Ante-Post Focus: Neptune Novices’ Hurdle 2014

A couple weeks ago I was asked to write some preview pieces for a site, for the Cheltenham Festival. I will be honest with readers, I was offered a small few quid to do so and thought it too good an opportunity to miss, given I’d be doing the work anyway.

I hope this sits well with those, if any, that read the blog regularly. I will put the links on my own blog, just to monitor my own progress. It’s been a slow start to the year, a frustrating one, but I’m hoping for a good Cheltenham.

Thanks,

Declan

Below are the links:

Main contenders: http://blog.betbright.com/sports/horse-racing/2014-cheltenham-festival-preview-the-neptune-contenders/

Chasing Pack: http://blog.betbright.com/sports/horse-racing/2014-cheltenham-festival-preview-neptune-chasing-pack/

Verdict: http://blog.betbright.com/sports/horse-racing/2014-cheltenham-festival-preview-neptune-best-rest/

For the purpose of my own blog, the selected bet should be made with Bet Victor @14/1 (Non-Runner Free Bet).

Ante-Post Focus: Arkle Challenge Trophy

It’s been two years since we’ve had a competitive Arkle Challenge Trophy, otherwise known as ‘the Arkle’ Novice Chase. There’s no horse with a standout profile, Champagne Fever possibly excluded, coming into the race this year, nothing compared to the likes of a Sprinter Sacre or a Simonsig, the two most recent winners.

It’s quite refreshing actually to have an open race and a running that should attract a sizable field. Six and seven contestants, respectively went to post in the last two runnings and as a betting medium it was quite frustrating. On the other hand two top class horses were seen so here’s hoping for another.

As said a sizeable field looks a strong possibility and currently bookmakers go 4/1 the field. Should you have a strong fancy you might be able to obtain a nice ante-post price and hopefully grab some value before the off.

Here we’ll hope to point you in the right direction, grab some value and hopefully find the winner of one of the best sights in racing, steeplechasers running over the minimum trip.

Main Contenders

Champagne Fever

We’ll start with the current favourite, the tough grey, Champagne Fever. Already a two time Festival scorer he doesn’t need much of an introduction. He’s etched his name into Cheltenham folklore with wins in the Champion Bumper and the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.

Despite this we won’t be spending long on the Willie Mullins trained Rich Ricci owned seven-year-old. The reason being he is still a doubtful runner in this race, as he may be stepping up in trip.

Quite simply Champagne Fever looks most exposed over this distance, although he’s not tried three miles on the track. The rain Gods shun on him last year to see the opening day open on soft ground, a variable that aided his cause no end. Undoubtedly.

Now that’s not to say we won’t have another soft ground opening day, but should that arise he still looks vulnerable. Why? His apparent endless supply of stamina.

While he’s a horse capable of maintaining a high cruising speed he still looks potentially exposed to quicker horses. This looked the case when he was headed in the Racing Post Novice Chase on soft ground at Leopardstown over Christmas.

Now, a bad mistake put an end to seeing what really could’ve happened, but he looked to be stretched and that’s maybe what caused him to make such a brutal blunder.

It’s time for a step up in trip, as his pedigree suggests. His Racing Post pedigree information reads like this: “half-brother to useful 3m-3m3f chase winner Presenting Forever and point winner Lord Gee; unraced dam from family of smart staying jumpers Andy Pandy, Belmont King, The Bajan Bandit and Therealbandit”.

He’s a horse with a massive engine, but do right by the horse Willie, step him up in trip and watch him flourish. They say you have to stay to win an Arkle so we may be eating our words come March 11th.

Trifolium

The Irish novice chasing scene is full of top class potential this season and overall look stronger than the English, to our eye anyway. Many may disagree considering the Irish horses are taking it in turns to beat each other and that has to be a worry, but there are excuses for consequent events.

Sitting at the top of the Emerald tree currently is Trifolium. Charles Byrnes trained and Gigginstown owned these connections are no stranger to Festival success. Twice the shrewd, but highly capable trainer produced Weapon’s Amnesty to win in March.

Firstly in the 2009 Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle and again the following year in the RSA. Byrnes also trained Solwhit to claim last year’s World Hurdle. Given the aforementioned pairs injury stricken luck no one could begrudge the Limerick handler another Cheltenham win and he looks like he has a horse to trouble the judge.

