Novices by nature and nurture are in flux, defining themselves by refining their talent, but usually, this close to Cheltenham, we know exactly where we’re looking, for levels of form by the standard setters or levels of expectation on behalf of the hype horses.
But this hasn’t been an orthodox season, due to the effect of the weather, its effect on the ground, as well as the after effect of the flu, all of which means the novices – hurdlers and chasers – are, by and large, rather less formed and rather more fluid.
This atmosphere of ambiguity could give the higher-achievers an extra edge, but likewise there’s an awful lot of untapped potential swimming around, and so here’s a top-ten mix of the obvious and the oblique amongst the novices heading to Cheltenham, all blinking on my radar.
Everybody knows that Sir Erec has got one hoof on the Triumph, but nobody really wants to back him at evens. It’s a price thing. And it’s a price thing with Adjali, who went for a walk in the market on the basis of his heavy defeat at the hands of Fakir D’Oudairies at Cheltenham, but it’s worth remembering that he went off 5/4 that day, and there are reasons for giving him a pass for his subdued shift, the less testing ground for one thing, also possibly not over his Welsh war with Quel Destin over Christmas, next to nothing between them that day but now a lot between them on the betting. A more patient ride in a bigger field may just do something for the freshened-up Adjali in the Triumph, and if the rain comes so will the support.
He’s the most obvious in the festival's curtain-raiser, but the uncertain climate in the novice hurdle division only magnifies the certain knowledge about Al Dancer, that he’s ready and able for Cheltenham, and that he’s Supreme standard, shouted let alone stated by him in the Betfair Hurdle at Ascot. With his substance and skill-set, Al Dancer would be in pole position for the Supreme most seasons, and the fact this isn’t most seasons – with so many held up or held back – means he’s holding all the Aces.
The closer we get to Cheltenham, the close the betting gets between OK Corral and Ballyward in the National Hunt Chase. The former laid down a meaningful marker at Warwick in January, but Ballyward made a big statement of his own two weeks later, at Naas, when beating subsequent Grade 2 winner Chris’s Dream. Only Santini, in third, was between OK Corral and Ballyward in the Albert Bartlett at last year’s Festival, and the longer the trip the better for Ballyward, who has long since looked a marathon runner, absolutely tailor-made for a test like the four-miler.
He has four lengths to make up on Champ from the Challow in December, but the pair were chalk and cheese then in terms of maturity, Brewin’upastorm racing freely that day but looking more grown up – when positively ridden - at Cheltenham. What has been clear in various stages of various races is that he has a big engine, and every start has been like a service for him, all about fine-tuning it for the Festival.
Henry de Bromhead is still toying with the Gold Cup, rather than the Ryanair, for Monalee, a bona fide Grade 1 chaser. When he completed his Cheltenham preparations, at Gowran last month, his winning time was over two seconds slower than Duc Des Genievres clocked in running away with a beginners chase over the same course and distance later in the day. Comparing raw times says only much, but his individual timefigure that day, generated by Timeform data, is a match for anything clocked by Le Richebourg, who was hot favourite for the Arkle prior to his injury. This is about time, and Duc Des Genievres has timed his approach just right, likely to be in his element with a well-run two miles.
She looked a monster at Wincanton, on her debut for Nicky Henderson, but didn’t get away with her over-enthusiasm in the mud at Sandown, in a slowly-run race. The different dimensions of pace in a championship event at Cheltenham will definitely work to her advantage, still up to her settle, but at the prices for the Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle it’s probably worth paying to find out, as there’s clearly an awful lot of talent in there, just a matter of channelling it efficiently.
What he did for 90% of the Triumph trial in December is more pertinent than the last 10%, considering the conditions, when he was beaten a length having traded at 100/30-on, and that’s Fanfan Du Seuil’s only defeat when completing. The main event may be off the agenda (though he still has a Triumph entry), but a mark of 136 makes the Boodles – some say the Fred Winter – a very tempting alternative, looking to have the right qualities for it, particularly his high cruising speed, bred as much for the Flat as the jumps.
A distant second to Duc De Genvieres at Gowran was Tower Bridge, who’s amongst the favourites for the Close Brothers Novices’ Handicap Chase, with a mark of 141; and that makes me think that Riders Onthe Storm has got in rather lightly, coming in 1 lb lower, off 140. Prior to his win at Punchestown, over two miles, Riders Onthe Storm had checked in third in a Grade 1 novice chase at Limerick, behind Hardline and Getabird, which is the only time he’s tackled two-and-a-half miles over fences so far, and returning to it at Cheltenham is just the ticket. He’s one of my handicap bets for the week.
Two of the last five Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle winners have been 33/1, all because the race can be a slog, and a slog is what Stoney Mountain is crying out for. He was third to ante-post favourite Lisnagar Oscar at Haydock last month, in another race that didn’t get near the bottom of him, neither the ground nor the gallop tapping into his abundant stamina. But there’s a chance – probably more than a 3% chance (he’s 33/1) – that the Albert Bartlett will play to his strengths, and the reward far outweighs the risk at those odds.
2/6, held up towards rear, not fluent 13th, pushed along in rear 4 out, left 4th next, rallied to chase front pair between last 2, ridden and stayed on to snatch 2nd near finish, never going pace to threaten winner
The RSA has been billed – including, lazily, by me – as a head-to-head between Delta Work and Santini. That Delta Work is the best of the Irish isn’t in doubt, but there has always been an element of joining the dots with Santini, perhaps prematurely, and the excuse list is a long one if he comes up short at Cheltenham. The feeling that we may be getting slightly ahead of ourselves with Santini is highlighted by the fact he’s half the price of Topofthegame, who was two lengths in front of him at Kempton on Boxing Day, despite looking raw himself, at least when push literally came to shove, after getting by La Bague Au Roi virtually on the bridle. His treatment since by the power-hungry Nicholls is interesting, at a time when his trainer has been so pro-active, instead being protective of Topofthegame, like he’s minding him for one big swing of the bat, but then again patience has been his byword all along - he’s had this date ever since his chasing debut back in November 2017.