Ante-Post Preview of the Neptune Novices' Hurdle and Free Bets for the Cheltenham Festival 2014 – The Neptune Novices’ Hurdle is a feature of Day 2 of the Cheltenham Festival. The winner normally possesses a potent mixture of stamina and speed. This year’s renewal looks particularly competitive with many of the market leaders having showcased their claims in some top quality races throughout the season.
Faugheen (4/1 Betfred) currently leads the market for the Willie Mullins' powerhouse. He enters contention with a similar profile to toppled favourite from last year, Pont Alexandre; lightly raced and undefeated. He looks an interesting runner as the ability to stay 2m5f is just as important as the ability to quicken well. He possesses both attributes as he won his most recent start over 3m but has also shown his ability to quicken over 2m4f at Navan earlier in the season. Whilst his jumping can sometimes be quite patchy he seems a solid favourite and the market confidence would lead to you believe that of the Willie Mullin’s runners he’s the most likely to contest the race.
That said, the Champion Bumper winner, Briar Hill (14/1 Coral) still merits respect and based on his trainer’s previous entries it would be no surprise to see Willie Mullins line up two or three in this contest. In terms of Briar Hill, the horse has an entry in each of the three novice hurdle races however, the Neptune or the Albert Bartlett seem likelier targets so he’s worth keeping an eye on. Whilst he may be a little less glamorous then Faugheen, his effort in last year’s Champion Bumper was mightily impressive and a race run at a proper gallop may see him come into his own.
There have been some fascinating races registered as genuine Neptune trials. One such trial at Warwick saw Deputy Dan (20/1 Coral) beat another Willie Mullin’s Neptune hopefully in Rathvinden (20/1 BetVictor). Deputy Dan has looked progressive and could well have been underestimated in the market as he doesn’t herald from the powerhouse stables of Paul Nicholls, Nicky Henderson or Willie Mullins. Nevertheless, Oliver Sherwood has a lively chance and although he will need to continue to improve, his bare form reads very well. In particular, he had the beating of good yardstick in Masters Hill by 9 lengths at Warwick, a horse who had previously been beaten by Albert Bartlett ante-post favourite, Kings Palace.
Nicky Henderson has a number of interesting contenders. Both Captain Cutter (16/1 Stan James) and Josses Hill (20/1 BetVictor) have attracted market support recently (although it is worth noting that Josses Hill finished 22 lengths behind the aforementioned Faugheen in a Punchestown bumper and is more likely to contest the Supreme). Captain Cutter is rather compelling as he was impressive in the Challow hurdle where he showcased his much improved jumping and his preference for left-handed tracks. After that success he was trimmed by some firms for the Neptune but the Challow has never been a great trial for the race with very few Festival winners coming out of that race.
Despite the aforementioned pair, the Nicky Henderson first string could well be Royal Boy (14/1 Betfred). At the age of seven he has greater experience than most in the field after having been reverted back from fences and remains an interesting runner. His victory in a maiden at Ascot over 2m6f was eye-catching as Barry Geraghty just sat motionless and allowed him to quicken to the line after putting in a great round of jumping. He improved from that run and picked up the Tolworth Hurdle at Kempton where he beat his stablemate Josses Hill. Despite that victory, the form of the Tolworth is questionable as race favourites Garde La Victoire and The Liquidator (25/1 Stan James) ran poorly in defeat. What Royal Boy beat that day is debatable but he performed well and looks the ideal type to be suited by a step up in trip to 2m5f.
Given Nicky Henderson’s poor record in the Neptune it may be best to side with RED SHERLOCK (8/1 Ladbrokes). This horse has plenty of course form, including two bumper victories where he beat the likes of Captain Cutter and The Skyfarmer. On his last start he claimed another Cheltenham victory in dire ground on Trials day where he saw off the challenge of Rathvinden to remain unbeaten over hurdles to date. He is a really exciting prospect for this race and his trainer David Pipe has made no secret of his brilliant novices this season. Racing in the colours of the late David Johnson who enjoyed his fair share of festival winners he was given time to mature at the end of last season and he has definitely come on for it and should relish the challenge come March.
RED SHERLOCK (E/W) (8/1 Ladbrokes)
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