Formerly a classy novice hurdler the former French recruit finished third in the 2012 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. That wasn’t a great crop, but he’s obviously progressed despite a couple of training setbacks.

His wind and leg trouble seem a thing of the past as his four novice chase runs show this campaign. Four sound efforts have yielded form figures of 1221. He kicked off his year in emphatic style at Thurles. It wasn’t a great race, but he impressed in the jumping department showing a willingness to attack his obstacles like a real pro.

He met his first defeat over fences when bumping into Felix Yonger at Navan. He was receiving four pounds from the Mullins inmate, but despite jumping well, after being a touch keen, to be fair, he was duly put in his place and even made to look a touch one-paced. It was still a sound run and it’s just worth noting we detected a knee action and how his front legs spread out when jumping.

His acid test would come in his next two runs, both in Grade One company in the Racing Post Novice Chase and the Frank Ward Solicitors Arkle Novice Chase. Both runs were at Leopardstown.

In the former race he would finish second after jumping well, travelling nicely, but failing to pick up the impressive winner, Defy Logic. He travelled well, but maybe didn’t find as much as expected when asked and although staying on it was a little, just a little disappointing. It’s interesting Davy Russell felt he wasn´t right racing down the back straight, but yet continued to race.

The son of Goldneyev would capture his Grade One, however in the Frank Ward. Once more he showed tremendous jumping ability and after travelling well he jumped to the lead two out and didn’t see another rival. He jinked at a couple of obstacles, nothing too serious, but again, something just to note.

At the moment you’d have to say he’s Ireland’s main hope going into the Arkle especially given his highly assured jumping display I taking a Grade One last time out.

Felix Yonger

A useful bumper horse for Howard Johnson early in his career, Felix Yonger switched to Willie Mullins’ stable in the summer of 2011. Graduated into a classy novice hurdler, as his clear second to Simonsig in the 2012 Neptune Novices’ Hurdle shows.

Missed a year due to a splint and now applying his trade over fences and holding his own in a crop of classy looking novices in Ireland. He’s had five chase runs now with form figures of 11122. Any time he’s encountered decent ground he’s looked pretty useful.

He actually kicked off his chase career last season but due to the timing of the race he still remains eligible for this year’s novice events. He started in style, jumping well and running out a cosy winner considering it was his first run in a year at Punchestown.

The 2013/14 campaign started with a similar story, again at Punchestown. Surprisingly enough he was pitched into Grade Two company on debut, but he handled it with aplomb, managing to defeat a solid Graded performer in Defy Logic, who subsequently went on to score in a Grade One. He did everything right. The son of Oscar travelled, jumped and stayed on well – winning with his ears pricked over the minimum. This form may, just may slightly flatter him as the runner-up did jump a fraction out to his left.

Three weeks later the now eight year old would drop in class, under a penalty and score again. It was a sound performance in putting 15 lengths back to subsequent Grade One scorer, Trifolium. While the runner-up was a touch keen and maybe looked in need of the run Felix Yonger was well on top at the line. Once more he did everything well, but I did see his first jumping mistake although it cost him little momentum.

From here the Graham Wylie owned equine would finish runner-up on his next two starts, both on soft winter ground. At Limerick he was beaten over two and a half miles where again mistakes were seen. This time they were more serious than previous, but he still travelled well and stayed on at the end. He just couldn’t quicken out of it. This race over two and a half miles.

Willie Mullins’ charge would again play second fiddle next time out. Again on soft ground, described as heavy, but the time suggested it wasn’t that bad. Mistakes were seen once more, two in fact, and at crucial times in the race. They came at four out and two out. The former when the race was starting in earnest, the latter at a stage where errors are severely punished at this level, over the minimum trip.

Here Trifolium would turn around a 15 length deficit, on four pounds worse terms, into a nine length victory. Quite amazing in the space of six weeks!

Felix Yonger is still a doubt for this particular race as he may step up in trip to contest the JLT Novices’ Chase. Wherever he goes, should we have good to soft or better terrain, this horse must be respected.

