ATR's Martin Kelly assesses the leading novices - chasers, hurdlers, juveniles and bumpers - who are out to shine at the 2017 Cheltenham Festival en route to becoming the household names of tomorrow.
One of the many fascinating aspects of the Cheltenham Festival is seeing top horses return year after year to compete for the sport’s most illustrious prizes.
Equally as intriguing is the number of promising youngsters who are setting out on the road to replace the old guard at the top of the National Hunt tree.
Firstly, they are out to prove themselves to be the best in their novice discipline before later progressing to open company to take on the established stars.
Here, we’ve asked ATR pundit Martin Kelly to assess the leading novices - chasers, hurdlers, juveniles and bumpers - who are out to shine at the 2017 Cheltenham Festival en route to becoming the household names of tomorrow.
Altior is fast developing into the latest National Hunt sensation and the remarkable seven-year-old will rightly start as one of the shortest-priced favourites at this year's Festival.
His bumper form reads pretty well as he rubbed shoulders with the likes of Bellshill and Barter's Hill but it was once he eyed an obstacle that this star began to rise, and to this date it continues to climb higher. The son of Derby winner High Chaparral soared through his novice campaign over hurdles culminating with that powerful defeat of Min in the Supreme.
The Champion Hurdle would no doubt be at his mercy had he stayed over timber, but instead Nicky Henderson has sent him chasing and his unbeaten record remains intact. He landed his first three starts over fences by a total of 87 lengths before being pitched into open company in the Game Spirit Chase.
Another resounding victory came his way as he slayed the Champion Chase second favourite Fox Norton by 13 lengths, proving himself the best British two-mile chaser by some margin with a nimble athleticism his main weapon.
Many would like to see him clash with Douvan in the Champion Chase, but with Henderson wanting to stick with the tried-and-tested novice route that will have to wait 12 months. In the meantime, we can sit back and enjoy an Arkle masterclass.
Kim Bailey's yard endured a quiet spell mid-winter but have come roaring back to life as we drift towards spring and his Charbel has excellent claims of making the Arkle frame.
A talented bumper performer, who had Alitor behind in that sphere when they clashed at Punchestown in 2015, he had a superb season over hurdles last year finishing second to Yanworth at Ascot, beating Brain Power at Musselburgh and taking fifth behind Alitor in the Supreme.
He was again adrift of Altior (six lengths behind) when they clashed in the Henry VIII at Sandown in December, the six-year-old could not match the pace of his old rival, but did drop the remainder of the field by upwards of 14 lengths.
Although not seen since, due to the virus which hit the yard, Charbel had won his only other chase start in a hot-looking Uttoxeter beginners event and looks the most likely to again follow Altior home.
Might Bite has the size and scope to be a formidable force over fences so it must have been slightly disappointing for connections to see him nicely held behind More Of That on his chase debut - and only fourth career start - at Cheltenham in the November of 2015.
After a few novicey errors that day he was switched back to hurdles for the remainder of the campaign and was returned to chasing for his seasonal comeback at Ffos Las in November. A mistake at a crucial stage saw him lose out to Binge Drinker but he made no errors on his next start with a 14-length demolition job of a stablemate and subsequent winner at Doncaster.
He was a similar margin clear on his next start, the Grade 1 Kauto Star Novices' Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day, only to be asked for a big one at the final fence and take a crashing fall. Royal Vacation went on to win and has since come out to land a Cheltenham handicap off a mark of 143.
Might Bite had his confidence boosted as he collected by a cool 99 lengths at Doncaster in mid-February to take his record under rules to 5 wins in 10 starts. Yet the biggest of those wins by far lays just ahead of him, with a fast-run RSA sure to bring out the very best in the huge stamp of a horse and yet another exciting novice for Nicky Henderson.
Our Kaempfer has worked his way into form over fences and the eight-year-old does not look out of place towards the top of the betting for the RSA Chase.
An experienced eight-year-old with a huge amount of bumper and hurdles form behind him, he was in the frame on his first three chase starts and departed far too early on in the Rowland Meyrick at Wetherby on Boxing Day to say what would have happened.
Since then, he has come out and made a mockery of his handicap mark of 138 with a facile success on his next start at Kempton in mid-January.
Trainer Charlie Longsdon has always viewed Our Kaempfer as a long-term project and that project may be about to come to fruition. The handicapper has bumped Our Kaempfer up to a mark of 148 and he will be rated even higher before the season is out. He jumps great and travels powerfully and those two assets should ensure he runs a mighty race in the RSA.
