WHILE the ‘Road to Cheltenham’ is well worn route through the racing channels, websites and podcasts, we are going to plough our own path for the next weeks.
It might be a more cross-country route - here follows the ‘Path to Prestbury’, we’ll all still plan to meet in the same place, bets placed with those welcome 48 hour declarations come March.
We’ll begin with the novice hurdlers since Constitution Hill was the talk of the town on Saturday, and there are likely to be a few new additions in the next two months so we may have to come back to this category.
What happens in January often stays in January, given anything comparable to winter ground is rare at the Festival nowadays but while the Racing Post got a few grumbling comments on its Saturday cover proclaiming Constitution Hill as jump racing’s next big thing – it didn’t seem too wrong a question by mid-afternoon as he usurped Jonbon as the leading British novice contender.
After the whitewash for their novice hurdlers in the five novice hurdle events at the Festival last year, it’s somewhat surprising to see so many British-trained topping the ratings and more surprising – that two are in the same stable and may run in the same race.
It’s quite possible that both will run in the Supreme. Henderson’s Sprinter Sacre and Spirit Son did as did Altior and Buveur D’Air and JP also had two chances when Captain Cee Bee beat Binocular, so you wouldn’t think he’d be running scared of Michael Buckley’s star either.
But let’s not forget that it’s big money stakes – owners will surely want to maximise the chances of Festival winner and their trainers do likewise.
A look at the price tags of some of the leading contenders might well compare favourably alongside those of classic contenders in the Craven Stakes: Jonbon £570,000, Sir Gerhard £400,000, Classic Getaway £570,000, Ginto £470,000.
Constitution Hill’s Saturday’s performance, in horrible ground was a standout. Cruise up at the second last, prick those ears, over and away. It’s like a being told a cracking joke on a first date. You got me, I’m yours.
Nicky Henderson’s Racing Post stable tour last October is worth taking a look back at for his comments.
Constitution Hill: “He’s a striking youngster, he looks a nascent chaser but Barry says he’s not short of pace.”
Jonbon: “We’d like to think he’s special. He’s done magnificently over the summer – jumps neatly and has a cracking attitude, he’s one of our major arrows for novice hurdling.”
No clue there on Saturday’s excitement and it’s surprising now to note that Constitution Hill wasn’t even favourite on his first run this year.
Yet after he had won that first time at Sandown Henderson said: “He is the most extraordinary creature I’ve come across in years. It was one of Barry Geraghty’s … and he said, ‘you have got to buy this’.
“You sit him in behind two horses and you don’t think you are on anything, then you pull him out and press a button and he just disappears. It is extraordinary.”
Listening to Nicky Henderson on Sunday, it seemed possible that Constitution Hill is unlikely to run again while Jonbon could do with further experience.
If Constitution Hill was perfect date material, you’d be a bit more wary of Jonbon on a ‘first impression’, ‘meet the parents’ set up – especially if that first meeting was on the first race of the Cheltenham Festival.
He sweated up on his racecourse gallop at Newbury, but impressed when then winning at Newbury and Ascot – the Grade 2 Kennel Gate Novices’ Hurdle might have been the best quality novice run in Britain this year.
Yet both races had farcical starts. Jonbon was keen when sent on at Ascot – he won’t be allowed to be cozied and have his own way into the first furlongs at Cheltenham.
When the ear plugs he wore at Ascot were removed in the winner’s enclosure he got quite agitated.
Cheltenham day one first race is sure to have a buzz and atmosphere not felt on a racecourse in many, many months. If all goes to plan, those present, having missed a year and now paid exorbitant prices to be there, are going to be excited. As a brother to Douvan too, you would think the Supreme is definitely more suitable for him.
It was interesting that Henderson remarked how he and Barry Geraghty had run the speedy Simonsig in the Ballymore. Ballymore winners are not slow horses – it has Champion Hurdle winners Istabraq, Hardy Eustace and Faugheen on its roll of honour, as well as The New One.
Timeform surprisingly rate Jonbon on 149P to Constitution Hill’s 147P with Stage Star next on 145P. Sir Gerhard is a lowly 132P for his maiden win.