Dodging Bullets

Paul Nicholls’ former Irish flat racer came into the National Hunt game with a pretty big reputation, as judged by his connections pitching him into Grade Two company for his first start in Britain. He would finish second in the Dovecote before going on to contest the 2012 Triumph Hurdle where he recorded a sound fourth.

A Grade Two win at Cheltenham in his novice hurdling year was the highlight before his form tailed off, probably due to soft ground along with competing in top races. Now a year older he looks a completely different horse.

The son of Dubawi wasn’t breed for this game, but he has a beautiful flat pedigree and looks to be gaining confidence with every passing year. We’re amazed at his progression this season. The Cheltenham Hill he once half-stuttered to get up in a Triumph now looks to hold no fears.

In his three runs of the 2013/14 campaign he has impressed. At Kempton on debut he jumped super and was quick away from his obstacles. He tended to lead out to the left at times so it will be a positive returning to Prestbury Park.

Cheltenham would be his second port of call for the year, this time in a Grade Two – the Racing Post Arkle Trophy Trial Novices’ Chase. He would go on to score in good style showing himself to be an intelligent jumper.

He was a little slow through the air at times, if we’re being picky, nothing serious, but that improved as the race went on. Off the average gallop he travelled well and when asked to go win his race he quickened up the hill, staying on strongly to win with his ears pricked.

Grade Two level would again see his ability tested next time out, and back to Kempton he went. The six-year-old would have what looked like a near impossible task of giving classy ex-hurdler Grandouet six pounds with the Henderson runner going off 1-2f.

Dodging Bullets would cause a shock, however, running out a decisive winner. Once more he did everything right as he travelled, jumped and stayed on well to win handsomely.

Dodging Bullets has surprised us this season. He looks a completely different horse, remains unbeaten over fences and jumps like an absolute buck. There won’t be many better in the jumping department, on the evidence so far. He looks the best of the British challenge.

Chasing Pack

Valdez

Like Dodging Bullets Valdez remains unbeaten over fences and has also surprised us with his progression this season. His hurdles rating of 135 coming over fences meant significant improvement was needed to even be considered an Arkle horse.

Improvement he’s found in abundance and after just three runs over the larger obstacles is a full 18 pounds higher than his hurdles rating. That’s quite a jump and you’d have to say he’s got the scope to improve on that.

Quite a keen type over hurdles he seems to be paying his fences much more respect and along with getting older has learned to race properly. As we said he remains unbeaten and kicked off his campaign in fine style at Exeter.

You won’t get many better chasing debuts than this. Having been quite keen throughout, jumping well in the interim, he tanked into the lead four out. From here he never looked in danger, stayed on well and won with his ears pricked. Just note he jumped the last two obstacles out to his right.

Two weeks later the flashy chestnut would go to Newbury and put up arguably his best performance of the year. His main market rival fell, taking any real competitive edge away, but even so, he demolished the remaining field off a strong gallop. Again he jumped well in the main, but once more showed signs of going out to his right and he did make one mistake.

The son of Doyen would not be seen for six weeks after, the Alan King yard reporting a small virus and shutting up shop. Stable form is always a concern, but Valdez stepped up once more, winning his Grade Two, the Lightning Novices’ Chase.

While not overly impressive, he got the job done and it looked like a case of him gaining mental sharpness, as much as physical, with his extended break not being ideal.

He has a bit to prove, but does an awful lot right for a stable that know how to win an Arkle.

Rock On Ruby

Not a lot needs to be written about this horse, a former Champion Hurdler, and one of two to finish ahead of the great Hurricane Fly in the last two years (one of four in the last five years). Having started the season over hurdles, a thrashing at the hands of The New One seemed to kick start his chase career.

Due to soft ground he’s only made the one start over fences, at Plumpton, in an awful race. He ran out an easy winner, not surprisingly and got some critical jumping experience.

The race was that much of a farce we never really got to see his jumping tested. He still made a mistake mind you, but eventually got the job done in facile fashion.

The son of Oscar hasn’t been seen since December, connections not willing to test their pride and joy on soft winter ground due to past problems with his wind. They pulled him out at the eleventh hour of the Lightening Novice Chase, at Doncaster, where he was due to meet Valdez.

Again, this was down to the ground, but the winning time
suggested it was nowhere as bad as Harry Fry thought. They really missed a proper chance to get more experience, and in a competitive race.

