The Neptune Investment Management Novices’ Hurdle, registered as the Baring Bingham Novices’ Hurdle, has been run in various guises since Tom Jones’ Midsprite carried the famous Old Rose colours of Mrs Ogden Phipps to victory in what was called the Aldsworth Hurdle back in 1971. Despite its distance of 21f, it has proved a richer source of future Champion Hurdlers than the shorter Supreme, with four individual winners of the Champion having run in the Neptune as novices, including repeat winners Istabraq and Hardy Eustace. Bula is the last horse to win the Supreme and Champion in consecutive years (worth noting that novices only had one Festival option until 1970), although Champion Hurdlers Comedy of Errors (2nd), Celtic Shot (fell) and Sublimity (4th) have all scored the year after failing in that event. Dawn Run and Rock On Ruby have won the Champion 12 months after defeat in the Neptune, while there are plenty who have landed the big one at the second bite of the cherry, including 1989 Neptune runner-up Morley Street.
We see then that the Neptune is a rich source of future champions, and the 2014 version, while arguably lacking a stand-out performer, looks to have considerable strength in-depth. Let’s look at those who currently dominate the market:
FAUGHEEN – Willie Mullins (Susannah Ricci) OR 148
b g Germany (USA) – Miss Pickering (Accordion)
The son of Germany burst onto the scene when winning a bumper at Punchestown by 22 lengths in May. He’s maintained his unbeaten record since switched to hurdles, with his best effort a 5-lengths defeat of The Job Is Right at Limerick in late-December. Willie Mullins gave ante-post backers hope by confirming that the Neptune was his intended target, but immediately snatched it back with news that he hadn’t come out of his latest start in great form, prompting a change of feed recently. There is no doubt that he is a high-class performer, but news of his lacklustre disposition is enough to be wary of backing him at odds no bigger than 3/1. Another niggle for me is his jumping, which has been sketchy to say the least. The fact that he’s won all his races while not displaying a solid technique in getting from one side of his hurdles to another is a compliment to the massive engine he must have, but it also goes down as a big negative on a stage like Cheltenham, where few horses can overcome errors to win at the top-level.
RED SHERLOCK – David Pipe (The Johnson Family) OR 151
ch g Shirocco (GER) — Lady Cricket (FR) (Cricket Ball (USA))
A son of top-class chaser Lady Cricket, this gelding has looked an exciting prospect from day one, winning all 3 of his bumpers, including a listed contest at Cheltenham in November and has remained unbeaten in as many starts over hurdles. His first couple of outings over timber came in weak company, and he wasn’t overly impressive, looking a tad careful at his obstacles. That was cited as a possible weakness when he was stepped up in class against Rathvinden at Prestbury Park in January, as indeed was his propensity to flash his tail under pressure. The latter trait showed up in that outing, but his jumping was straight and true, and his application under pressure was unflinching, which surely lays any doubts over his temperament to rest. He’s not the highest rated of David Pipe’s runners in this event, but with Kings Palace heading towards the Albert Bartlett, and further progress almost guaranteed, he looks a rock-solid proposition, and would be heading the betting on my tissue.
ROYAL BOY – Nicky Henderson (Michael Buckley) OR 149
b/ br gelding Lavirco (GER) — Quintanilla (FR) (Royal Charter (FR))
Royal Boy looked a smart prospect when finding only Melodic Rendezvous too strong on his hurdles debut at Cheltenham last season, but couldn’t repeat that after making mistakes in the Tolworth Hurdle at Sandown. Put away after that, the Irish point winner was initially switched to fences on his return, but again failed to jump with conviction, and has since taken advantage of his novice status over timber. A maiden win at Ascot is just useful form, but he took advantage of others’ failings to win the Tolworth at the second attempt, albeit with the race switched to Kempton. It’s not easy weighing that form up, with hot favourite The Liquidator bombing out, but Royal Boy was tenacious in holding off stablemate Josses Hill, and the pair pulled clear of useful Irish raider Upazo. The race was run to test stamina at the trip, but there’s little doubt that even a well-run 2m on deep ground at Kempton is barely enough of a stamina test for Royal Boy, and he will benefit from the longer trip at Cheltenham, as did former Tolworth winners Monsignor and French Holly. He’s done most of his racing on soft/heavy ground, but his win between the flags came on a sound surface, and he should have no problem with whatever going prevails on the day.
DEPUTY DAN – Oliver Sherwood (Tim Syder) OR 145
b g Westerner — Louisas Dream (IRE) (Supreme Leader)
Deputy Dan represents the same connections as last year’s leading novice Puffin Billy, but has proved more of a slow burner. A dual bumper winner, he was beaten on his first 2 hurdling starts, but has since scored twice, and took the step up in class in his stride when winning a Grade 2 at Warwick last time. On that occasion he had subsequent Betfair Hurdle winner Splash of Ginge well back in third, but there are several negatives to take from that performance, likeable though it was. His main rival there, Rathvinden, was travelling equally well when falling at the third last (not his first error by any means), and that made Deputy Dan’s task much easier. Splash of Ginge patently failed to stay, and hanging the form around him is foolish as a result, and runner-up Masters Hill probably found the test too sharp, so the overall value of the form is of slightly dubious worth. The gelding also suffered a fairly serious laceration to the bulb of his heel during the race, but has reportedly got over that injury fairly quickly. All in all, though, he’s got a bit to find, while an unexpectedly dry forecast may yet see him try the 3m trip in the Albert Bartlett instead.
