Following on from our Supreme Novices’ Hurdle preview, Declan Rix now takes a look at a second novice hurdle event in the Neptune Investment Management Novices’ Hurdle. Run over two miles and five furlongs on the Old Course at Cheltenham, it’s a test that requires a mix of speed and stamina for a young horse. Yanworth currently heads the betting, but how does Declan think he’ll fair?
Neptune Investment Management Novices Hurdle ante-post preview
Like the 2016 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle market, one horse dominates the race registered as The Baring Bingham Novices’ Hurdle. The JP McManus-owned and Alan King-trained Yanworth is already an even-money shot for this year’s Neptune such is the dominance he has displayed on the track this season.
In four starts at Exeter, Warwick, Ascot and Cheltenham the son of Norse Dancer remains unbeaten, the latter pair of those victories coming in Grade 2 events. This six-year-old resonates class, is straight-forward and versatile. Whatever beats him on the Wednesday at Cheltenham will be a good horse.
There is little to fault Yanworth about, he does everything so easily and so well. His jumping is the only small concern we’d have, and we must stress small, as he can be awkward and untidy at some obstacles, but apart from that he looks pretty watertight.
At a price of even-money however, we’ll have to take him on with an each-way selection and hope to hit the frame at the very least.
This year’s Neptune is another race Irish champion trainer Willie Mullins doesn’t host the favourite, but in the few Grade 1 contests where that’s the case there still remains a strong challenge. The next five horses in the market are all trained by the Closutton maestro, but while numerically strong at this stage not all will run.
All being well however, Long Dog (12/1) is one horse that looks set to take his chance in this year’s Neptune. Despite being owned by Rich Ricci this six-year-old went much of the last seven months under the radar.
A lovely big horse who can only improve with time, he had one run on the flat in 2013 before another effort came over hurdles the following year. His third ever career start came in July of 2015 and the son of Notnowcato has done nothing but keep winning and improving.
Since July Long Dog has gone unbeaten in six runs, the last pair coming in Grade 1 events at Fairyhouse and Leopardstown. At the former venue he’d hold off the fast finishing effort of his stablemate Bachasson in the Royal Bond Novice Hurdle, the pair coming clear. Last time out, in December, he’d win the Future Champions Novice Hurdle.
A chaser-in-the-making, it was good to see his jumping improve over Christmas having been a bit rusty in earlier starts. The form of that victory has also been boosted and while the win at Leopardstown probably flatters him a touch, given how keen many in behind were, it was yet another success and you have to respect that.
The fact his latest wins have probably come over trips (2m) short of his optimum means the Neptune distance of just over 2-and-a-half miles will play to his strengths and possibly improve him. The way he gallops also suggests better ground will suit and while we’ve already seen a good Long Dog, there is potential for more improvement at Cheltenham.
Another Willie Mullins-trained 12/1 shot owned by leading National Hunt connections is A Toi Phil, a lightly-raced French import. This horse has only ever run four times in his career, three if you don’t include his disastrous Irish debut at Clonmel where he ran out.
In March of 2015 he made his debut at Auteuil and finished second before being bought by Mullins or Gigginstown House Stud. At Clonmel, his life in Ireland got off to an unlucky start, but since that day the son of Day Flight hasn’t looked back.
Breaking his maiden at Leopardstown over Christmas on basically his second ever career start really got our attention. Maidens at this particular Festival often go to good horses so winning and beating useful types in second and third with the trio well clear of the remainder was sound form.
His work at home must have been impressing his trainer as just four weeks later the six-year-old was pitched into Grade 2 company, again at Leopardstown. Victory came in the same manner as his earlier course success, he and Bryan Cooper going onto score by 7 lengths.
The ease at which A Toi Phil has been winning has impressed. He appears to do everything so easily; travel, jump and finds off the bridle. His positive attitude to racing will stand him in good stead and while he has done all his winning on Irish wintery terrain, he moves like a faster surface will improve him further.
He hasn’t got the same kind of form in the book as some and that has to be a worry, but he gives the impression that the better the race, the better he’ll be. He’s a really interesting horse for top connections.
Another of Willie Mullins’s – near half the price of A Toi Phil and Long Dog – that we have already discussed in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle preview is Yorkhill (7/1). His latest victory in the Grade 1 Tolworth Hurdle at Sandown was franked over the weekend when Agrapart, a horse he beat over 10 lengths, won the highly competitive and valuable Betfair Hurdle at Newbury by 11 lengths.
That is a pretty big form boast coming into the Festival and given we gave him a positive mention in a previous preview, this only enhances our opinion of him. The problem with Yorkhill where this piece is concerned is we are still not sure if he will run here.
Bellshill, yet another Mullins horse, is also owned by Graham Wylie and it appeared connections were aiming him at this race. Subsequent to those plans however, Bellshill flopped in the Grade 1 Deloitte Novice Hurdle at Leopardstown throwing the debate of where the Wylie horses will run open again.
Unfortunately, we are still none the wiser of current plans – there is still plenty water to flow under the bridge – but we feel this is the right race for Yorkhill. Should be run, he holds strong claims and is respected.