Time is now running out and his lack of match practise is a huge concern. Well Chief did manage to win an Arkle having had just one run over fences beforehand. Now, Well Chief was one of the best two mile chasers of the recent generation, but it shows it can be done, if good enough.

Class is not something Rock On Ruby lacks. His record at Cheltenham is phenomenal and he is in the care of the best, young trainer in the country. The stats are against him, but his sheer class lands him in the ‘chasing pack’ list.

Best of the Rest

Hinterland

A second season chaser representing Paul Nicholls. Didn’t manage to score over fences last season having run creditably on a number of occasions.

He met horses like Captain Conan and Simonsig so it’s not a surprise he’s still a maiden over the larger obstacles. The six-year-old was beaten out of sight by Simonsig, but he ran a fantastic race to finish runner-up to Captain Conan in the Henry VIII, at Sandown.

This season, he would subsequently go on to go one place better in the aforementioned race this time taking the scalp of a Nicky Henderson inmate, in Grandouet. That’s put a Grade One on his CV, but we’re not sure he deserves be as low as 8/1 in some books.

While Grade One winners should never be easily written off we have a number of question marks about the son of Poliglote. One, we’re still not sure he has the raw ability to win an Arkle. Two, there is little room for error in his jumping, on what we’ve seen thus far.

He’s very low at his fences and tends to rub the top of more than you’d care for. Will he get away with such in a Championship type race? And finally, his Cheltenham form is also questionable. Although he’s won at the track, as a 6/4f favourite mind, the Chris Chiles owned gelding has been beaten at odds of 2/7f and 15/8f.

While a strong pace looks sure to suit he needs to up his game and the six-year-old stat may be the final nail in the coffin.

Grandouet

A horse we had a huge soft spot for when he arrived in England as a juvenile. He was placed in a Triumph, running a huge race when brought down two out at Aintree before going to Punchestown to win a Grade One, all as a juvenile. It showed class and toughness.

Much was expected of him the next year, even as a five-year-old and having made a great start which included an International Hurdle win, injury would scupper his season. He would return the following year with similar expectations.

He started the campaign well, in the International ironically, where he had the near impossible task of giving Zarkandar four pounds on ground far too soft for him. He went to the Champion Hurdle, but fell four out when seemingly going nicely.

It was too far out to say how he would’ve faired and he would be stepped up in trip at Aintree to contest the Aintree Hurdle, his trainer convinced the trip would suit. Again he ran a poor race, beaten quite a long way.

He’s now a horse that has run his fair share of below par races and at this level you really have to wonder what Grandouet is going to turn up. He’s very much an enigma now and his silly falls over hurdles do his profile no good.

It was no surprise to then see him blot his chasing copybook by unseating on debut, when held by Hinterland. He met that foe again on his next start and his jumping was more assured. He eventually went down by a quarter of a length. Slightly disappointing, but it was an improved effort although he was comfortably held in the end.

His final chase start would come at Kempton. Nicky Henderson’s charge would be beaten at odds of 1/2f. While in black and white that looks poor he had to make his own running, which is far from ideal given his keen nature.

A bad mistake three out put paid to any chance he had and once more it was a case of Grandouet failing to fire. The frustrating thing is he has the raw ability to run a huge race, but he lacks consistency and seems a bit headless at times. Maybe a hood will help?

Given his ability he looks a touch of value especially as the race is likely to be run to suit. A frustrating horse to get to grips with.

Verdict

As you can imagine, given it’s still an ante-post affair it’s quite hard to get to grips with what is going to run. The race very much revolves around the Mullins pair of Champagne Fever and Felix Yonger. Whichever one runs will most certainly go off shorter and hold solid claims. It really is a pickle, so what we’ll do is sort the rest out first and see where we stand.

Of those to the head of the market Dodging Bullets offers the poorest value despite being one of the best, if not thee best jumper in this field. He has one of the most sought after attributes needed to win any National Hunt race, but I’m still not sure he’s good enough for an Arkle.

His beating of Raya Star at Cheltenham, in black and white, reads well, but the runner-up is much better in bigger fields off a strong pace and the Nicholls horse was always going to beat him in a speed duel. His Kempton victory over Grandouet also flatters him. The Henderson inmate made the running at a good gallop, which never would’ve suit and Dodging Bullets simply picked up the pieces. The fact he is still only a six-year-old is the final straw, leading me to think others offer more in terms of value.