UN TEMPS POUR TOUT – David Pipe (Prof Caroline Tisdall) OR 148
bg Robin Des Champs (FR) — Rougedespoir (FR) (Bonnet Rouge (FR ))
It’s hard to pinpoint quite when David Pipe and Caroline Tisdall determined to get their hands on Un Temps Pour Tout, but having already made hay with one French import in Dell’Arca, it was only natural that they would be interested in the son of Robin des Champs, who had given that one weight and a beating at Bordeaux in May. He improved further to land a Group 3 at Auteuil in September, and that reputation wasn’t tarnished at all by a third-place finish behind Ptit Zig in the Prix Renaud du Vivier (essentially the Champion 4-y-o Hurdle). When Sue Bramall decided to cash in her modest investment (he’d been picked up for a mere €15,000 as a 2-y-o at Saint-Cloud), there was bound to be plenty of interest, but most would blanch at the final sale price of £450,000 which Pipe offered at the Hennessy Sale at Newbury. The vultures were circling when the new recruit was beaten by the exposed Zamdy Man at Haydock, but that was a better performance than he got credit for over a bare 2m, and he was never off the bridle when slamming the useful Cole Harden at Ascot next time. His price is immaterial in terms of his prospects as a hurdler, and while Pipe also has Red Sherlock here, it would be no surprise to see the pair clash (this looks Un Temps Pour Tout’s ideal trip), and he is no mean second string.
The Big Yards: The quintet mentioned take out more than 50% of the ante-post book on Betfair, but there are many more potential players, particularly among those powerful yards with several entries. It perhaps makes more sense to examine the trainers in turn rather than focus on individual runners.
Willie Mullins: It’s an indication of the embarrassment of riches at Closutton that Mullins still has thirteen entries in the Neptune, and he’s almost certain to field the favourite, even if Faugheen doesn’t make the gig. A point worth remembering about the yard’s policy with multiple entries is that serious workouts at Leopardstown and at Cheltenham itself on the eve of the Festival will see the potential of a shake-up in plans until the last-minute. Last year, for example, Champagne Fever was strongly rumoured to have sparkled on the Monday morning, and it was only then that he was confirmed for the Supreme, where he was immediately the subject of a wholesale gamble. Of his back-up battalion, several are pencilled in for other races, with Vautour and Briar Hill strong in the market for the Supreme and Albert Bartlett respectively. Should either make the switch to Wednesday’s intermediate event, they would be hugely popular, and it’s worth taking the best price NRNB about them as there is little downside to such an approach. Of those at bigger prices, Rathvinden and Sure Reef are likelier runners, with the latter one which Mullins mentioned specifically for this race at his recent media day. Sure Reef had a setback after switching from the Flat yard of Mick Halford, but is beginning to make up for lost time, and caught plenty of eyes when winning from an unpromising position at Leopardstown in January. The overall form of that Grade 2 contest is not strong, and the son of Choisir needs to take another big step forward in order to justify his passage, but he’s the type who could still improve markedly, and will leapfrog his way up the pecking order if showing Mullins the right signs in his homework. Keep a beady eye on him in the markets, and act accordingly if the signs are positive.
David Pipe: Already represented with 2 of the main challengers, Pipe has backup options in Vieux Lion Rouge, Kings Palace and Legacy Gold. I’d be surprised if any of the trio showed up here, however, unless something happened with both Red Sherlock and Un Temps Pour Tout.
Nicky Henderson: The Seven Barrows challenge is easier to distil, with only five entries, and of those, only Royal Boy and Captain Cutter appear credible challengers. The former has been dealt with in-depth, while the betting suggests that Challow Hurdle winner Captain Cutter is bound for the Albert Bartlett. He’s another who couldn’t be easily ruled out if rerouted, but does look a thorough stayer, and may be compromised at the shorter trip unless the going is genuinely testing.
Paul Nicholls: Nothing doing from team Ditcheat, it appears, with only the once-raced maiden Port Melon and Lac Fontana entered. The former surely lacks the experience to make an impact, while the latter is much more likely to take in one of the handicaps.
John Ferguson: The Bloomfields outfit has a quartet entered, but the pick of them, Sea Lord is sure to go to the Supreme, leaving former Royal Ascot winner Fennell Bay the likeliest of the yard’s contenders to turn up. He’s taken well to hurdling, but his wins have come against modest opposition, and he’ll have his mettle tested thoroughly at Grade 1 level.
Philip Hobbs: The Minehead handler has his strongest ever team for Cheltenham, and could go home with his wallet bulging if all his plans come to fruition, but his strongest contender for this, Champagne West, has been aimed at the Pertemps Final, and also has entries in the Coral Cup and Martin Pipe, suggesting the handicap route is all but confirmed.
Nigel Twiston-Davies: Last year’s winning trainer has Cogry and Betfair Hurdle winner engaged, but while Splash of Ginge has the ability to take a hand, he appeared not to stay at Warwick in January, and would surely have his best chance of success in the County Hurdle.
Other Possibles: Those not covered already include Ballyalton (Ian Williams) and Lieutenant Colonel. Both seem probable runners, so make minor appeal at big odds on the exchanges, but it seems they are playing for minor prize money at best on the balance of form. Ballyalton is the type to make into a decent chaser in time, though, so certainly isn’t one to write off as an ongoing project, and he’ll win more races when his sights are lowered.
RED SHERLOCK may not please everyone with his tail swishing, but he found plenty for pressure when winning at the track in January, and makes more appeal than Faugheen at this stage, particularly given the trainer’s recent comments about the ante-post favourite. Finding value behind the front few in the market is tricky before declarations are made, especially with Willie Mullins still mob-handed, but the outsider who appeals as a potential market springer from his Bagenalstown base is Sure Reef, and if able to get around 16/1 when the NRNB concession becomes the norm, then punters should find themselves very much on the right side of the market.
NRNB Alternative: Sure Reef (best price when concession available).