On the second day of the 2012 Cheltenham Festival, you’ll find the Neptune Investment Novices’ Hurdle.
A Grade 1 in stature, the Neptune is open to novices’ aged four and above and is run over the trip of two miles and five furlongs on the Old Course, with a total of twelve hurdles that require jumping along the way.
Horses aged five or six have a certain monopoly on this contest, especially those that came first or second in their previous race. It’s been beneficial sticking towards the top of the market in recent years, not to mention focussing on horses who have already found success in an around this distance and boast no less than a 50% strike-rate over timber.
Fingal Bay – Phillip Hobbs
6yo bay gelding
King’s Theatre (IRE) – Lady Marguerrite (UK) (Blakeney (UK))
Made quite the impact on debut, when coming home a country mile in front of his nearest pursuer at Exeter last season, when contesting a bumper and took the transition to hurdles in his stride, back in October when readily dispatching the opposition in the Persian War Novices’ Hurdle. Followed up in The Hyde, despite blundering badly at the second last, and completed a hat-trick of Grade 2 wins in The Winter Novices’ Hurdle, finding plenty to repel the strong-travelling Simonsig. Justified short-odds in the Grade 1 Challow Hurdle when appearing to toy with the opposition, taking his undefeated sequence to five and if the market proves correct, it won’t be long till that becomes six. Constantly gives the impression the limits of his capabilities lie far beyond what we have seen to date, and with very few chinks in his armour, the son of King’s Theatre is pretty tough to oppose. Worth noting, the Albert Bartlett is on connections radar as well, but I would be quite surprised if he wasn’t to line up in this.
Boston Bob – Willie Mullins
7yo bay gelding
Bob Back (USA) – Bavaway (UK) (Le Bavard (FR))
Showed plenty of promise in two bumper starts, promise which he immediately fulfilled on the first start for his County Carlow trainer, when cruising to a maiden hurdle success at Navan. Immediately stepped into Grade 1 company a month on, where he drew clear of Mount Benbulben and two other useful opponents, but bettered that at the end of January when winning at Leopardstown in bottomless ground, despite giving weight to the field. Clearly very effective in testing conditions, so a possible doubt over his ability to match that level on better ground must exist, and as very much a staying chaser in the making, it’s not unthinkable he could be rerouted to the three-miler where he currently tops the betting.
Monksland – Noel Meade
5yo bay gelding
Beneficial (UK) – Cush Jewel (IRE) (Executive Perk (UK))
Only announced himself in November, strolling clear in a Down Royal bumper, but has made rapid headway since. Looked immediately in need of further, when getting up late at Navan to bag a maiden hurdle over two miles, and once upped in trip, he certainly improved plenty when walking off with the Grade 2 Slaney Novice Hurdle. Form lines leave him with a bit to find on the horse above, but unlike Boston Bob, I get the impression this horse may actually improve drastically for a sounder surface, something that makes him a very interesting contender.
Batonnier – Alan King
6yo chestnut gelding
Spadoun (FR) – La Bazine (FR) (Dreams To Reality (USA))
Ran creditably in a handful of bumpers, and posted some good performances in defeat over hurdles, on his first four attempts; most notably when second to Barbatos here on New Years’ Day. Was somewhat surprisingly able to build on that effort in landing the Grade 2 Classic Novices’ Hurdle, when returning to Prestbury Park a few weeks later, getting the better of Broadbackbob in the process. On form lines, he has an awful lot to do, if planning to give Fingal Bay a race though, and I personally think he has little to no chance in this, despite his apparent liking of the track, making his current odds quite frankly horrific.
Captain Conan – Nicky Henderson
5yo bay gelding
Kingsalsa (USA) – Lavandou (UK) (Sadler’s Wells (USA))
French recruit who ran three nice races across the Channel, winning the third at Auteuil in June. Took up residence at Seven Barrows thereafter, and belied severe market weakness in early January when claiming the Tolworth Hurdle from the wayward Colour Squadron. Hard to know quite where he fits in at present, on such little evidence to date, but no doubt his participation in the Deloitte Hurdle at Punchestown on Sunday, will help paint a clearer picture. Very much a potentially smart chaser in waiting.
Simonsig – Nicky Henderson
6yo grey gelding
Fair Mix (IRE) – Dusty Too (UK) (Terimon (UK))
Somewhat unfortunate not to have finished undefeated in his three point-to-point runs, prior to his arrival at Seven Barrows, and fair to say the regard in which was held thereafter, certainly preceded his hurdling debut at Ascot. Said debut was as impressive as it was bloodless and lost little in defeat two weeks later, when finding Fingal Bay too strong in the Grade 2 Winter Novices’ Hurdle at Sandown. Travelled very strongly throughout that day, but was found wanting in the finish and I find it hard to see any reason for him to turn that around, especially at a track like this. Trainer has indicated on more than one occasion, this is the preferred destination, but hard to imagine that is set in stone, and I personally think he would have a far greater chance of success going down the Supreme route.
Sous Les Cieux – Willie Mullins
6yo chestnut gelding
Robin Des Champs (FR) – Joie De La Vie (FR) (Quart de Vin (FR))
Fell short of expectations on debut, when turned over at short odds, but no mistake second time round when scoring all but on the snaff. Stepped up straight into Grade 1 company thereafter, and a lot to like about the way he dispatched a select, yet solid Royal Bond field, winning with plenty in hand. Ran with the choke out for the entirety of the Future Champions Novice Hurdle, when only a disappointing third behind Cash & Go, but I don’t believe for one minute that was his true running and much better is expected if taking up his entry in the Deloitte Hurdle at Punchestown on Sunday, an entry that should clarify which target at the Festival he will head for; the Neptune or the Supreme, if indeed either.
Others of note:
Make Your Mark is a horse I was mightily impressed with at Leopardstown in December, and given the way he travelled into contention back at that very track last month, I think he lost little in defeat given conditions. With his trainer not short of promising novices’ though, its nigh impossible trying to figure out which race at the Festival he will take in, but whatever one it is, dismiss him at your peril.
Broadbackbob dug deep to repel Cinders & Ashes at Ascot, before landing an easy success at Newbury. He might have been turned over in the Classic Novices’ Hurdle the following month, but did run well despite the loss, so if able to sharpen up some pretty ordinary jumping in the meantime, I wouldn’t totally discount him yet. Another who shouldn’t be totally ignored is Cotton Mill, who landed the Leamington last time out. John Ferguson has enjoyed a rather fruitful start to his training career, and certainly has a nice horse in this son of Tiger Hill, though with Highland Lodge unquestionably underperforming in the aforementioned Grade 2, and the opposition previously faced not amounting to much, you’d imagine massive improvement will certainly be required to take a hand.
If you took away the likes of Hurricane Fly, Quevega, and Big Bucks and asked me for a Festival banker, the vote would unerringly go to Fingal Bay, but because there is a slight doubt about which race he will head for, and because I don’t think his current price will alter greatly between now and the second week of March, I’m going to suggest waiting till much nearer the time before backing him, given the point value suggested. As such, my antepost selection on the race will instead go to the progressive Monksland, who looks a horse with plenty more to offer. Baring accidents, he appears to have a very strong chance of making the frame at the very least, and should one of the top two in the market abdicate, he’ll no doubt go off a lot shorter than is presently available.