The Supreme Novices Hurdle ( and The Roar )

 

One of the most interesting and exciting aspects of the jumps season is the emergence of the new guard – the novices. The prospect of something wonderful, a new Arkle, a new love affair which can last many, many years. Many of us will already have a favourite or two by now and the Cheltenham Festival will be their first major test.

Run over two miles and half a furlong on Cheltenham's Old Course ( used for the first two days of the festival ) and a baptism of fire for many a young hurdler. The Cheltenham Festival is a world away from the vast majority of race meetings these horses will have experienced to this point but, whilst temperament and big race experience are important, previous Cheltenham experience isn't essential. Just 3 of the last 12 winners had already raced over hurdles at the course.

Punters have been spoiled in recent years with stars like Altior, Douvan and the late Vautour gracing the winners enclosure after being heavily supported in the weeks and months leading up to the race. Prior to last season's renewal, it had appeared to be a far more open race, lacking a confirmed star and with several horses briefly heading the uncertain betting markets. Until recently, this season had been no different but we now have a clear market leader and that is where we'll begin this preview

GETABIRD

( Willie Mullins, 4 winners from 35 runners in this race )

This 6 year old from the powerful Mullins stable had been an antepost favourite for last season's champion bumper until injury brought a premature end to his season. The son of Getaway returned to action in the autumn and began his hurdles career with a facile, short odds victory at Punchestown and returned there in January to contest the more prestigious Grade 2 Moscow Flyer Novices Hurdle ( a race both Douvan and Vautor won en route to Supreme glory ) . It turned out to be less of a contest than anticipated, with Getabird coming home impressively by nine lengths from a small but talented field which included Mengli Khan

The winner has now won both his races without being tested and that latter success was achieved by making all the running, something which bodes well for this contest as most recent winners have raced prominently. He is a worthy, if prohibitively priced favourite.

If there is a negative it could be that all of Getabird's wins and completed starts have been when racing on right handed tracks. The only time he has gone left handed was brief and disappointing as he ran out at the second obstacle. That was his racing debut at Liscarroll point to point and it's highly likely that Getabird is just as impressive racing in both directions – but it is a flaw in an otherwise impressive portfolio.

IF THE CAP FITS - Non Runner

( Harry Fry, no previous winners or placed horses )

Unbeaten in two national hunt flat races before finishing 4th in a competitive affair at Aintree last season, this son of Milan had been on my early season shortlist for horses to follow. His debut over hurdles came at Exeter where he jumped and travelled well, coming home several lengths clear of his rivals. Another win in a standard novice event soon followed before he was stepped up in class for a competitive race on Kempton's King George card on Boxing Day, where he gave weight and a beating to some decent opposition. ( Solomon Grey, in receipt of three pounds in weight but almost ten lengths back in third, won a handicap off a mark of 130 next time out )

That Kempton run will have been invaluable experience : Fry's star novice still appeared to be a little green, wandering a little as he looked at the packed Kempton grandstands in the home straight. He races prominently, generally travels and jumps really well and should repay his followers with at least a place. 7-1 is still available and, with other market rivals likely to run elsewhere during the festival, I think he'll be closer to 5-1 on the day.

KALASHNIKOV

( Amy Murphy, no previous winners or placed horses )

The impressive winner of the valuable Betfair Handicap Hurdle just a few weeks ago, Kalashnikov will aim to go one better than both Get Me Out Of Here ( 2010 ) and My Tent Or Yours ( 2013 ), who won that same race prior to finishing second in their respective renewals of the Supreme.

This progressive five year old son of Kalanisi has performed with recognition on ground his young trainer believes has been unsuitably soft and expects further improvement from her stable star on the anticipated better going normally associated with the Festival. A high cruising speed, slick over the hurdles, a willing attitude which has seen him beaten just once in five starts; there are compelling reasons to back Kalashnikov. However, neither his handler Amy Murphy or his regular rider Jack Quinlan have tasted Cheltenham glory and it's possible that two successive graded races on deep winter ground have taken the edge off him going into the most competitive two mile novice race of the season. Those on at bigger prices will be sitting pretty and it would be a fairytale for all concerned if this truly likeable sort could hit the target one more time.

MENGLI KHAN

( Gordon Elliott, 1 previous winner, no other placed horses from 3 runners )

Gordon Elliott bagged his first Supreme Novice winner last year when the quirky but talented Labaik sprung a 25-1 surprise and beat the well fancied Melon into second place. His shortest price runner this year is this five year old son of Lope De Vega and he was the antepost favourite for a few weeks back in the autumn after winning successive Graded events at Navan and Fairyhouse. He had started the season as a genuine second season novice, having failed to win both starts after switching yards and disciplines in 2016 ( he'd previously been trained on the flat by Hugo Palmer ). It was therefore very surprising, given his experience over obstacles, when he crashed through the wings of the second last whilst leading the Grade 1 Future Champions Hurdle at Leopardstown over

Christimas. His only start since then was the aforementioned defeat to Getabird, though he did concede six pounds in weight to his rival that day

With his bubble well and truly burst after those recent defeats, it will appear to some that Mengli Khan could represent some each way value in the race, particularly given those earlier Graded victories. However, the form of each is, at best, mediocre and arguably the weakest high class form on offer from any of the market principles and his trainer has admitted his gelding has it all to do to reverse form with the Mullins favourite.