Keith Reveley has packed his bags and left the stage but even before that Waiting Patiently had departed from his care and joined the Malcolm Jefferson yard where he is now unbeaten in three starts.
The exciting youngster had the same number of runs for Reveley, finishing second in a bumper and on his hurdle debut before getting off the mark with a dour performance to take out a Sedgefield novice over two and a half miles.
He then switched yards and made his debut for Jefferson by brushing aside Burton Port's half-brother to land a two-mile novice chase.
He went in again when readily beating subsequent Grade 2 winner Forest Bihan at Newcastle over the minimum trip, after which he was switched back to two and a half miles to claim the scalp of Politologue with a slick display at Haydock.
Jefferson rightly believes Waiting Patiently is better than a handicapper and the 151-rated individual has the potential to be a player in either the Arkle or JLT given his blend of speed and stamina, and he could surprise a few should the ground come up soft.
2/6, held up early, ran freely, jumped left throughout, led after 4th, badly left at 5th and 6 out, slight mistake 3 out, soon disputed, led before 2 out, ran around approaching last and jumped awkwardly, soon ridden and headed, rallied and just held at line
The winner of eight of his nine starts under rules is all the rage for the JLT Novices' Chase and it is easy to see why given he is trained by Willie Mullins. Yorkhill was a 154-rated hurdler and landed last year's Neptune and his overall profiles screams top notch.
An odds-on defeat at the Punchestown Festival is best forgiven as it was one run too many in a long season following on from Cheltenham and Aintree highs, and it is worth remembering Ruby Walsh commented after his Festival triumph that he would "win next year's Arkle with his mouth open".
The chasing world was at his feet at the beginning of this season and while he is unbeaten in two runs over fences, he hasn't entirely convinced. He jumped left at times on his fencing debut at Fairyhouse in December and only won by a little over a length when again long odds-on at Leopardstown the following month.
There was no doubting he was vastly superior that day but he again jumped to his left and made two quite noticeable errors. There is no finer man than Mullins to have him tuned to the minute for the big day and his brilliance of last year may return, but he appears to be one of the more vulnerable Festival favourites.
There is no doubting that Whisper has come to chasing late in life but the nine-year-old appears to still be bursting with the talent that saw his hurdles mark climb to 167 with his defeat of the on-song Cole Harden in the 2015 Grade 1 Stayers' Hurdle at Aintree.
The nine-year-old was never right in three appearances last winter and trailed in well behind Thistlecrack in the World Hurdle in March. A summer break has seen him re-emerge firing on all cylinders and he has landed both of chase starts back at Cheltenham.
He reeled in the likeable Baron Alco - who has gone on to win since and be Grade 1-placed - to score on his second outing over fences in December in a time quicker than the main handicap on the card, and returned to the track to give weight and a beating to three rivals on New Year's Day.
Admittedly, his task was made easier with a serious mistake from main rival Clan Des Obeaux at the second-last, but would probably have won anyway. With his track record (4 wins, two places from nine starts), Whisper has to be a live contender for the RSA.
Willie Mullins often leaves it late to nominate a target for his horses but whether Bacardys heads for the Neptune - where his blend or speed and stamina would be ideal - or for the Albert Bartlett he rates as a huge player.
The attritional nature of the latter may not see the talented bumper performer in his best light. It is worth remembering he showed a fair turn of foot to cut through the pack and prove the best of Mullins' six runners in the Deloitte Novice Hurdle at Leopardstown.
He is unbeaten in two completed starts over timber and boasts some of the strongest bumper form around having stayed on for third behind Ballyandy in the Champion Bumper last March, before winning at Aintree and finishing third at Punchestown.
The experience of those big-field events will stand him in good stead wherever he pitches up and he shouldn't be underestimated despite scoring at 12/1 last time out having been deserted by Ruby Walsh.
If ever a race was made for one horse, then it was the Albert Bartlett for Gordon Elliott's monstrous Death Duty. The six-year-old has bulldozed his way through all four of his starts over hurdles and promises to blossom fully when upped to three miles.
Looking back over his bumper form, it passes the closest scrutiny with the likes of subsequent Grade 1-winning chaser Our Duke amongst his victims. Over hurdles, Death Duty has gradually worked through the ranks from a Roscommon maiden, to a Grade 3 then a Grade 2 at Navan before his top-level strike in the Lawlor's Hotel Novice Hurdle.
He was slightly gifted that race when Augusta Kate fell when challenging at the final flight, but that was two and a half miles and the real Death Duty will stand up and be counted with his stamina fully tested over three miles. He promises to be a mouth-watering prospect over fences and should be able to cap a hugely successful season with a Festival win.
