Wednesday March 8th 2pm Have you ever been in the Hampton Court Maze? Well getting out of there is easier than finding the winner of this year’s opening contest at the Cheltenham Festival. Everyone wants to get off to a flyer at the Festival, even if only to boost the moral for the four days if not the bank balance.
I’ve spent days looking at this race and whatever you decide to make your selection you are going to have to turn a blind eye to some part of their profile. So it’s back to basics. If forty years of punting on horses has taught me one thing it’s “bet with your eyes not with your ears”! So what have I seen? What’s in the form book?
Moon Racer won the Champion Bumper two years ago, indeed he is unbeaten in three visits to Cheltenham, the last of which was a G2 Supreme Novice Hurdle trial when he set a slow pace, quickened from the front and comfortably beat Ballyandy and Movewiththetimes. That was only Moon Racers second outing over hurdles, the previous one had also seen him beat Ballyandy ¾L at level weights in a C4 Soft ground at Perth just three weeks previously.
Ballyandy met Movewiththetimes in the Betfair Hurdle most recently where they finished first and second six lengths clear of a solid bunch of handicappers. Ballyandy gave the runner up a pound and won fair and square by ¾L. So the form book suggests Moon Racer will be a couple of lengths in front of Ballyandy with Movewiththetimes a couple of lengths further back.
In Ireland Bunk Off Early was a solid second in their number one novice hurdle trial, the Deloitte, outstayed on the run in of this 2m2f contest by another Willie Mullins inmate with a third inmate and 7/4 favourite Saturnas trailing in tenth of ten under a bemused Ruby Walsh. Saturnas had beaten Brelade by two lengths in the Grade 1 Future Champions over 2m at the Leopardstown Christmas meeting having previously failed by 6½L to give seven pounds to another Willie Mullins horse, the mare Airlie Beach in the Grade 1 Royal Bond. Fair to say the Irish 2m Novice hurdle Championship form is a tad muddy but Willie Mullins is right at the heart of it. His Melon won an egg and spoon Good ground maiden hurdle at the end of January, the form has not been franked (the second has an OR130) and in a very moderate time.
It was Bacardys who won the Deloitte and back in April 2016 he had been third in the Champion Bumper at Punchestown six lengths behind Moon Racer at level weights having finished third to Ballyandy beaten 2L in the Cheltenham Champion bumper and then beating the same horse by 4½L in receipt of four pounds at Aintree. Ballyandy and Bacardys are the same horse.
So it’s all very simple, Moon Racer wins the 2017 Supreme comfortably and is a solid 6/4 favourite! Sadly the market doesn’t see it that way. So what’s the issue?
Moon Racer is an 8yo and has only faced the starting tapes six times. Moon Racer hasn’t been seen in a race since that win at Cheltenham on November 13th over four months ago, 105 days. Have the others who have run progressed since? Moon Racer still holds an entry in the Champion Hurdle even at the five day declaration stage. My maths on the Champion Hurdle (another complex race) says the winner may have to only post an Official Rating of 167 this year. If team Pipe think the same and Moon Racer is a 160+ horse now, surely he’s a shoo in for the Supreme. But why oh why hasn’t he run in four months?
With Willie Mullins we are betting blind. David Casey, his assistant (?), told the Sean Graham Cheltenham preview in Belfast that Melon had had FIVE schooling hurdle runs. Five seems excessive. Who against? Why not in a proper race?
Willie Mullins also told the press pack at his media day that “We’ll probably have four or five runners. MELON, BUNK OFF EARLY, CRACK MOME, CILAOS EMERY – those four, anyway. Melon is a horse with plenty of ability who jumps well. He’s a fine, strong, tall horse who has the ability but doesn’t have the experience. The form in the two-mile division is not as strong as other years. We’ll find out on the day, I suppose. When you’re looking at what Melon does at home, all the time, I’d say it will be an easy enough decision for Ruby. Fiveforthree won the Neptune after one run and Melon has plenty of jumping experience at home. He seems a natural jumper. I suppose when I bought him I thought ‘Champion Hurdle horse’ but if you look at the size of him now I think he’s really grown and matured. He could easily jump fences. Let’s see what he does here first. I think both Crack Mome and Cilaos Emery have good enough form to be placed in it if not win it if things go right for them. All of them will improve.”
If you back a Mullins horse it has to be the one which Ruby Walsh rides and that currently looks like being Melon, but 4/1?
Both Nigel Twiston-Davies (Ballyandy) and Paul Nicholls (Movewiththetimes) are bullish for their runners suggesting they are the right age, experienced, fit and in form and a fast run two miles at Cheltenham are ideal conditions.
So what else could spoil the party?
On the form book if Bacardys, Finians Oscar or especially Neon Wolf lined up they would bear the closest inspection but at the five day declarations the first two are out and you would expect all three to be in the Neptune. I’ll say it now but I’ve a sneaking suspicion Neon Wolf might not appear at Cheltenham at all, probably on ground issues.
What about Nicky Henderson? He always has something in the frame. Well it was meant to be Jenkins but the less said about him the better. Looks like being the 8yo Beyond Conceit, unbeaten in two, and/or the improving River Wylde. The latter won the Grade 2 Dovecote last time, same stepping stone as the trainer’s last winner of this race, Flown. Elgin was second in the Dovecote giving weight to River Wylde suggesting there is not much between them and they represent the Neon Wolf strand of form that is yet to be tested against that of last year’s Grade 1 bumper form. Another potential improver is the ex-Godolphin, John Ferguson owned, Ben Pauling trained High Bridge who is taking an unbeaten run of three into the contest. However nothing higher than C3 and he will be ridden by the owners son who can’t claim his seven pounds here. His sixth in last season’s Cheltenham Champion Bumper suggests it’s not impossible but he probably needs to find seven pounds or so.
When writing about this race on the blog back on January 8th I said “The picture is no clearer in Ireland. Willie Mullins Saturnas ridden by Paul Townend won the last 2m Grade 1 (Ruby Walsh chose Riven Light) but had previously been beaten seven lengths into second in another 2m G1 behind the Willie Mullins trained mare, Airlie Beach, ridden by Danny Mullins (Ruby chose Penhill!). When previewing the Lawlors Hurdle at Naas on Sunday for Paddy Power, Ruby Walsh opened with “Airlie Beach and Death Duty are the two best novice hurdlers in Ireland.” The form certainly backs that up. However Willie Mullins may know otherwise. Of those from Closutton that have run and won the two that impressed me most were Bunk Off Early and Cilaos Emery, both will supposedly step up in grade on their next outing, the G1 2m2f Deloitte possibly, with Saturnas and a mare? Uncle Willie may have something special that hasn’t even run yet, remember the name Epicuris, fifth in Golden Horn’s Derby! So my personal conclusion is that currently the best 2m novice hurdler on form is the mare, Airlie Beach. Will she run in the Supreme? Heaven knows.”
I’m not quite as keen now as we haven’t seen her since 4th December and she is currently 5/2 to win the Mares Novice hurdle and extend her unbeaten record to eight. Willie Mullins has hardly mentioned her recently it’s all been Lets Dance BUT it’s the ground with Airlie Beach, Good is great! She is still in the Supreme at the five day stage!
In my opinion the only two people who could have a win bet in this contest are Willie Mullins and David Pipe and I suggest they may want to tread carefully! I will put three in the placepot Moon Racer, Ballyandy and River Wylde and of course the mare if she lines up. Nothing would surprise me if Ruby Walsh and Melon won by ten lengths but boy that’s a big IF!!
Phew, I’m out of that maze.