Run on Gold Cup day on the New Course, the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle is a severe test of stamina for a young horse. Any kinks in staying power will be found out so finding a horse that stays is key. Given previous winners like Weapons Amnesty (2009), Wichita Lineman (2007) and Bobs Worth (2011) went on to prove their worth over fences looking for a horse of stature should help in terms of indicating staying power. Since the race’s inception in 2005 Jonjo O’Neill has provided two winners while the likes of Paul Nicholls and Willie Mullins have hit the frame multiple times. In terms of age six and seven-year-olds are the way forward. While I don’t like backing five-year-olds over this trip, since 2005 they’ve produced one winner and four placed efforts. Unsurprisingly horses that have yet to try three miles don’t fair too well and as ever, course form is never a negative. Those to the fore in the betting historically, do well as we’ve only really had one major boil over in this race – in 2010 when Berties Dream scored at 33-1.
107 entries were received for this year’s race so it should be real fun in narrowing it down to a suitable number of runners. It probably makes sense to work from the favourite down and so, we’ll start with your current jolly, Ballycasey.
Three point to point runs, none of which yielded a victory and a bumper effort mean Ballycasey shouldn’t lack for experience after a duo of hurdle starts this campaign. Two low key tracks, in Clonmel and Thurles were assignments handed to him by Willie Mullins and this six-year-old son of Presenting passed both with flying colours. A seemingly happy horse, he raced with ears pricked throughout in both runs, jumping well and running out an easy winner in his two races. His second win, which was in better company was to be his most impressive as he ran to the line strongly. While his Clonmel triumph came in poor company the runner-up and third in the Thurles romp are solid enough 130-odd rated horses. Both wins came in what is probably unsuitable Irish winter ground so there is a fair chance of him improving on better terrain. By a strong staying and good ground loving sire in Presenting it gives us hope on the ground front. He’s also from the family of Grand National winner, Royal Athlete, so although he has yet to win over three miles he may well relish it. His trainer has come close to winning this race before and given that he describes him as “a real chaser in the making” followed by “and he’ll be exciting in that field” it all bodes well. 9-2 seems a bit skinny on the whole of it, but he is a solid type.
Second favourite is a horse that has really surprised me when I finally delved into the formbook proper. At Fishers Cross has done nothing but improve and improve this season as his form figures of 1111 suggest. I knew this horse kept on winning, but still took no real notice of him. Upon studying his form and his video footage he has improved hugely in all departments of the game. A horse that was plagued with jumping issues early he is now safe and accomplished in this field. At Newbury this year he looked quite awkward at a few hurdles, but his two subsequent runs saw improvement – not only in his jumping, but his form. As well as those two improvements he showed himself to be versatile in terms of trip. Wins from two miles to three have been achieved while he has also scored over intermediate trips in between. He now sits on an official rating of 152, a full thirty pounds higher than three runs ago. The real ace card with this horse however, is his attitude. He only ever seems to do enough, but if Tony McCoy asks for more he receives. His attitude is faultless. This coupled with his excellent course form means he ticks nearly every single box going to the festival, except one; ground. All career starts has been made on soft or heavy going. Chances are he’s going to encounter the quickest ground of his career at Cheltenham. While this is a worry he has two positives to cancel out the doubters. One is his pedigree and two is his action. Looking at the former first, he’s a horse by Oscar whose progeny generally like good ground. Some of his best offspring include Big Zeb, Rock On Ruby, Oscar Whisky and Peddlers Cross – all horses that like decent ground. On his dam’s side he’s related to an ex bumper horse called Rhythm Section who won on good to firm. More importantly however At Fishers Cross doesn’t seem to have a high knee action or hit the ground hard. In fact, he looks like he skips along it just fine. While the ground is a concern he does look the best horse in the Albert Bartlett. He has the best course form too and I doubt anything will match his attitude. All, but one boxed is ticked, but even so he deserves to be an outright favourite. He’s a really likeable type.
Next in the betting we come to a five-year-old in the care of Nigel Twiston-Davies, African Gold. A horse very much in the mould of At Fishers Cross, in that he has now won his last four starts over hurdles. A big strapping son of King’s Theater he looks most progressive. Another with a fantastic attitude he’ll come to Cheltenham somewhat battle hardened. He came out on top in a good battle at Newbury two starts back before reverting to novice company to win at Doncaster. At the latter track he again showed good jumping technique and at times looked like a seasoned pro. For such a big horse he gets from one side to the other quite quickly and given he likes to race up with the pace that could prove a real asset around Cheltenham. On official ratings he has quite a bit to find with those to the fore in the betting, but he wasn’t raised for his win last time out. He sits on a mark of 135 at the moment and given he is sure to improve for better ground you’d be hard pushed not to say he’s better than that level. Seventeen pounds he needs to find with At Fishers Cross, but on a form line through Salubrious, a solid Paul Nicholls inmate, it doesn’t give him much to find. Assessing collateral form like this can be dangerous, but it’s a point worth noting. He looks a nice horse and is sure to run well – connections are quietly confident. There is a slight worry about the trip, but his pedigree is very encouraging on this front. A bigger worry may be that he’s only a five-year-old and the stats say steer clear. Questions to answer, but plenty going for him.