High Bridge's reputation when running in bumpers for John Ferguson preceded him and the highly-touted son of Monson finished up in that sphere with an excellent sixth behind Ballyandy in last year's Champion Bumper.
After one Flat outing for Charlie Appleby he joined Ben Pauling following the dispersal of Ferguson's stable, but he remains owned by Bloomfields and is now ridden by Ferguson's son Alex.
The six-year-old has comfortably landed all three of his starts over hurdles and followed up his debut effort at Newbury by landing at long odds-on at Catterick in January. His warm-up for the Festival was back at Newbury on Game Spirit day when under an attacking ride he collected by a little over two lengths. High Bridge's performance oozed class and his jumping was foot-perfect.
Connections had mentioned the Neptune at one stage but Supreme horses need to stay well in addition to having plenty of boot - something which defiantly applies to High Bridge - and he could be a lively each-way pick for a trainer enjoying his best season ever.
Point-to-point winner Lough Derg Spirit created a huge impression when winning on his debut for Nicky Henderson at Kempton back in November and his slick jumping can really stand him in good stead if heading to the Festival.
He blitzed the field from the front that day, displaying a prowess rarely seen from a youngster on his first outing over timber. He was then disappointingly beaten in a messy renewal of the Kennel Gate at Ascot in which a number of horses underperformed.
Plans were back on track at Musselburgh nearly two months later as he again flicked over his obstacles to see of the subsequent Dovecote Hurdle third with the minimum of fuss. With Henderson's Charli Parcs fluffing his lines in the Adonis at Kempton, Lough Derg Spirit could come to the rescue and be the master of Seven Barrows main player in the Supreme.
Willie Mullins has got punters off to a flying start in recent years at the Cheltenham Festival thanks to the likes of Douvan, Vautour and Champagne Fever, and many believe he could do so again this time around with the once-raced Melon.
The five-year-old was a winner over middle distances when trained in France on the flat, and plenty were aware of his reputation as he started a 4/9 favourite for his debut on Irish Champion Hurdle day.
Bar a mistake over the far side and a similar error when he reached for the last, Melon was pretty faultless that afternoon at Leopardstown and brushed aside Broken Soul by 10 lengths, with Ruby Walsh taking a while to pull him up suggesting there was plenty left in the tank.
Mullins believes he can ready him at home without the need for another outing, and so long as he can cope with the extra demands of Cheltenham and the test the Supreme will offer, then Melon holds strong claims of giving his astute trainer another success in the Festival opener.
Point-to-points, bumpers and hurdle races have all come alike to Neon Wolf and he must have a big chance of maintaining his unbeaten record in the Neptune.
The son of Vinnie Roe landed his point the Sunday following the Cheltenham Festival last March after which he joined the Harry Fry team and eased away to oblige as favourite in a Uttoxeter bumper last December. On the back of that facile success, the six-year-old was odds-on to make his hurdles debut a winning one at Exeter on New Year's Day and he duly hit the target.
Big things were expected later that month as he headed to Haydock for the Rossington Main, and he didn't disappoint, drawing clear of the subsequent Dovecote runner-up, for an impressive win under Noel Fehily.
His jockey believes Neon Wolf will come into his own as three-mile chaser but he is ticking all the right boxes at the moment and the ultra-professional six-year-old has to go close in the Neptune.
Another to have had the Albert Bartlett as a long-term target is the Nigel Twiston-Davies-trained Wholestone, and the Cheltenham-loving six-year-old is sure to run his race once again.
Like many of his trainer's horses, he has had a busy campaign with five starts, the last quartet of those coming around Cheltenham. On only one occasion did he taste defeat and that was on good ground over two and a half miles when his stamina wasn't fully tested.
He coped well with that intermediate trip on his most recent outing on a more testing surface and his early-season skirmishes with West Approach look excellent with his rival having finished third in open company in the Cleeve Hurdle.
Wholestone can be prone to the odd error and may not have the untapped long-term chasing potential of the likes of Death Duty, but he is a likeable and honest individual with stamina assured and will be hard to keep out of the frame.
Defi Du Seuil heads to the Triumph Hurdle unbeaten in five starts over obstacles and it will take a huge performance from one of his rivals to prevent Philip Hobbs's juvenile from adding the race to his tally.
Hobbs has said that Defi Du Seuil would be right up there with the best novices he has trained and it is easy to see why. The French bumper winner was sent straight over hurdles on arriving at Hobbs's Minehead yard and easily landed the odds in a moderate race at Ffos Las on debut. A stiffer task awaited him at Cheltenham in November but he rose to the challenge and wasn't extended to win.
