Irish likely to reign Supreme
We run through the key entries for the Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival in March.
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Trainer: W P Mullins
What they said: "He idled going to the last then fiddled it. When Paul asked him, he felt he had plenty in the tank and I loved the way he fought back when he looked beaten. He'll come on from that. As he goes up in grade they will go faster, which will help. He was pulling too hard and using up petrol. I'd like to get another run into him before Cheltenham. I don't know what distance we'll go for. Maybe he's more of a Neptune horse than a Supreme. He looks a real chaser in the making and that's where his future is." - Willie Mullins after Vautour won the Moscow Flyer Novice Hurdle (Grade Two) at Punchestown
Video form watch: Vautour beats Western Boy
Ben Coley verdict: It doesn't bode well when you start with the favourite and can't escape the line 'a difficult horse to assess', but there you have it. As the quote above tells you, the Neptune remains a possible target for Vautour and that makes supporting him for the Sky Bet Supreme risky business at the moment. So far he's two from two since Mullins took charge and there does look likely to be plenty more to come as the horse learns to settle. It was interesting to hear Paul Townend confirm that he doesn't ride like a slow horse after he held off Western Boy having idled last time and if he does run in the opener, he won't be 8/1. Although Mullins stepped Gagewell Flyer up to three miles after he won the Moscow Flyer a couple of years ago, Vautour is entered over two this weekend so the Supreme does look like the plan and should he win on Sunday his odds will likely halve.
Trainer: P F Nicholls
What they said: "He's four from six on the Flat and he's three from three over jumps, so he's obviously got a heap of ability. When Nick (Schofield) first sat on him, he said 'he's like concorde' and when he got off today he said 'he's still concorde'." - Paul Nicholls after Irving's Grade Two victory at Ascot last time out
Video form watch: Irving makes it three from three
BC verdict: Strong traveller who earned a rating of 143 with victory at Ascot last time, in which he lowered the colours of Nicky Henderson's highly-touted Volnay De Thaix. That doesn't tell the full story as he was left in front when Prince Siegfried fell but so far, so good for Irving and that much-repeated line from Schofield will draw more attention as the race approaches. Nicholls won the race in 2011 with then-six-year-old Al Ferof, who went into it rated 142, so already Irving looks to have the required quality and there should be more to come with connections adamant that good ground suits best. Next up is the Betfair Hurdle for which he's among the market leaders and that race has been a good stepping stone to the Supreme in recent years, as Nicholls has pointed out. Connections also feel he can go close off his mark and if they're right that makes him a definite contender.
The Tullow Tank
Trainer: Philip Fenton
What they said: "That was very satisfactory. Three out and two out I didn't think it was going that smooth, but it all changed up the straight. He put the race to bed like a really good horse. He'll probably come back here for the Deloitte Novice Hurdle. He's a huge improver and the summer off I'd say really crowned him. He looked okay going left-handed, but it was hard to know with the wind being so strong. He'll be entered for the two-mile race and the two-and-a-half-mile race at Cheltenham. The ground will probably dictate where we go. If it came up soft he'd probably go for the Supreme, but if it was quicker we'd probably think about going for the longer race (Neptune Investment Management Novices' Hurdle)." - Philip Fenton after the Paddy Power Future Champions Novice Hurdle (Grade One) at Leopardstown
Video form watch: Grade One win for The Tullow Tank
BC verdict: There's been a turnaround in camp Tullow Tank of late, after this strapping six-year-old allayed fears over going left-handed in winning last time out. Cheltenham now appears firmly on the horizon, and while his long-term future appears certain to lie over further we saw just last year that a horse who can gallop relentlessly may find this race an opportunity to lower the colours of a horse with an electric turn of foot, which typically comes hand in hand with a big reputation. Stop the Leopardstown race half a mile out and there's no way you'd have this horse down as a Supreme winner, but then he responded to his rider's every urging to bound clear and win by eight lengths from a front-runner who hadn't exactly set the race alight. An altogether different type to Dunguib, who went off odds-on for this in 2010, but no less exciting in reality. Probably a horse you can wait with and back when his target is known as others are more likely to capture the imagination.
Trainer: W P Mullins
What they said: "I was impressed. I was a little bit taken aback at Leopardstown; we thought he was very decent but maybe Plinth is a good horse. He improved a lot from that run, jumped much slicker at Naas, travelled really strongly and you've got to like the way he quickened up when he on the run to the last and the distance he put between himself and Indian Icon from the last home. He's got good form on the Flat in France, mostly on better ground so we're hopeful there could be more to come on a better surface. It was a good performance from a Flat horse to quicken up into the elements and really sprint to the winning post, I was quite taken with him." - Ruby Walsh speaking to Racing UK after Ivan Grozny landed a maiden hurdle at Naas
Video form watch: Ivan Grozny comfortably off the mark
BC verdict: There's been one four-year-old winner of the Supreme in something like 40 years and, whatever the visual impression created last time, Ivan Grozny would need to improve again to double that tally. More of an issue is the fact that he seems almost certain to head to the JCB Triumph Hurdle for which he appeals as a strong contender. You should move on.