Coneygree was a one-time favourite for this race, but has now dropped down the market to be fifth or sixth in the running. In six career starts he has only tasted defeat twice. Both loses came in decent events though. After winning one of his bumper starts (beaten in the other) he started his hurdling career off in good fashion by routing a Uttoxeter group of novice hurdlers. Given he put 20 lengths back to the second it was a decent effort and the second horse has since proved to be no mug. From here his next three starts came at Prestbury Park and it’s here he really announced himself and ‘small time’ trainer, Mark Bradstock. Two Grade Two wins at Cheltenham have come in devastating circumstances. The son of Karinga Bay has done it the hard way, from the front and pummeled rivals into submission. He looks a relentless galloper and stamina is certainly his strong suit. In all starts he has jumped well, shown a nice attitude and picked up or tried to when asked. The two major points to take from this horse are one; stamina and two; soft ground. While staying power will be a huge asset here it’s hard to get away from the fact that all his best performances have come on soft and heavy. He surely won’t get those come March and you’d have to think that will count against him. He did manage to win his bumper on good to soft, but that was a poor event. His action very much indicates soft is what he needs to show his best – he hits the ground very hard. This really is the main worry as his form is up there with the very best in this race. If it came up soft on the day 16-1 would be a massive price.
Of those at realistic prices two more take my eye, Cloudy Copper and Road To Riches. The first mentioned is in the care of Jonjo O’Neill and represents the exact same connections as Black Jack Ketchum – the inaugural winner of this race. Cloudy Copper comes into the this event as an unknown quantity after just two race track starts. Experience would be a worry, but he has won a point to point and, experienced another. An official rating of 145 means he is one of the highest rated animals entered. That’s a lofty rating after just two starts and so he very much falls into the cliché category of ‘could be anything’. In terms of jumping he was a little big at his hurdles on debut, but at Kempton, where he was a strong winner from a 145 chaser, he was must slicker and jumped well. The bare form of this race looks decent as he also gave the runner-up six pounds. While soft ground clearly suits given his race record I don’t envisage better ground at Cheltenham posing too much problems. His sire and relatives on his dam side have all produced good ground winners and he hasn’t got the action of a typical mudlark. This well-bred type is one of the more interesting runners given his profile.
Finally a horse of Noel Meade’s is an eye catching and certain runner, barring injury of course. I know immediately alarm bells will be ringing with the mention of Noel Meade’s name, and that’s fair, but Road To Riches is now unbeaten in his last four career starts. A point to point, a bumper and two hurdle races see him come into the Albert Bartlett as an unknown horse on the track. His two hurdle wins don’t tell the full story – both have been done in a comfortable manner. While he made an absolute mess of the last flight in his December run, a full three months ago now, he does jump well. His form is ok considering his wins have come in good style and I like the horse, but there are a couple of glaring observations. The least important one, and this will surprise a few, is Noel Meade’s poor Cheltenham Festival record. Go Native was his last winner in 2009. While it’s a stat to note these are always up for breaking. The main concern for me is Road To Riches lack of a recent run. When Cheltenham comes it will be 96 days since his last start and that really is a tough number to overcome.
A real tough race to crack will be this year’s Albert Bartlett. A whole raft of names are still in the hat insuring we’ll probably get a big and competitive field. Like many of the races at the festival a number of horse’s chances can, and will be marked up or down on the day with prevailing ground conditions. The likes of At Fishers Cross, Coneygree and Cloudy Copper would be interesting on ‘soft’ or slower ground. Coneygree, of the three, looks most vulnerable should good to soft ground arise. Even on soft I’d be fairly sure At Fishers Cross would uphold their Cheltenham run back in January and so, Coneygree is the first to be scratched. That said if it did come up soft the 16-1 currently about him would look big. On a stats basis Cloudy Copper will next feel the axe along with Road To Riches. The extended breaks this pair are coming off makes it look difficult for them to win. This, coupled with their relative lack of experience means they’re out. They’re two of the most interesting horses in the line-up however, given they remain unbeaten, but are tentatively cast aside. Willie Mullins will be hoping to right the wrongs of last season’s Albert Bartlett and he may do so with Ballycasey, but he is far too short at the prices for what he has done. This leaves me with At Fishers Cross and African Gold. At the moment, on what we have seen, there is no doubt that At Fishers Cross is the better horse. The market reflects this. Many won’t have the fight and attitude he has and if it came up soft, on the day, he’d be a near max each-way bet for me. The problem is At Fishers Cross has done all his winning on soft ground and Cheltenham, on good to soft, will be a totally new experience for him. How will he handle it? The answer, we just don’t know, but indicators, as discussed above, give him every chance of proving his worth. I honestly feel he should be outright favourite and if we knew now it would be heavy ground he’d be a 5-2 shot in my book. So, even though he is the race’s second favourite he still offers value and should be backed. Also, as said above there is a line of form that suggests there is not a whole pile between At Fishers Cross and African Gold. With that, it would be rather foolish not to cover on the latter, should the form be up to scratch. I’m not a fan of backing five-year-olds over these trips at Cheltenham, or in general really, but African Gold has the physique to carry himself through. His jumping has been of a very high standard for such a big horse and it’s just this that can aid him to outrun his odds of 14-1. If he can get into a nice early rhythm on better ground he’ll have plenty of them at it coming down the hill. Whether he gets up it remains to be seen.
2.5pts win At Fishers Cross @5-1 (Boylesports, Ladbrokes)
1pt each-way African Gold @14-1 (Ladbrokes)