The Flip Side

Kevin Blake takes an in-depth look at a red-hot renewal of the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle from the 2020 Cheltenham Festival.

  • Thursday 19 March
  • Blog
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Detailed analysis of the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle

The Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, what a race to start off the Cheltenham Festival last week!

Following the now traditional false start to get the meeting underway, this was a strongly-run race from the outset and while there was some mayhem along the way, it looks as though the cream rose to the top.

SHISHKIN had impressed in visual terms when winning steadily-run novices' hurdles at Newbury and Huntingdon, showcasing notable tactical and finishing speed in the process. This race presented a completely different test to him in terms of the demands on stamina and grit, but he proved equal to the task.

Having got away ok from the standing start (insert groan), Shishkin was covered up on the rail in mid-division. As had been the case in his previous two starts over hurdles, he took a good grip despite the strong pace and cover in front of him. His jumping was sharp in the main, barring him being too long at the third and dragging his back legs through it. From there, Nico De Boinville always seemed to be fighting to maintain his position in heavy cover and lost that battle after the fourth-last flight when he was squeezed out of his spot as the field set off down the hill.

Nico took this opportunity to choose a wider route, which almost proved to be disastrous at the very next flight. Having jumped the third-last flight widest of all, the wayward leap of Asterion Forlonge caused three horses to cross his path as he landed. Having narrowly avoided catastrophe, he had to do so again at the very next flight, as Elixir D’Ainey fell in front of him and he somehow negotiated his flaying legs to stay in the race having been hampered.

Those incidents left him with a little bit to do, but Shishkin made up the ground quite stylishly to challenge at the final flight. It came down to a battle with Abacadabras from there and despite never having had to fight for victory in his life, Shishkin answered every call to win by a head with Nico only using his stick three times and looking assured in the final strides.

This was a proper performance in victory from Shishkin. He showed a completely different side to himself than he had in the lead up to Cheltenham and he looks the full package now. It remains to be seen whether his connections give him the chance to progress into a Champion Hurdle contender or send him novice chasing next season, potentially over longer trips, but he looks to be right up there amongst a vintage crop of novice hurdlers.

As good as Shishkin was, one can be sure there are plenty out there that think ABACADABRASmight have won on another day.

Abacadabras didn’t look comfortable being asked to partake in the standing start (insert groan) and jumped the first hurdle in second-last position. Mind, it might have been a blessing in disguise to be that bit further back in the field given the strong pace that was set in front.

One assumes that Davy Russell hadn’t intended on being that far back, as he seemed anxious to make up some ground in the middle third of the race, helping to squeeze back Shishkin in the process. Having moved to within striking distance before the third-last flight, he avoided the trouble at that flight and was very fortunate to only meet minor interference in the carnage at the second-last.

While he avoided the carnage, there was an alternative penalty to pay for Abacadabras, as the mayhem led to Russell being left upsides the leader in a challenging position soon after the second-last. While still travelling best of all, one got the distinct impression that Russell didn’t want to hit the front as early as he did, but circumstances left him with no other option.

Having gone to the lead still on the bridle before the final flight, Abacadabras briefly wandered, but once Shishkin joined him they engaged in a great battle to the line. Would it have been different if Abacadabras had been delivered later? Possibly, but Shishkin gave the impression of having a bit more left if he really needed it.

So, where for Abacadabras from here? In terms of his jumping, it is only when one looks back at his first run over hurdles that one realises just how far he has come in this regard during his novice hurdle campaign. Experience has transformed him from a messy hurdler into one that is low and slick in the main.

Pace has always seemed to be his forte and he looks one to point down the Champion Hurdle route next season. Who knows if it will take place or not, but if the Punchestown Festival goes ahead and Epatante doesn’t travel, Gordon Elliott might well be tempted to run him in the Punchestown Champion Hurdle which would be a fascinating prospect.

The front two pulled 11 lengths clear of the third, but there is still plenty to talk about amongst those back in the wash and indeed those that didn’t finish.

CHANTRY HOUSE is a genuinely gorgeous horse. In a field with more than a few proper lookers, he stood out. Much like his stable mate Shishkin, he had impressed in winning steadily-run races in the lead up to Cheltenham and the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle would have represented a serious shock to him in terms of how quickly it was run. That showed too, as while Barry Geraghty had him in an excellent position from the outset, one got the impression that he was flat-out at almost every stage to maintain it. Having avoided all the interference at the third and second-last flights, he could only find the one pace from before the run-in.

