The Neptune Novices Hurdle is a race for novices over the topical two-and-a-half-mile trip, and continues to throw up high-class competitors over a variety of distances. The last two winners of the race are currently first and second favourites for the Champion Hurdle this term, following on from Peddlers Cross winning this race and dropping back for a tilt at the 2-mile hurdling championship. Rock On Ruby of course went one better and won the Champion having been second here. While it’s a shame we haven’t seen anywhere near enough of 2012 victor Simonsig, who was being primed for a tilt at the King George this season, First Lieutenant is a recent winner who has gone on to reach some decent heights as a staying chaser.
Recent renewals of the Neptune have tended to revolve around a shortie at the head of the market, with WP Mullins regularly supplying the well-fancied favourite- not since his 7/1 winner Fiveforthree in 2008 has Mullins failed to have a 11/2 shot or shorter in the race.
2008: Fiveforthree – WON 7/1
2009: Mikael d’Haugenet – WON 5/2
2010: Quel Esprit – Fell 5/1
2011: So Young – 3rd 2/1
2012: Sous Les Cieux – Unplaced 11/2 (when Simonsig won as 2/1f)
2013: Pont Alexandre – 3rd 6/4
2014: Faugheen – WON 6/4 + Rathvinden – 3rd 11/2
2015: Nichols Canyon…
PARLOUR GAMES (J.Ferguson)
7yo, Monsun x Petrushka
Notes: With a pedigree like his it’s almost criminal that Parlour Games has ended up over timber, so if he’s going to be jumping obstacles he’s going to have to be half decent at it. Fortunately for family honour his last couple of efforts have been good enough to see him work his way to the head of the market for the Neptune, with his most recent success coming in the Grade 1 Challow at Newbury. It’s interesting to point out here that for winning a Grade 2 and a Grade 1 Parlour Games won ‘only’ £36,000 combined, whereas the handicap hurdle he was beaten in over in Ireland carried a first prize of 125k… is that healthy? As far as the Challow goes the race is never really reliable when considered as a Neptune trial, and the winner hasn’t followed up in the Festival race this century, although Reve De Sivola & famously Denman were both second. This season’s renewal looks pretty decent on the book, with Parlour Games travelling really smartly before being delivered at the last and pulling out enough to see off Vyta Du Roc & Blaklion on the run in. The second and third are strong stayers at the trip so it shouldn’t be a surprise that a horse with proven flat speed could travel all over them, but it was positive to see the winner scrap it out when the stamina of his rivals was kicking in and there was never any real danger of him surrendering his advantage. The fact he was 20/1 in places for the Neptune straight after that race suggests the layers weren’t overly taken by the effort, but regular nibbles have seen him forced into favouritism as the order of merit over the Irish Sea remained gloomy. The likelihood of an end to end gallop and better ground are both reasons to think Parlour Games could improve further at Cheltenham, yet doubts remain about just how good he is when both of his Graded successes have involving beating the stayer Blaklion. He would also be the first 7yo winner since French Holly in 1998, and the first to have run on the flat since Graham Wylie’s No Refuge (2005).
KILCREA VALE (N.Henderson)
5yo, Beneficial x Inflation
Notes: Following on from Parlour Games and his 22 rules starts, Alan Spence’s once-raced Kilcrea Vale (14/1) is the next British-trained horse in the Neptune betting. A winner of his only PTP in May last year, The five-year-old looked very professional for such an inexperienced customer when hacking up in an okay Market Rasen novice hurdle in the middle of January. The second (beaten all of 26 lengths) at Rasen was the talented but infrequent winner Novirak, who has enough ability for Kilcrea Vale’s nonchalant performance to be eye-catching without going too far overboard. Current prices are taking no chances about a horse who has beaten a total of 0 previous hurdles winners, however on visual evidence and with a powerful team behind him it would be no surprise if Kilcrea Vale further enhanced his claims under a penalty before March. In an open-looking contest his is an intriguing presence despite his obvious inexperience issues. *Unlikely to run*
ORDO AB CHAO (A.King)
6yo, Heron Island x Holdurwhist
Notes: Disappointing when well beaten in a Grade 2 at Sandown (sent off 7/2, stopped quickly), Alan King’s 6yo was much improved when finding plenty to repel Value At Risk and the slightly battle-shy Vago Collonges over the Neptune C&D last month. Value At Risk appears to be a sound enough yardstick with Grade 1 bumper form and a 22-length battering of the useful Foryourinformation on his hurdles debut, so for Ordo Ab Chao to beat him with no semblance of a fluke is clearly a promising effort. As with Parlour Games enthusiasm is tempered by the vanquished horse clearly crying out for further, and it wouldn’t be overly surprising to see Ordo Ab Chao himself line up in the 3m potato race rather than the Neptune. Connections have mentioned a liking for give in the ground after both his successes this season, however before writing the horse off as an out-and-out stayer it is worth noting he had enough pace to be competitive in the Aintree bumper! Should the rain fall in March there will be far worse 20/1 pokes than this likable sound jumper.