Constitution Hill is available at 8/1 generally for the Ballymore. If you like a risk, and jumping’s all a risk, that’s a bit crazy oddds and might be worth taking a small one despite no NRNB.
The rest of the British are made up of Jpr One who looked well suited to the longer distance when winning at Taunton this week.
Hillcrest won at Cheltenham’s New Year’s Day meeting and he could step up in distance – the second I Am Maximus had been beaten by Jpr One on their debuts at Exeter in November. Hillcrest just looks more a chasing type, by Monkfish’s sire Stowaway.
Stage Star is a Grade 1 winner for Paul Nicholls \ Healy Racing
Paul Nicholls’ Stage Star has followed a similar route, winning the Grade 1 Challow Hurdle impressively, as Bravemansgame last year and is the third best we’ve seen according to Timeform.
So what about the Irish? We will know more about the Irish challenge after the Dublin Racing Festival but Sir Gerhard impressed at Christmas, jumped well. Champion Bumper winners have a poor record in the following year’s novices, though a few never even made it back.
There were opinions that Blackmore outrode Townend on Kilcruit in the Champion Bumper last year. The latter remains an enigma. He didn’t jump very well on his debut, finished weakly and again faded badly at Leopardstown suggesting to many that he had some physical problem.
Despite that, his wins at the DRF and Punchestown were impressive. He may well be a horse who can run big off a light prep and go straight there. You take your chances - he’s 33/1.
Dysart Dynamo then threw his hat in the ring with an impressive Punchestown success and jumped to the top of Timeform's rankings this weekend. He made all and won by 19 lengths. The opposition in the Moscow Flyer was not Grade 1 category and you think his keeness would see him in the Supreme and not the longer race. He is best priced 4/1 for the opening day novice. I'd like to see him in stronger company before that is attractive in such a deep race.
Ginto won the Grade 1 at Naas, he’s been a bit slow to grow on us but the more we see the more we like. His form is solid. He’s been ridden prominently, is he fast enough for the Ballymore?
Of the rest of the novice hurdlers – Journey With Me was as good as Kilcruit was bad at Leopardstown and has win his point, bumper and maiden hurdle impressively. El Fabiolo was unchallenged at Tramore. Mighty Potter looks a work in progress and a dark horse could be Gerri Colombre who is best at 25s for the Ballymore.
The Albert Bartlett’s first point of call is look at the past winners – Monkfish at 5/1 was the shortest priced winner in the last eight years. One 50/1 shot and two 33/1 winners. And more importantly, the big-odds winners went on to prove decent horses – Minella Indo was 50s and Penhill 16/1 when he won.
Blazing Khal is the Albert Bartlett favourite has winning course-and-distance form even if he would have to step up on that. It’s a wait-and-see race at this stage.
Fil Dor heads the Triumph Hurdle markets at a general 3/1. His three wins put him well ahead of anything so far and he ticks the ‘has done nothing wrong’ box, winning well at Leopardstown.
But there is ample time for a few more to steal his thunder. The Triumph is also a different race since the Boodles appeared. Smaller fields – only eight last year and nine in 2019. Experience is not a prerequisite. Pentland Hills and Burning Victory had only one run before Cheltenham and both in February. There are a few newcomers in the DRF Grade 1.
The Adonis Hurdle is also likely to throw up a sexy newcomer to the party to take up a bit of the market. Paul Nicholls likes the race and won it with Zubayr and Solo who went off at 11/2 and 4/1 for the Triumph and Fusil Raffles would have been prominent in the betting had he not been injured in the Kempton race and missed the Festival.
Nicholls’ Iceo is the next shortest priced. He wore a hood but was very impressive over Christmas under a penalty at Kempton winning by 17 lengths though who know what he beat.
Dan Skelton’s In This World also impressed at Warwick in November winning by 10 lengths. Nick Williams’ Interne De Sivola also looked above average at Cheltenham in December. Names like Gaelic Warrior have been mentioned.
So it’s early days but the leading novice contenders have been impressive. Yet if Nicky Henderson was entertaining an angel unawares a few months ago – who knows if someone else might still be doing the same.