While Chantry House ultimately had no excuses on the day, one can’t help but think this first really competitive racing experience will bring him on. He looks every inch a chaser and one suspects he’ll be capable of operating at a higher level with another summer in him and fences in front of him.

One can only imagine that ASTERION FORLONGE is considered a swear word in many racing households after the display Willie Mullins’s charge put in on his way to finishing fourth.

Where can we start but with his jumping. His tendency to jump out to his right didn’t come from out of the blue by any means. He had done so to a notable extent on his hurdling debut at Naas and it got worse in the closing stages there. He wasn’t quite as bad on his second start over hurdles at Leopardstown, but it was still evident at most of the hurdles he jumped that day.

In the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, he jumped right at the first and continued to do so to varying degrees throughout. While this was a nuisance for some of his nearest pursuers in the first half of the race, it became a serious problem at both the third-last and second-last hurdles, with him causing serious interference to several rivals leading to Elixir D’Ainay falling and bringing down Captain Guinness at the second-last flight.

Despite his best efforts to take out as many rivals as possible, Asterion Forlonge ultimately found three to be too good for him. It was a run that can be marked up given he forced what was a strong pace and cost himself significant ground with his wayward jumping. All three of his runs over hurdles have come at left-handed tracks and he can obviously be expected to improve when running at a right-handed track. He also gives the impression of one that will be better over a longer trip and he looks a chaser in the making. So, while Asterion Forlonge is likely to be in plenty of people’s bad books after Cheltenham, he may well pay them back in the future.

The first casualty of Asterion Forlonge’s waywardness was his stable mate ELIXIR D’AINAY. The six-year-old had been racing much more freely than ideal over longer trips in his runs leading into Cheltenham and the hope was that the stronger pace of the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle would be more suited to his natural cruising speed. It seemed to help, as while he still took a good grip in a prominent position without cover, it did represent an improvement on his previous couple of starts in this regard.

Elixir D’Ainay’s troubles with Asterion Forlonge started at the fourth hurdle when he gave him a bump soon after the flight. Things only got worse from there. With Asterion Forlonge’s tendency to jump right having been evident prior to Cheltenham and in the early stages of the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, Mark Walsh is likely to be annoyed with himself for not doing more to take himself out of a vulnerable position on his outside, particularly after the fourth-last hurdle where he looked to have a chance to slot in behind the leader. Alas, he stayed on his outside and was badly interfered with at the third-last flight and then essentially assaulted to the floor at the second-last.

Elixir D’Ainay was still travelling well at the time of his exit and while there was plenty of running left to do, he more than deserves another chance in a Grade 1 novice hurdle at the minimum trip. We almost certainly haven’t seen the best of him yet.

CAPTAIN GUINNESS was the other misfortunate victim of Asterion Forlonge. The five-year-old was having just the third run of his life having made a splash when a close second to Andy Dufresne in the Moscow Flyer Novice Hurdle at Punchestown after doing plenty wrong. The main fears for him coming into the meeting was that his headstrong nature would be exacerbated by the atmosphere of the Cheltenham Festival. As it turned out, such fears were largely unfounded.

Captain Guinness didn’t jump off as sharply as Rachael Blackmore seemed to want him to, as he briefly shied at the tape going up at the standing start (insert groan). That might have been a blessing in disguise though, as it forced Rachael to seek cover and try to get Captain Guinness to relax. After some initial objections, he duly consented to do so to a satisfactory degree soon after the second hurdle.

Once Rachael Blackmore gave him a sight of open air, Captain Guinness began to tank into the race on the approach to the third-last flight only to be badly hampered at that flight. Soon back on the bridle, he was making significant headway and looking likely to be a big player in the finish only to be brought down at the second-last flight.

Captain Guinness really didn’t deserve the fate that befell him. For a horse with significant question marks about how he would cope with the test the occasion would present, he did everything right, showed he had matured from what we saw in the Moscow Flyer and looked to have a genuine chance only to be taken out of the race through no fault of his own. It will have been a tough one for his connections to take, but they still have their horse and he is a serious prospect going forward.

A notably scopey jumper of a hurdle, Captain Guinness looks one that will make a chaser and he couldn’t be with a better trainer to help him make his transition to the larger obstacles a successful one. He shouldn’t be rated too far behind the front two in terms of his long-term promise.

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