TEA FOR TWO (N.Williams)
6yo, Kayf Tara x One For Me
Notes: Tea For Three burst into the public consciousness by dotting up in what was supposed to be a competitive Lanzarote Handicap last month. The Lizzie Kelly cheerleaders were in full voice after the Nick Williams-trained 6yo hacked around Kempton for a 16-length success, yet despite her clearly being a talented rider she very much overdid the margin of victory on this occasion, and as a consequence has made things far more difficult than they would’ve been in the Coral Cup. Being beaten off levels by Arpege D’Alene on Valentines Day would’ve been a bit of a heart breaker for connections & despite the obvious differences between a big field handicap and that Ascot race it has to go down as being disappointing. The gelding, up a whopping 19lbs from a mark of 134, may possibly be rerouted to the Neptune or the Albert Bartlett, where his handicap form would mean he would be one of the highest-rated runners in either line up.
BEAST OF BURDEN (R.Curtis)
6yo, Flemensfirth x Nuit Des Chartreux
Notes: Out of a full sister to Voy Por Ustedes, Rebecca Curtis’ gelding is a dark horse as he’s only had four racecourse appearances and only two over timber. None of those races was worth more than £8,000 to the winner either, yet the Bangor novice hurdle he won featured the 143-rated chaser Mendip Express & Beast Of Burden blew him away effortlessly, with 34 lengths back to fair 125-rated yardstick Ballyboker Breeze. A soft ground success over 3 miles would usually suggest stamina would be no issue at the Festival, but it was a steadily run affair and the 6yo has been keen on both of his outings over hurdles. Whilst a stronger pace should help with that it will also put his stamina to the test for the first time, and considering how well he traveled on his bumper debut it’s not something he’s sure to relish. A smart horse and one should do even better over fences.
Just as the order of the Mullins horses looked to be getting clearer with the money coming for JP’s Alvisio Ville the big grey found next to nothing off the bridle in a Leopardstown Grade 1. His stablemate Nichols Canyon was the beneficiary of the apparently below-par effort from the short-priced Alvisio Ville, although the impressive manner in which he got the job done suggests it would’ve taken a major effort to beat him anyway. He has now settled as favourite.
NICHOLS CANYON (W.P.Mullins)
5yo, Authorized x Zam Zoom
Notes: A nicely bred son of Authorized from a flat family rich in talent & stamina, Nichols Canyon was good enough to win two Listed races & finish second in the Group 3 St Simon in his time at John Gosden’s (best form on soft ground), encouraging Graham Wylie to make him his latest jumps recruit. He started his career over timber with a routine victory at cramped odds in a Cork maiden hurdle, showing enough to be stepped up to Grade 1 level for his next appearance, a race he again won comfortably but one which was marred by the death of the exciting Allez Colombieres and lacked any kind of strength in-depth. His jumping came under question when he tipped up at the third in another weak Grade 1 at Leopardstown over Christmas which, added to concerns about the strength of his top-level success, suggested he wasn’t at the top of the Mullins tree for this race. That impression seemed to be confirmed when money came for Alvisio Ville, and led to the twice-raced grey heading the market for Leopardstown’s G1 Deloitte Novices Hurdle ahead of his Grade 1 winning stablemate. The race included another Grade 1 winner from the Mullins yard in McKinley, a Grade 1 runner-up (Sub Lieutenant) & the Champion Bumper hero Silver Concorde, yet none of them could lay a glove on Nichols Canyon, whose second Grade 1 victory left a much stronger impression than his first. Quite rightly the market has him favourite.
