Matt Tombs / Wednesday 26th February 2014 / 13:35
Before turning to the runners, it’s worth looking at the nature of the Neptune as, to me, it’s the most inexplicable of all the conditions events at the Festival. A novice hurdle over a stiff 2m5f ought to be for potential stayers, (and before the Albert Bartlett was introduced 9 years ago, it was branded as such.) Yet the Neptune, rather than the Supreme, has been the trial for the following season’s Champion Hurdle, with The New One bidding to emulate the likes of Istabraq and Hardy Eustace.
Some have argued that the Neptune attracts better horses which is why it’s the better Champion Hurdle trial. I don’t buy that. Two of the great stayers of the modern era, Denman and Inglis Drever, were done for toe in this by inferior horses. For some reason you need a really fast horse for the Neptune – the evidence has been going on too long for it to be a statistical anomaly. I’ve come up with loads of theories over the years for why this is, each more unlikely than the last – so I’m just accepting the nature of the race as it is.
That should help us knock out some of the 14 quoted at shorter than 33/1. Vautour (16/1) is heading for the Supreme. The Wylie/Mullins pair Briar Hill (14/1) and Sure Reef (20/1) both look stayers. One might run in this to keep them apart, but Sure Reef may not travel, with Briar Hill going for the Albert Bartlett. Captain Cutter (25/1) won the Challow, (no winner of which has won the Neptune in the modern era). In typical Challow winner fashion, he looks a stayer and ought to run in the Albert Bartlett. Kings Palace (25/1) is favourite for the Albert Bartlett and is a highly unlikely runner.
The key horse to this race is Faugheen (3/1) who is known as ‘the monster’ at Closutton. He beat Tolworth runner up Josses Hill 22l on the bridle in a bumper in the spring and has bolted up in 3 hurdles. From what we’ve seen he’s the best horse in the race. However, his Achilles heel has been his jumping and he has no real experience of jumping at pace. Willie Mullins has reported he hasn’t been happy with him recently and its possible he could switch to either of the other novice Grade 1s. With all that, you have to take him on at this stage.
Nicky Henderson said in his start of season stable tour that he hoped Royal Boy (8/1) “was a top class horse in the making.” He’d disappointed until winning a maiden at Ascot just before Christmas. That was on soft ground over 2m6f but he took the drop down to 2m, and step up to Grade 1 company, in his stride when winning the Tolworth. He won a point on good ground and might well have the right blend of speed and stamina for the Neptune. However, the bare form of the Tolworth doesn’t look great and, whilst its not a stat to take too much notice of, no horse older than 6 has won this century. He’s been put up by Pricewise and the value has gone.
Red Sherlock (11/2) is unbeaten in 3 bumpers and 3 hurdles, and we don’t know how good he is. He was getting 3lb from Rathvinden when beating him 2¼l at Cheltenham. 3 recent winners of that race have won the Albert Bartlett, whilst 2 beaten horses have won the Neptune – indicating what a test of stamina it tends to be, especially when, as this season, its on testing ground. It’s hard to tell with an unbeaten horse, but I’m not sure he’ll be quick enough for the Neptune. More worrying is the fact that he again flashed his tail when given a crack of the whip and Tom Scudamore didn’t feel able to use the whip again. He looks far from straightforward and it’s pretty unlikely he can outclass this field on the bridle. I’m keen to oppose him.
Having backed Zamdy Man for the Supreme, I’ve obviously got a pretty positive view of Un Temps Pout Tout (16/1) who got within 1¾l of Zamdy Man at Haydock. Un Temps Pour Tout has since bolted up from a decent horse (132 rated Cole Harden) over an extended 2m3f at Ascot. I don’t know how accurate going descriptions are at Bordeaux but he beat Greatwood winner Dell’ Arca (who received 8lb) on officially good to soft ground there in May, which suggests he’s not just a mudlark. Winning a Festival handicap off 147 might well be more difficult than winning a Neptune but given the handicap route is under serious consideration he’s one I’d want to wait until declarations before backing for this.
Deputy Dan (16/1) took advantage of Rathvinden coming down at Warwick in a Grade 2, (2m5f, heavy). There are two concerns – the first is that his form has been on really bad ground and his breeding suggests he may need it. The second is that he may well run in the Albert Bartlett unless it comes up soft. If the ground was testing he comes right into this and would be one to consider nearer the time if that looked likely.
Ballyalton (20/1) is another whose form looked good in the autumn but has rather unravelled since. His defeats of Oscar Rock at Newcastle and Garde La Victoire at Cheltenham looked good at the time but both those horses have been well beaten since. Ballyalton himself was only 8½l 4th to Aubusson on bad ground at Cheltenham last month. Trainer Ian Williams said “whatever he does over hurdles is small fry as he’s an out and out chaser.” If he’d looked like he was a Festival novice hurdle winner he might be harder trained this season, but I doubt he is or that they’ll risk bottoming him this season.
Diamond King (25/1) has been kept to 3 small hurdles races this season at around 2m and would be unbeaten but for blundering at the last 2 runs ago. His form is nothing special and I couldn’t back him on what I’ve seen, but he’s an interesting wild card.
Lieutenant Colonel (20/1) looks set to be Gigginstown’s representative in this with Valseur Lido heading for the Supreme. He’s been brushed aside by Vautour and Wicklow Brave over 2m and whilst a step up in trip is sure to suit, he doesn’t look good enough to win a Neptune – he should come into his own as a novice chaser next season.
The likely shape of the Mullins novice hurdlers team is becoming clearer. Mullins said Vautour, Wicklow Brave and Valseur Lido are his likely 3 for the Supreme. With Faugheen seemingly set for the Neptune that leaves Rathvinden, Briar Hill and Sure Reef as Mullins other main contenders. The one I like is Rathvinden (16/1) who won an ordinary maiden over 2m and fell in a Grade 2 at Warwick, (still well there,) won by Deputy Dan. He then looked to be outstayed by Red Sherlock (who received 3lb) in a Grade 2 at Cheltenham, (extended 2m4f, heavy.) He was only beaten 2½l, so there’s little between them at level weights.
You’d therefore think they’d be similar prices but Red Sherlock is 6/1 and Rathvinden is 20/1 16/1. That would make sense if the test in the Neptune itself looked likely to favour Red Sherlock more, but I think the opposite is true. Rathvinden might be a similar type to Rock On Ruby and The New One, who were both outstayed in that race before winning the Neptune. Since joining Willie Mullins he’s raced only on testing ground but his breeding suggests he should be much better on good, (won bumper on good to firm).
Rathvinden looks a fast horse not a stayer to me and I think he’ll jump better on a sound surface. If Red Sherlock is 6/1, he should be about 9/1 and so he rates fantastic value at 16/1 and must be backed.
1pt Rathvinden e/w in the Neptune @ 16/1