huntingdon pushed him up to 155, despite the limitations of his rivals. He won both races by 11 lengths.
That might be enough to win a Supreme in an ordinary year, but this is no ordinary year (see above). For all his talent, Shishkin is another a bit short of experience.
I backed both MASTER DEBONAIR (fast time when winning at Ascot on latest start) and FIDDLERONTHEROOF (ditto at Sandown) ante-post for the Supreme before it became quite so apparent what a red-hot contest it was likely to be.
The latter has the Ballymore as a highly credible alternative, with the longer distance likely to suit him given how strongly he came up the hill at Sandown (30.0s for 425 yards from second-last) to win the Tolworth Novices’ Hurdle by six lengths.
Other shorter-distance novices to mention are CHANTRY HOUSE (139), who received weight when beating 143-rated STOLEN SILVER at Cheltenham and who had little opposition at Newbury last time, CAPTAIN GUINNESS (140), a speedy type who nearly upset 143-rated Andy Dufresne at Punchestown on his latest start, and THE BIG BREAKAWAY and THE BIG GETAWAY (both 138), who may be longer-term prospects. All of those are promising.
Asterion Forlonge is in the Albert Bartlett also, though one doubts he will move from 2m to 3m in one go. THYME HILL (also in the Ballymore) sets the standard in the three-miler, though his defeat of 146-ratedTHE CASHEL MAN in the Challow Novices’ Hurdle at Newbury was less than spectacular.
RAMSES DE TEILLEE ran his rivals into the ground at Doncaster last time (finishing speed of just 93.6% if you include rail movements), and appears to be under-rated, but it is difficult to see the same tactics being successful in these circumstances.
LATEST EXHIBITION might not have been helped by a steady pace when a workmanlike winner at Leoprdstown recently, and is talented and street-wise enough to have place chances, while MONKFISH could be going places fast, though it has to be said that the gelding he beat by 20 lengths at Thurles last time has been beaten by a similar margin since.
Regular readers will be aware of the high regard in which I hold LORD ROYAL, and why. He ran much faster than the other two winners at the same distance at Clonmel on his only hurdling start, and ran faster late on, too, to record a win by a remarkable 33 lengths.
Lord Royal beat little and could surely do with more experience before Cheltenham, but he looks a star of the future to me and a gelding with bags of stamina.
The three novice hurdles at the forthcoming Cheltenham Festival are chock-full of equine talent, tapped and untapped, and the Supreme in particular could be (yet another) “Race of The Festival”.
Abacadabras has the right blend of ability and experience to be of interest at the prices in that, Fiddlerontheroof catches my fancy most in the Ballymore now, and Lord Royal remains my pick for the Albert Bartlett. But caution is advised until nearer the time and non-runner, no bet, looks the way to go.
VERDICT: ABACADABRAS (Supreme), FIDDLERONTHEROOF (Ballymore), LORD ROYAL (Albert Bartlett), all win only and non-runner, no bet