CLAIMANTAKINFORGAN

( Nicky Henderson, 1 winner, several placed horses from 29 runners )

The Cheltenham Festival's most successful trainer had come close to winning this race on several occasions but even stars like Sprinter Sacre and My Tent Or Yours had been unable to give the master of Seven Barrows victory in the only Grade 1 novice event at the festival to allude him.

All that was finally put right when the magnificent Altior romped home in 2016 and Henderson has consistently stated that Claimantakinforgan can make it a second winner in three years for the Lambourn yard.

Fifth in that Aintree bumper behind If The Cap Fits, this six year old made a winning start over hurdles back in November. Graded success soon followed at Ascot in December but a rather disappointing defeat at Musselburgh recently exposed some flaws in his armoury. It could be that he needed the run after two months off the track but the form of his earlier races is generally weak and I have a suspicion that he might be better suited over further. Not for me.

DUC DES GENIEVRES

( Willie Mullins )

It's not yet clear where this young French bred gelding will run at the festival but he is perhaps the least exposed of those near the top of the Supreme market. He arrived at the Closutton stables of Willie Mullins just two months ago and has since put in two promising displays against more experienced, fancied types; firstly behind Next Destination in a Grade 1 at Naas and more recently against the impressive and well touted Ballymore Novices Hurdle favourite, Samcro.

So how good is he ? Well he's not slow and has gears, having been held up early during both races before moving through to finish within a respectable distance of the winner on each occasion. He's related to Al Boum Photo, winner of a Grade 2 over two miles four furlongs at Fairyhouse in April, and it could be that Mullins believes that Duc Des Genievres future also lies over middle distances.

Not to be underestimated whichever race he lines up in during the festival, although the likeliest destination appears to be the Albert Bartlett. A smart horse.

SUMMERVILLE BOY

( Tom George, no previous winner or placed horses )

Came close to winning on a couple of occasions during his first three starts over hurdles this season and confirmed that promise when beating Kalashnikov in the Grade 1 Tolworth Hurdle at Sandown back in January. That was on Heavy winter ground and he's likely to face different conditions here, which possibly won't be ideal. He might also find it all happening too quickly at Cheltenham and I think an outside chance of a place is his best hope, so odds of around 14-1 don't appeal. Winners of the Tolworth fare much better over further in the Ballymore.

SHARJAH

( Willie Mullins )

Another Mullins / Ricci contender, though hasn't yet achieved the same rank amongst the novices as Getabird. Won two early season contests without breaking sweat and would probably have taken that eventful Future Champions Hurdle at Christmas but for falling at the last. Failed to spark last time out when comfortably beaten by Samcro but his trainer is adamant his five year old will improve for better ground ( highly likely when judged on his pedigree ).

He's been in training this season far longer than most of his rivals, having raced on the flat last August before his debut over hurdles in September, and the winter ground may have taken it's toll. If it hasn't, Sharjah is a lively outsider.

 

The Rest :

First Flow ( Kim Bailey ) has posted some good figures during two successive victories on heavy ground, latterly in the Grade 2 Rossington Main novices hurdle at Haydock; a fair trial for the Festival itself. Previous winners Peddler's Cross ( 2010 ) and Cinders And Ashes ( 2012 ) both followed up at Cheltenham, whist Amaretto Rose ( 2007 ) and Neon Wolf ( 2017 ) both placed.

The Supreme is First Flow's only entry at the Festival and he'd be of interest in testing conditions.

 

His trainer is yet to win the race but Slate House ( Colin Tizzard ) is interesting at big odds. Twice course and distance winner, including a defeat of Summerville Boy back in November, the horse has dropped off the radar of many punters after two subsequent poor runs during December and January. However, they coincided with the trainers worst run of form this season, with many of his horses running well below their best, and it's possible we'll see a return to form of Slate House on better ground and with his trainer very much back amongst the winners. Tizzard recently stated "We'll go to the Supreme with him. He is a lovely horse who will make a lovely chaser next season. We haven't raced him much in the last two months as we are targeting Cheltenham, Aintree and perhaps Punchestown. “.

I think it's possible he lacks the speed of a few of these but at 40-1, with two course wins under his belt and others at shorter prices likely to run elsewhere, there's a chance of a place at a nice price.

Summary

Having given strong words for both Altior and Buveur D'Air at big prices prior to them finishing first and third in the 2016 Supreme Novices Hurdle, i'll be nominating a win selection and an each way selection for this year's festival.

Kalashnikov has done very little wrong during his brief career but his performances have offered plenty of encouragement to believe he can win again and bring the house down on the opening day. Some might class that Betfair Hurdle win as a negative, with two recent Newbury winners both failing to follow up here at Cheltenham but both winners went down by less than a length each, so it could also be taken as a positive. A genuine, tenacious attitude combined with speed and slick jumping, Kalashnikov can hit the spot.

 

At 40-1, Slate House offers value against a field which will be reduced in number by the time they line up and, given the yard he hails from, could be closer to 16s or 20s on the day. It can pay dividends when studying the form in February and March to recall those promising early season performances and take into account valid reasons for less encouraging runs. Slate House could still be a Grade 1 novice and should be backed each way.

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