The age stat is also against Rock On Ruby. The last nine-year-old to win the Arkle was Danish Flight back in 1988. Harry Fry’s stable star is certainly good enough to win, but it now looks as if he’ll go to Cheltenham on the back of just one chase start. That’s not ideal and given his price, we’re out.

Hinterland is another to fall foul in terms of the age stats. He hasn’t got the same ability as Rock On Ruby and his jumping technique will surely come under the microscope in an Arkle. With all that in mind he is another we’re willing to take on.

That leaves us with Champagne Fever, Trifolium, Valdez, Grandouet and Felix Yonger. There is no doubting the value of the race in the remaining quintet. There’re two actually: Grandouet and Felix Yonger.

Both these horses have class in abundance, but too have chinks in their armour. Grandouet, quite simply is his own worst enemy. The engine is there, but a cognitive ability lacks on occasions. It’s frustrating to watch at times and given the worry is he passed over at a big price.

Felix Yonger on the other hand has a chink, but it’s something beyond his control – the ground. Willie Mullins’ eight-year-old is quite simply ground dependant and is a different animal on a decent surface.

Given his class he’s still capable of troubling the judge on soft, but should Champagne Fever go another route and the ground came up good we feel he’d be the one to beat. We’re stuck between a rock and a hard place as he has the requisite class to win an Arkle, but there is every possibility he may run in the JLT Chase, formerly the Jewson. I can’t rule him out just yet.

Trifolium is another horse that is hard to rule out given what we saw in the Irish Arkle. He was simply electric and put up a career best in scoring at Leopardstown. He’s clearly over the ailments that held him up last year and looks a top class prospect.

There are a number of issues, however. One; his price. He looks quite short now, fair is probably more accurate, especially in comparison to Felix Yonger, who slammed him at Navan on decent ground. Again talking of ground, a lot of his best form is on proper Irish soft going and there are a number of horses that may just do him for toe on Spring terrain, should we get it of course.

His second to Defy Logic is an example of this. While the official description was ‘soft’ this day, the time suggested it was much, much quicker. Trifolium came swinging into the straight, but couldn’t quicken past his rival, who had done the entire donkey work. It was a little disappointing and on another note, shows the engine Defy Logic holds. For all of the above we’re out.

Valdez is another horse we like. While his form, both over hurdles and fences, doesn’t match up to the majority of the above he has scope to improve. Maybe it’s just a case of him not being able to show us how good he is given the races he’s contested.

The time he clocked at Newbury in November was quick, really quick and he done it easily. It compared well to a 0-140 handicap chase on that very card and given the extra weight he carried the performance shows him in a great light.

The form, as we said, doesn’t, however and with this in mind he is reluctantly passed over. He is capable of going well, but he is let down by the formbook and his tendency to jump right at times. Passed over, but capable of running very well.

This leaves us with the Mullins pair of Champagne Fever (we’ve changed our tune over the course of four days work. Despite us wanting Champagne Fever to step-up in trip, he has the class to win an Arkle. Ruby Walsh felt he got it wrong last time out, taking on Defy Logic, so we feel he can right those wrongs should he line up here.)  and Felix Yonger. We still don’t know which of the two will line up, all being well of course. Given their class, their past Festival form and the men they represent both hold huge chances here.

It’s hard to say which one will run so we’ll cover the bases and back both. The reason being, regardless of whom lines up they both have the ability to win this race. Also, we’re confident in obtaining value on which ever horse goes.

Should FELIX YONGER run, there is not a hope in hell of him returning a double figure starting price, unless he encounters soft ground.

CHAMPAGNE FEVER has that ‘pride of Ireland’ and ‘Cheltenham Festival specialist’ aura about him and should Felix not run against him, which is highly likely, you can be sure the punters, especially the Irish, will get stuck in.

Advice

2pts win CHAMPAGNE FEVER @4/1 (Bet Victor – Non Runner Free Bet)

1pt win FELIX YONGER @16/1 (Bet Fred, Totesport) 14/1 (Ladbrokes, Paddy Power, Stan James, William Hill)