Bleu Et Rouge is another we discussed in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle preview. He was a gutsy and game winner of the Grade 1 Deloitte Novice Hurdle last time out and is a horse on the upgrade. He would have to be respected in whatever race he runs in.
We feel on better ground given how well he stayed in the stamina-sapping Deloitte, the Neptune is the race for him. But with JP McManus already holding the race-ace in Yanworth there must be a fair chance of Bleu Et Rouge running on the opening day.
The main sufferer of Yanworth’s brilliant Grade 2 success at Cheltenham was Shantou Village, a lightly-raced horse of young trainer Neil Mullholland. Mullholland is one of a handful of relatively new licence holders in the UK capable of landing big races and in Shantou Village he has a lovely type on his hands.
This six-year-old lost his unbeaten record at the hands of the current race-favourite and despite the loss coming on heavy ground, the first time he’s ever encountered such taxing conditions, it’s hard to see him reversing the form come March.
A former point-to-point winner before joining the Mullholland team, this slick-jumping six-year-old is probably better off tackling the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle over three miles on the final day of the Festival. The same sentiments are echoed about Barters Hill who we’ll discuss further in our next preview.
Best of the Rest
Nicky Henderson’s O O Seven was under 2-and-a-half lengths behind Yorkhill in the Grade 1 Tolworth Hurdle at Sandown. On that run alone, it’s hard to envisage him reversing the form, but on probable quicker ground and over a 5-furlong further trip (should both run here), it can hardly be totally ruled out. This son of Flemensfirth has since won over 3 miles at Musselburgh where he idled in scoring while also conceding weight to his rivals. Entered in the Albert Bartlett, there must be a chance he’ll go there, it actually looks a better race for him.
Warren Greatrex is another relatively new trainer to the ranks who is capable of handling good horses. His Ma Du Fou is a lovely type who remains unbeaten in three starts this season and is certainly going the right way. The latest win at Huntingdon in the Listed Sydney Banks Memorial Novice Hurdle came despite the track not exactly playing to his strengths. He needs to improve, but is doing so. The worry is his trainer’s reluctance to test him at the war field that is Cheltenham as a young horse. He may not run which would probably be the correct call.
Another Willie Mullins horse who is entitled to a crack here is Thomas Hobson. He’s got quite a big engine, but his headstrong tendencies and sometimes less than fluent hurdling don’t allow him to show his very best. He’s another Rici Ricci-owned potential runner, but with Long Dog also in the race, Thomas Hobson may not run.
Duke Des Champs may head to Aintree, North Hill Harvey sounds like he his Supreme bound while Open Eagle may go to the Albert Bartlett after his latest Warwick success. Politologue still has the Coral Cup on his radar while the lovely Premier Bond is a nice horse that may be tested at a higher level at Aintree. Tombstone’s right race is the Supreme for us, but still may run here. All six here are worth favourable mentions.
The BetBright Verdict
Once sitting down and having a much closer look at this year’s Neptune, it appears the race has the potential to cut up badly despite the 78 entries. Quite recently, it’s been a contest that has had either 10 (or so) runners or much bigger fields of 15 plus.
Unfortunately, this year’s renewal is hard to predict, even at this stage, but the presence of Yanworth may scare off a fair few horses especially those that are considered future chasers down the line.
To the fore of the betting, it’s hard to recommend Bellshill for any race at the Festival on the back of a hugely disappointing run last time out. The talented Yorkhill’s target is still in limbo and there is a strong chance the likes of Barters Hill, Bleu Et Rouge, Shantou Village and Tombstone go elsewhere, along with many others mentioned further above in the piece.
Therefore, the only viable options we can consider at this stage come from the Willie Mullins yard in A Toi Phil and Long Dog. Both are lovely horses, but given their prices (both 12/1), it makes sense to give LONG DOG the nod.
The reasoning is simple; the Rich Ricci-owned horse has Grade 1 form in the book. A Toi Phil, while a horse with massive potential, doesn’t, and that’s what it boils down to given they are the same price.
In terms of the selection, there may even be a case to argue he is a bit of a forgotten horse. Long Dog hasn’t run since the Festive period so is not to the forefront of some punters’ minds. While a positive with regards his price, that also has to be a worry – going to Cheltenham on the back of an 80-day break. That said, he is trained by the right man to get him ready for the big occasion.
The form of Long Dog’s latest Grade 1 success at least has a solid look to it and we’d argue he has been winning over trips that don’t allow him to race through the early and middle parts of the contests comfortably.
It’s down to his class and toughness, along with stamina-demanding ground, that has seen him through over the minimum trips. The early skirmishes of a Neptune should suit him far better, allowing him to get into a rhythm. With his prominent style of racing and Ruby Walsh’s (should he ride) pace-controlling expertise, this makes him dangerous.
Spring terrain may also bring out the best in this six-year-old. While a big chasing type, it can’t be said he is slow and the potent mix of speed and stamina he brings will serve him well.
1.5tps each-way LONG DOG @ 12/1
Odds are provided at time of writing, please check your betslip to confirm they have not changed before betting.
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