Cheltenham Festival 2017 Form Guide – Neptune Novices’ Hurdle

There are precious few days left until the Cheltenham Festival 2017 and many countdown clocks are ticking down the hours to the Supreme. However exciting the first race may be, there’s also the prospect of four wonderful days of racing and few events can be as fascinating as the Neptune which kicks off the second day’s action.

For the benefit of those who wish for a seasonal update, here’s a form update from what we’ve seen over the season. If any horses in the market are missing below, it is because their trainers have declared them going for other races.

The talk has been dominated in the new year by two horses, Neon Wolf and Finian’s Oscar, arguably the leading British novices over any distance at this moment in time.

Neon Wolf entered the Festival picture and in a big way when he took apart his field in the Rossington Novices’ at Haydock. A well backed 4/5 shot that day, coming into the race unbeaten, he was always prominent and gave his hurdles a great deal of care (and air), and was in front from the home turn. After taking it up three out, he had all but Elgin beaten, and he would put no less than nine lengths between him and that rival. That is serious form in light of the way Elgin won at Kempton over Christmas and his second in the Dovecote on Saturday. Neon Wolf sets a high standard on that performance, and with the trip likely to be no problem the only question one might have would be the ground, although an easy Exeter win would put those questions out of the picture and on form terms he has earned his place.

Worryingly for his backers, it is harder to say the same about Finian’s Oscar. One of the leading lights of Colin Tizzard’s yard, he was already being well talked about before even setting foot under rules but there had never been any doubt about how highly he was regarded before his debut at Hereford. That regard was well held, as he cruised through the race before leaving previous winner Acting Lass for dead and ending up 7 lengths clear. The runner up, previously an eleven length winner, was in turn 10 lengths clear of Western Climate, who has since gone onto be a winner at Hereford too and even the fourth Vinnie Lewis ended up running second.

However, his form has taken knocks since then. Acting Lass was beaten 10 lengths at Ascot on his first start since and from the Tolworth, second Capitaine was well behind Elgin in the Dovecote, with Global Stage, the only other runner since, proving disappointing twice since.

Connections wisely managed to take £13,000 for what was a doss at Exeter last time out, although it leaves him without much in the way of form that stands up to the closest scrutiny which many have noticed.

The Irish have a long and proud history in this race and Bacardys looks a leading challenger. Third behind Ballyandy in the Champion Bumper, he took the spoils at Aintree and did well to be third at Punchestown given that the first two were fresher than he was by a good deal. Over hurdles he has progressed steadily, although there’s a good argument for thinking that he ought to be unbeaten in three. He could well have won on his debut had he managed to stay up but he hinted at more distance being better when he won at Leopardstown over Christmas over 2 miles, benefitting from a forceful ride and showing a good attitude.

It was to be in the Deloitte, however, where he would show the benefit of even the slightest step up in trip. In what was a well-run race from the start in reasonably testing ground, he sat off the lead and was behind most of the main contenders turning in, but he passed all but two before the last and found enough to reel in Bunk Off Early. On a line through Brelade (second in the Future Champions at Christmas) that form stands up well and Bunk off Early had won his maiden over hurdles by 5½ lengths at Christmas to a next time out winner. The step up in trip ought to do him the world of good and he has a leading chance on form.

Messiere Des Obeaux also falls into this category. Weak and immature when seventh in the Fred Winer last year, he has not looked back since winning a Bangor handicap by 10 lengths off 128 and then getting the better of Ballyandy (also entered here, and Supreme) by half a length giving 7lbs in the Winter Novices’ Hurdle. After that he went to the Challow where he was even more impressive in beating the previous six length winner Baltazar D’Allier by two lengths with Ami Desbois, a previous Grade 2 second and a comfortable winner of 137 since, well held in third a further four lengths back.

He was beaten in the Sidney Banks at Huntingdon in February, a result which disappointed many. However, he was giving 8lbs to the Keeper Hill, whom he pushed to within a neck. Keeper Hill was unbeaten in two before, having won by a total of nine and a half lengths, giving weight away each time, and the stop-start pace of that race did not suit. It is to be hoped that scenario doesn’t come up again for him – he clearly liked an end to end gallop through the season.

Ballyandy, the winner of last year’s Champion Bumper, may still come here with his target up in the air. His novice hurdling season had been frustrating until his Betfair Hurdle win, where he got the better of Movewiththetimes in a gutsy battle to the line. The pair sprinted quickly clear of good solid yardsticks in Clyne (143) and Song Light (133).

However, they went off first and second favourite, with the betting public enamoured by marks of 135 and 136, and as far as handicap hurdles go, it was an advantageous situation for them. Both may also have improved for the experience too, but they could well have been flattered and Ballyandy would be here 7lbs wrong with Messiere Des Obeaux. 2 miles also looks more likely a target for them.

If Invitation Only were to make it here after supposed problems, he would be potentially interesting although a line through Barra (who he beat by 2 and a half lengths), beaten eight and a half lengths by Barcardys in the Deloitte.

Beyond Conceit is interesting. High class on the flat, he made a pretty spectacular debut over hurdles at Newbury when he won by 10 lengths, always going well just off the pace and going to the front on the bridle and not letting some clumsy jumps prevent him from a facile success. Shantou Rock, second that day, won a maiden hurdle at Ludlow at 1/4 and was then beaten at 1/3 the time after. He’s now rated 132, which would have Beyond Conceit running to a mark of 142 on his hurdling debut.

He we then sent to Ascot for a novice hurdle over three furlongs further, when he jumped better although pulled hard early settled at the back in a race where not much separated the whole field. This became a protracted battle with Beyond Conceit one of the first off the bridle, but he found plenty despite a poor jump at the second last when it was most needed, and he did jump the last better.

Beyond Conceit had a neck to spare at the end, but the form reads very well. Acting Lass (mentioned earlier in this preview) was beaten 10 lengths, whilst the close second Topofthegame had previously finished fourth in the course and distance trial for this, having given weight to the second and third there (3 and 7lbs respectably). The third De Dollar Man was a previous winner at Ayr too, which actually makes this one of the strongest pieces of form held by an English novice. Beyond Conceit is of potential interest if being able to restrain himself early, although he too will be stepping up in trip to the tune of two furlongs.

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