Matt Tombs / Thursday 24th October 2013 / 13:00
Assessing early season novice hurdle form is trickier than novice chase form - for the obvious reason that most runners, (especially national hunt breds), bring much less form into a race. It’s rarely worth taking strong views at this stage – the right approach is to use each piece of form as a building block so you have a good picture of the division as the season progresses.
With one-third of the winners of the 3 level weights, all age novice hurdles at the Festival in the last decade having run over hurdles by the end of October, (including The New One last season), there are going to be Supreme, Neptune & Albert Bartlett horses out there at this time of year - it’s a case of finding them.
Willie Mullins dominates Irish racing at the moment and again looks to have a wealth of novice hurdle prospects. He doesn’t tend to bring his big guns out early but one interesting type he’s run is Arctic Fire who had bolted up over 11f on France on his sole previous start. He wore a hood when repeating the trick in a maiden at Tipperary, as is apparently a handful at home, (2m, good). He settled well enough in the race and jumped well. He’s clearly not straightforward but showed a real turn of foot here and could be interesting if he goes the right way, (20/1 for the Supreme).
Those who like to follow horses hyped up by trainers will be keeping close tabs on Noel Meade’s Apache Stronghold, who narrowly won a maiden at Punchestown, (2m4f, good). Meade was adamant he’d jumped brilliantly at home, but said he missed the first, which knocked his confidence, and that he would come on a ton for the run. If that’s all correct then he’ll be Festival bound, perhaps for the Albert Bartlett (not quoted). Given the current dominance of the Mullins stable it’s easy to forget that Meade was champion trainer 7 out of 8 years before the financial crash that decimated his owner base. You could interpret that as meaning he’ll know a top class novice when he sees one. Equally, you could forgive him for latching onto his best novice and believing he’s top class during these leaner years. Apache Stronghold is better judged after another run.
The Skyfarmer had been placed in a couple of hot bumpers before winning one at Wincanton in April and was a taking winner of a novice at Newton Abbot (2m3f, good) from a field containing 3 other bumper winners. The Skyfarmer looked green, ballooning his hurdles and then wandering around at the business end but he clearly has an engine and should improve with experience. He might make up into a Neptune horse (not quoted). He’s rated highly by the Hobbs team and this win paid a compliment to West Wizard who thrashed him in a bumper at Kempton and who is favourite in some books for the Supreme.
One of the first horses this season to make an impression was the lightly raced 7 year old Young Finnegan who had bolted up by 12l in a Cork bumper just before the end of last season and repeated the trick in a maiden hurdle at Tipperary in May, (2m, heavy). It was a weak maiden but he won in the manner of a good horse and the fact Robert Tyner booked Ruby Walsh (only his 2nd ride for the stable in 5 seasons) suggest they think he’s pretty good. Given his previous fragility, he’s hardly an ante-post betting proposition at this stage, but he’s one to keep an eye on in the better novice races in Ireland as the season progresses.
Jumps racing has become much more like the flat since the financial crash, in that the top horses are concentrated in far fewer hands nowadays. It’s therefore good to see newer yards flourishing and one that has made a big impression this autumn is that of Charlie Longsdon, (35 winners with a strike rate of nearly 30%). He’s already sent out 28 different horses to win a race this season so there’s clearly plenty of depth, but the novice hurdler that has taken the eye is Killala Quay. He’s won novices at Aintree (2m4f, good - from a subsequent triple hurdles winner), and Chepstow, (2m3f, good to soft.) He needs to learn to settle better but he looks to have plenty of ability. He might be good enough for the Neptune, (not quoted).
Ironically, if there is to be a power-shift away from the established top jumps yards over the next couple of years, it could be the 2 superpowers of flat racing that provide it. Aidan O’Brien is hardly new to jumps racing, having trained the legendary Istabraq before turning his attention full time to the flat. He started to have some bumper runners again last season, (all family owned). The horses have generally been ridden by members of his family, so it might remain a sideline to give them experience. However, if Joseph gets too heavy for the flat he might switch codes and Aidan might take the jumps horses more seriously again.
His first winner over jumps for more than a decade was Carriganog (ridden by Robbie Power) in a 4 year olds maiden at Clonmel, (extended 2m, soft). He was only 8th in the valuable Land Rover bumper at the Punchestown Festival but won easily here. If Joseph is planning to ride over jumps, the O’Brien team will want a couple of smart horses for him to ride and whilst the form of this race is nothing special, Carriganog is worth keeping an eye on.
The prospect of Aidan training Coolmore horses over jumps is only enhanced by the exploits of Godolphin’s John Ferguson with similar types in the past 2 seasons. His operation looks to have moved up another gear this season with 20 winners already on the board, (seasonal best is only 24.) His star has been Sea Lord who’s rattled up a 6 timer at around the minimum trip this season, progressing from novice company into the big summer handicaps - winning off 133 at Market Rasen and 146 at Perth. He then won what looked a strong listed novice at Kempton, (2m, good to soft). His current rating of 150 is about the average rating given to Supreme winners.
As a Group 3 winner on the flat over 1m, (rated 113) he has plenty of toe, (looks a pure 2 miler,) and his jumping was pretty good when winning in a fast time at Perth. The problem is that he is ground dependent – he wants it quick, (class seemingly got him home at Kempton). The watering policy at the Festival means that’s least likely on the opening day so he’s not an ante-post proposition, but he’s just the type to have been forgotten in the run up to the Festival having not run over the winter. If it does look like being genuine good ground for the Supreme, he’s a real contender and 33/1 might end up looking a silly price.
Saint Roque won a fair 2m5f novice hurdle at Cheltenham, (good,) by ½l from the 145 rated Rum And Butter. He doesn’t like winter ground and so it wouldn’t be a surprise to seem him put away for the Coral Cup or Martin Pipe. Champion Bumper 6th Pure Science looked to have a chance before bad mistakes 3 and 2 out. He could do with a confidence booster in a small race first but shouldn’t be written off.
One of the stronger maidens so far was at Gowran (2m, soft) and was won by Bishops Road. This point winner travelled like a good horse, jumping soundly in the main - and the way he galloped rather than quickened to win his race, he looks likely to appreciate a good bit further. Owned by Gigginstown, which race he would run at, at the Festival would depend on their other runners. He’s not quoted for any of the 3 novice hurdles at the moment but at this early stage the Albert Bartlett looks the most likely target.
Finally, whilst this is technically a round up of the novice hurdling division, it’s worth mentioning Faugheen. He was touted as Willie Mullins’ best bumper horse last season but didn’t make the track until the new season had begun. His performance at Punchestown in a mid-May bumper (2m, yielding) was really impressive, bolting up by 22l. The 2nd and 3rd were also newcomers who haven’t raced since so the form isn’t easy to assess. However 5th home, Rock The World, was only 1¾l behind Bishops Road in the hurdle mentioned above, which suggest Faugheen might be a candidate for the Supreme (20/1) or Neptune (16/1). His breeding suggests 2m on good ground may suit.