The Irish Angle: Supreme Novices'
Donn McClean unpicks the possible Irish challenge for the Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival.
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The Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle is high on the perennial Irish wish list, right up there with the Grand Slam and the Man Booker Prize.
Get the week off to a flyer, a few quid in your pocket, and let it roll from there. Even better if it can be orchestrated so that the Irish banker (there is always an Irish banker) can run in the curtain-raiser. Play the Ace early. Get the card on the table and the points on the board. Bird in the hand, etcetera.
Remember Brave Inca? Fondly. Dunguib?
Of course, sometimes the difficulty is in selecting the correct Irish one. Remember Ebaziyan? A 40/1 shot? Seven compatriots shorter in the betting?
Historically, it is an event in which the Irish have done well. Vincent O'Brien dominated the race in its former guise as the Gloucester Hurdle in the 1950s, bizarrely recording 10 victories in the race in the eight years that ran between 1952 and 1959. (Hint: divisions.) More recently, Irish-trained horses have won seven of the last 12 renewals and 11 of the last 20. (No divisions.)
This year's Irish challenge is shaping up to be a strong one even at this early stage, headed, as it is, by Briar Hill. The Willie Mullins-trained gelding surprised many - including his trainer - when he sprang a 25/1 shock in the Champion Bumper at last year's Cheltenham Festival. However, he was the winner on merit that day, and he impressed with the manner in which he galloped up the hill, putting seven lengths between himself and his closest pursuer.
Natural inclination is to assume that the Cheltenham Bumper winner majors in stamina, that he or she will progress for stepping up from the minimum trip. Sure enough, early winners of the race like Florida Pearl and Alexander Banquet and Monsignor all excelled over longer distances.
However, Missed That's two Grade 1 wins over fences were over two miles, Dunguib and Cue Card were essentially two-mile-novice hurdlers, and Champagne Fever went on to win the Supreme Novices' Hurdle last year over the minimum trip.
Recent bumper winners have had the pace to be top class two-mile hurdlers and, although Briar Hill is out of a full-sister to top staying chaser Boston Bob, he is not devoid of pace. He may step up in trip as the season progresses, but Champagne Fever was thought to be a staying novice hurdler at this time last year as well and, for now, Briar Hill is a big player in the Supreme.
The Willie Mullins novice team is, as usual, replete with talent. Faugheen is another who could step up in trip as the season progresses but, for now, he deserves his place in the Supreme picture. Winner of his only point-to-point, the Germany gelding was held in high regard last season, but didn't make his debut under rules until May, when he danced in in a Punchestown bumper. He reportedly had a slight setback since then, but he remains a really exciting novice hurdler for the season ahead, and it is significant that he holds an entry in the Royal Bond Hurdle at Fairyhouse on 1st December.
As does Moyle Park. The son of Flemensfirth was bought by Mullins at Cheltenham's January sale after he had beaten the highly-regarded Blackmail in a good bumper at Leopardstown's Christmas Festival, but his trainer was at pains to point out that was one for the future, not one for last season's Cheltenham Bumper.
Sure enough, he didn't even make it to Cheltenham, but he did make it to Punchestown for the Goffs Land Rover Bumper, which he duly won, battling on bravely to come out on top in a three-pronged finish. He could be one of the better two-mile novice hurdlers this season.
Arctic Fire has already had a run over hurdles, impressing in winning at Tipperary in early October, while Union Dues had to miss his intended engagement at Killarney in August. Patrick's choice and the shortest-priced Mullins representative in last season's Cheltenham Bumper, and winner of a 12-furlong maiden on the flat at Galway in July, he is another exciting novice hurdler for the champion trainer for the season ahead.
The Irish challenge is not all about Willie Mullins, mind you. There are other potentially talented novice hurdlers dotted around the country. The Tony Martin-trained Golantilla, for one, ran a cracker to finish third behind Briar Hill in the Cheltenham Bumper.
An impressive winner of his only point-to-point and of his only bumper before Cheltenham for Sean O'Brien, he obviously has the talent that could enable him progress to be a top novice hurdler. The Leopardstown Christmas Festival is his first major target, according to his owner Barry Connell.
Very Wood won his point-to-point at Oldtown last March and his bumper at Punchestown last April for Gordon Elliott, and he was impressive in winning his maiden hurdle at Galway on his first run for Noel Meade. He didn't appear to be suited by making the running in the Grade 3 For Auction Hurdle at Navan on Sunday and, in the circumstances, he probably did well to get to within a length and a half of Minella Foru. He remains an exciting prospect.
His conqueror in that contest is also exciting. Now unbeaten in three runs - two hurdle races and point-to-point - the Eddie Harty-trained gelding would also have been better-served by a stronger pace yesterday, but he showed an impressive turn of foot on the run-in to come away from his main market rival. There is plenty of stamina in his pedigree - he is from the family of Rose Ravine - but, on yesterday's evidence, JP McManus' horse has plenty of pace, and he could continue to be highly effective at the minimum trip.
Gilt Shadow and Azorian, both exciting bumper horses last term, both impressive in winning their maiden hurdles this term (the latter over two and a half miles), could prove to be at their best over distances in excess of two miles, but both would be lively Supreme Novices' Hurdle contenders were they kept to the minimum trip, while the Aidan O'Brien-trained Carriganog has raced exclusively over two miles and looked good in winning both his races over hurdles last month.
Yes, it is the same Aidan O'Brien, the Derby-winning one, the Royal Ascot one, the Breeders' Cup one, the one who claimed his first Cheltenham Festival winner in 1996 when Urubande landed the Sun Alliance Hurdle. That's 17 years ago.
That's not all. Carriganog now races in JP McManus' colours, the same ones that Istabraq - under O'Brien's watchful eye - carried to victory in the (same) Sun Alliance Hurdle in 1997 and in the Champion Hurdle three times between 1998 and 2000.
We could have come full circle. Plus ca change. Cherchez l'Ace.
For more of Donn's thoughts, visit www.donnmcclean.com.