He returned to Cheltenham for the December meeting and went in again, before capturing a Grade 1 at Chepstow on Welsh National day, where his jumping deteriorated down the home stretch but he still collected by a comfortable 13 lengths.
Another trip to the winner's enclosure was to follow at Cheltenham on Trials Day to make it an immaculate five from five over hurdles. Defi Du Seuil has won on good and on soft ground so should cope with whatever conditions the weather throws up during Festival week and this likeable and honest individual fits the Triumph bill.
Gordon Elliot has an obvious Triumph Hurdle candidate in Mega Fortune who benefitted from first-time cheekpieces when landing the Spring Juvenile Hurdle at Leopardstown. He rightly took the limelight after taking his record to two wins in five starts, but his stablemate Dinaria Des Obeaux was back in third that day and could improve past him.
Mega Fortune was campaigned on the flat prior to joining Elliot whereas Dinaria Des Obeaux was only having her third career start on that occasion. The filly had won a French bumper in tidy style but revealed her true worth with a jaw-dropping 29-length success on her hurdles debut at Cork in December. Joseph O'Brien's favourite may have disappointed that day but the winner was always handy, jumped superbly and quickened clear in the manner of a smart horse.
She was shorter in the market than her stablemate when they clashed at Leopardstown and had come under pressure when making a howler at the second-last. It was game over from there for her but she found a second wind and stayed on again for third. Even without the mistake she may not have won, but this was a fine effort from a filly having just a second start over hurdles.
Her third start over timber came at Fairyhouse just 11 days later where, after been squeezed for room before the final flight before switching and rallying to be beaten just a nose, the placings were reversed and she was awarded the race.
That run was another example of how she will shine over further, but if sent to the Triumph or the Fred Winter a fast-pace and the stiff nature of the track would suit, and she obviously has huge scope for improvement, particularly when there is juice in the ground.
Another exciting novice for Nicky Henderson whose disappointing run at Cheltenham in November is best forgotten. A French bumper winner, the four-year-old made a really promising start to his hurdles career by dispatching Nietzsche - who was won twice since - at Newcastle on the 'Fighting Fifth' undercard.
He was turned out just two weeks later at Cheltenham and ran a flat race, making a mistake at the second-last flight and weakening up the hill. Henderson gave him a two-month break on the back of that and we saw the real Domperigon Du Lys when he made his next and only appearance since with a professional display at Market Rasen.
He coasted home by five lengths on that occasion, and with a BHA rating of 133, is going to be ultra-competitive in the Fred Winter Juvenile Hurdle.
Eight times Willie Mullins has taken the Champion Bumper prize back to Ireland and the champion trainer is amassing another big and powerful squad for this year's renewal. Top of the list and ante-post favourite is point-to-point winner Carter McKay, who has looked top-drawer in two runs under rules.
There was plenty of hype about him prior to his debut at Leopardstown over Christmas where his reputation allowed him to start as the 1-2 favourite. Bakmaj loomed up as a huge danger inside the final two furlongs, but Carter McKay produced a telling turn to foot to stride away for a smart win- and the form took a huge boost when the runner-up scored by five lengths on his next start.
Carter McKay was also won on his next start when he accounted for the previous winner West Coast Time by two and a quarter lengths, but the runner-up was flattered by the margin of victory as Patrick Mullins barely moved a muscle on the winner. He was made favourite for the Champion Bumper on the back of that and rightly so.
Red Jack beat Debuchet when making his debut but the runner-up is also worthy of a mention hailing from Mags Mullins's yard, given that he raced prominently at Naas and was giving the winner 3lbs.
Mullins is renowned for her prowess with bumper horses and this one built on the debut effort by making all to collect by six lengths at Leopardstown on Irish Champion Hurdle day. He appeared right at home on the good ground and the Champion Bumper was given a mention in the post-race interviews.
Mullins reports Debuchet to have already schooled well so he will no doubt progress into a smart novice but holds similar claims to Red Jack if making the journey over for the last race on the Wednesday.
Noel Meade had high hopes for Red Jack ahead of his Naas debut in January and he wasn't disappointed as the four-year-old cruised through the race and won nicely from some smart prospects. Red Jack impressed a few that day including JP McManus who has since stepped in and bought him.
Red Jack has a real staying jumps pedigree with his dam out of a half-sister to the Grand National winner Numbersixvalverde. He is sure to improve with distance and time and rates as a top-class prospect.