Trainer: N J Henderson
What they said: "We all thought that looked a good Tolworth and you'd have to say I was impressed with both of them when they drew clear like that. I thought about running Royal Boy at Warwick in the two and a half (mile race) but I thought that would be an awful slog and he's not a slow horse. I think you'd go two and a half at Cheltenham with him whereas Josses Hill is more of a two-miler." - Nicky Henderson after Josses Hill came second to stablemate Royal Boy in the Tolworth Hurdle
Video form watch: Josses Hill just denied at Sandown
BC verdict: No match for the exciting Faugheen on debut but has since left Andrew Oliver for Nicky Henderson, where he started with a straightforward bumper win before switching to timber in December. Beat smart flat horse Communicator that day and the form looks solid, albeit below the level required to win a Supreme of course. Bettered that when second in the Tolworth and the battle he had that day should serve him well in the hustle and bustle of the Festival opener, where likely better ground should serve him well. The concern would be whether the Festival comes a tad soon in the career of a horse who is clearly still learning - more so than many of his likely rivals - and while Noland went from the Tolworth to Supreme success he did win at Sandown. A likely runner, but perhaps not a likely winner.
Trainer: N J Henderson
What they said: "Of course we are disappointed and so is Dai (Walters, owner) but Barry said if he was ever going to get beaten it was today. The winner isn't a mug. One or two of ours have been needing it (a run) and Barry did say he took a massive blow turning in." - Nicky Henderson after West Wizard's debut over hurdles
Video form watch: Disappointing debut for West Wizard
BC verdict: Created a fine impression in landing a Kempton bumper last back-end and has been among the favourites for this ever since. Most disappointing that he could fare no better than a well-held second to a horse now rated 130 on his debut over hurdles and it's late in the day for him now, as it is for a step up in distance for the Neptune. One would think we'll see this horse go some way to justifying his reputation at some point but for now he's impossible to weigh-up. Valseur Lido
Trainer: W Mullins
What they said: "He is a lovely horse; he could be a good one. Every time I asked him he picked up and he was very professional in front." - Paul Townend after Valseur Lido's success at Cork
Sent off second-favourite for his debut for Mullins at Cork, which in itself is something of a surprise. Won that race nicely and particularly impressive in getting over his hurdles, as he was in the main when winning a subsequent penalty-kick at Navan. Untried against anything like the best even Ireland has to offer and future lies over fences, but respect given the bloodless manner of both victories and connections, who have him entered only in this race.
Trainer: P Fahy
What they said: "For him to run so well on that ground on Saturday just left me thinking if we can mind this horse, he really could be anything. Fingers crossed he stays sound. We'll educate him and keep him happy, as it is not all about this year." - Pat Fahy after Western Boy's second to Vautour
BC verdict: Ran Vautour to half a length last time and although no obvious reason for him to better than performance bar perhaps improvement for better ground, he's arguably a shade overpriced given the bare form of that run. Entered in the Deloitte Novice Hurdle which has thrown up a couple of Supreme winners including Champagne Fever last year and should he win that well, both he and Vautour will harden.
Best of the rest...
David Pipe has a couple of fascinating potential candidates in The Liquidator and Vieux Lion Rouge. The latter finished mid-division in the Champion Bumper in which The Liquidator was fourth, and the best is undoubtedly to come from both. The Liquidator does need to bounce back having been a beaten favourite in the Tolworth, while Vieux Lion Rouge had his second start over hurdles at Wincanton on Thursday and while winning well, he's untested in decent company. Speaking of the Champion Bumper, Elizabeth Doyle's Le Vent D'Antan went off favourite for that and remains a horse to follow, despite having been beaten on his only subsequent start and hurdles debut. Zamdy Man merits respect as a battle-hardened trial winner who would go well if the ground came up testing, whereas Champion Bumper second Regal Encore would prefer a decent surface on which he might be able to put this year's education to good use. Before his defeat to The Tullow Tank, Moyle Park would've been impossible to ignore. However, he now has questions to answer and time is against him.
Make no mistake, this isn't an easy race to solve but there has to be value in the market considering that the last five Supreme favourites have gone off at 15/8, 6/1, 7/4, 4/5 and 9/4. You get the impression that Vautour is held in high esteem and as I do just about expect him to run in this race, he rates a solid option at this stage with the potential to go off very short. The fact that Irving heads the UK challenge so far suggests that this may not be the strongest renewal; that's no disrespect to him and victory in the Betfair Hurdle could change that perception. What this does mean is that the Irish will fancy getting stuck into one here and Vautour stands out as the likely candidate. The Tullow Tank is arguably best on what we've seen so far but I don't see him being backed off the boards so he's best watched for now. The Liquidator and Regal Encore appeal of those at bigger prices.