7yo, Stowaway x Western Whisper
Notes: A very nice second string for Mullins to call upon, although like Parlour Games the fact he is 7 years old would be off-putting if you like your trends. The Gigginstown-owned gelding was good enough in bumpers to be sent off 11/4f for the Punchestown Grade 1 two years ago, and he made an eye-catching return from 18 months off the track to win his maiden hurdle at 4/9. Pitched straight into a Grade 3 next time, Outlander was asked to step up a full mile in trip and only just failed to catch Albert Bartlett candidate Martello Tower in a race that was run at a good lick for a 3-runner event and looks solid form. It was certainly no issue to be beaten by a stronger stayer in deep ground, and the drop to an intermediate trip worked wonders at Leopardstown next time, the well-supported Outlander travelling ominously well & reversing placings with Martello Tower to the tune of almost 3.5 lengths. Killultagh Vic & Windsor Park filling 3rd and 4th placings gives the form a solid look despite the disappointing effort from No More Heroes a further place away in 5th. Outlander is clearly a highly talented and it would be no surprise if he were to record a higher top rating than those achieved by his brothers Western Leader & Mart Lane. His form looks solid & the question mark would be over his ability to handle quicker spring ground – as a very rough guide both Mart Lane & another sibling Lough Roe Lady both ran up to their form on Good ground. Another brother Ice Cold Soul won his bumper on debut over the winter and is well worth keeping an eye on.
WINDSOR PARK (D.K.Weld)
6yo, Galileo x Blissful
Notes: Another lovely flat pedigree, with Windsor Park’s dam Blissful a full sister to the brilliant Fusaichi Pegasus & herself a producer of two black type performers. It would seem that he was too backward to run on the flat when he was in the care of Aidan O’Brien, and he barely got further than the furlong pole on his bumper debut for Dermot Weld. Those early setbacks mist be a distant memory for his connections as he’s made up into a very useful type over hurdles, finishing 2nd Nichols Canyon in the Deloitte on his third spin over timber. His finishing position doesn’t tell the whole story as early on he looked more likely to be pulled up than finish in the frame, so to finish in front of the likes of Alvisio Ville & Silver Concorde either says a lot about his ability or not much about the others. It would be harsh to say they were a moderate bunch in behind as Alvisio Ville is clearly held in some regard at Closutton, yet it is also difficult to say for sure that any of them really ran up to their best. That said Windsor Park really should take to the better ground at Cheltenham if his two flat runs are anything to go by, and taking a positive view of the Deloitte run he would have a squeak when trying to reverse the form. Although it is likely Nichols Canyon will be fine on Good ground it’s most likely Windsor Park will improve for it.
Of the rest of the entries Tell Us More looks Supreme bound, Vyta Du Roc (2nd to Parlour Games in the Challow) is mostly likely heading the other way in trip along with Caracci Apache, & Alpha Des Obeaux doesn’t appear to be Festival bound.
It’s been a messy market for most of the winter, and current second favourite Parlour Games was a widely-available 20s shot after winning what doesn’t look a great Challow Hurdle. Nothing has really appeared out of the pack to really grab the imagination since which would explain why that price is now considerably shorter. Nichols Canyon has put up the most eye-catching performance of these when going pillar to post in the Deloitte and his flat form suggests there could be even more to come, while it would be unwise to discount the second-placed Windsor Park at a double figure price on better ground. Outlander has also beaten Windsor Park and traveled very well in doing so, and while he is unproven on the expected better ground his effort looks very similar in style and strength to Parlour Games’ Challow & it’s no surprise that they’re almost identical prices. There probably isn’t a whole lot between a fair few of these, yet it is hard to get away from the impression left by NICHOLS CANYON last time out, especially as I didn’t have much of an opinion of his previous form. In a race where a couple of the market leaders have earned their reputation by beating stayers, he is the one who has shown the ability to quicken away from horses at a shorter trip. Should the rain tumble-down on the Cotswolds then the price of Ordo Ab Chao could do the same.