Donn's Articles » Cheltenham – Novice Hurdlers

Cheltenham – Novice Hurdlers

There’s that old table quiz question again, name the only horse ever to win consecutive races at the Cheltenham Festival. If you didn’t answer Montelado, then you probably haven’t been at a racing or a sports table quiz in about 15 years, but it’s a good one for you when the parish priest asks you to come up with a couple of questions for the annual general knowledge fund-raiser. (The Bumper, the last race in 1992, and the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, the first race in 1993, of course.) That new roof isn’t going to grow on the top of the church, you know.

Here’s another: how many renewals of the Gloucester Hurdle did Vincent O’Brien win between 1952 and 1959? Answer: 10. It’s another one that will have the cognoscenti scratching their heads.

For Gloucester Hurdle, now read Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, resplendent in its new Spinal Research sponsorship, fair play to owner Andy Stewart and family, and it has long been an Irish benefit gig. After the Doctor’s domination of the late 1950s, there was another golden period for Irish novice hurdlers when they won all seven renewals between 1977 and 1983, a period that saw Dessie Hughes win it as a rider on Mac’s Chariot and as a trainer with Miller Hill, and which included such luminaries as Buck House and the redoubtable Golden Cygnet. Things went a little fallow in the late 1980s, as did all things Irish, but the natural order of things has been restored of late, with Irish trainers winning seven of the last nine. And there is every chance that, this year, that record can be further embellished.

Has Dunguib gone by? It’s a legitimate question. He isn’t a Flyinbolt (4/9 when he won it in 1964), but you don’t often get an even money favourite for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle five weeks out. It is easy to understand why, however. He would be unbeaten in his last four bumpers (four of the five he contested) and all three of his hurdle races had a technicality not gone against him. He was probably the most impressive winner of the Cheltenham Bumper since Montelado won the first, and he has looked fairly invincible thus far over hurdles, his latest win coming in the Grade 1 Royal Bond Hurdle. He has pace, he has stamina, he has course and Festival-winning form, he will be better on the better ground that he will probably encounter, and his jumping is improving with experience. As the warm Irish favourite in the opener, his performance will probably determine the fate of a significant proportion of Irish punters for the week.

A couple of worries for those who are intending to go all-in on the first. Two fairly big stats are against him. Excepting Captain Cee Bee two years ago, no other seven-year-old has won the race since Barnard won Division II in 1971. Okay, so Like-A-Butterfly and Sondrio have won it as eight-year-olds in the interim, but the race is still mainly the preserve of the youngsters.

The other stat concerns Cheltenham Bumper winners. The race is usually won by a future stayer. Florida Pearl, Pizarro, Monsignor, Florida Pearl, Alexander Banquet, they were all stayers in-waiting. The last horse to win the Cheltenham Bumper and go back and win the Supreme Novices’ the following year? We’re back to Montelado again.

Two other little concerns. Firstly, while Philip Fenton has always said that the curtain-raiser is his target, he still left Dunguib in the Champion Hurdle at entry stage, just in case. It’s a legitimate precaution, just in case a couple of the top ones in the Champion come out, you have to assume. So if you are getting stuck in at evens, or even at the bits and pieces of 5/4 that you can pilfer, you wouldn’t want to start reading about Zaynar or Binocular or Solwhit having setbacks. Secondly, Rite Of Passage. If Dermot Weld and Dr Ronan Lambe decide to take on Dunguib instead of going for the apparently easier (no Dunguib) Neptune Investment Management Hurdle over five furlongs further, then there could be fireworks before most people have finished their pre-racing shopping in the tented village.

The best deployment of the scarce resources that are Irish horses at Cheltenham would probably be to send Rite Of Passage for the longer race instead, an eventuality that is actually quite likely if the markets are to be believed, and the markets are usually the best guide to these things. The Dermot Weld-trained gelding was all the rage for the Bumper last season, backed down to an almost unbackable 5/2, before he finished fourth behind Dunguib, Daylight and Some Present, but he seems to have improved during the summer, so much so that he was able to win the November Handicap at Leopardstown last (unsurprisingly) November doing handsprings off a flat mark of 88, with last month’s Irish Champion Hurdle runner-up Donnas Palm eight lengths back in second.

Now rated 103 on the flat, he looked seriously impressive on his only run over hurdles to date, a delayed one, when he circumvented the attentions of a loose horse to get up and beat the useful Grey Soldier quite easily. It was a little disappointing that the horse that had beaten Grey Soldier over Christmas on his previous run, Prince Of Fire, was subsequently beaten at odds-on, but that was on very heavy ground at Navan when they didn’t go a great gallop. Trainer Charlie Swan holds him in the highest regard, and it is safe to assume that he is better than he was able to show then.

Irish horses haven’t been doing too badly in the Neptune either of late, winning three of the last four, four of the last seven, in all its guises (Sun Alliance, Royal & SunAlliance, Ballymore). For full marks in Round 5, the racing round, name the horses.

© The Irish Field, 6th February 2010