As the jump season gallops towards Christmas, chances are that we have already witnessed Cheltenham Festival 2014 winning novice hurdlers strutting their stuff on the track. On the 18 November last year, Champagne Fever opened his account in a maiden hurdle at Cork. Exactly a year earlier Cinders and Ashes started his hurdling career with a defeat at Ascot, some four months before a Festival win in the Supreme Novices’ hurdle. Indeed over the past ten seasons around 70% of the Festival Supreme, Neptune and Albert Bartlett winners, had started their campaigns before the first window of an advent calendar had been touched. Racing action over the months ahead will shape the markets for the big three races. Trainers and owners will have difficult decisions to make when choosing suitable trips for their Festival hopefuls. How on earth will Willie Mullins keep all his stable stars apart? As Festival clues gather with each passing week, it’s probably as good a time as any to take a look at the likely contenders for top novice hurdle honours come The Cheltenham Festival in March. Where better to start than with the Irish champion trainer Willie Mullins? His stable is packed with equine stars, and the novice hurdlers look particularly strong. Briar Hill opened his account at Wexford in November. He jumped accurately and won with plenty in hand as expected. He heads all three Festival markets though at this stage it is impossible to say which race he will contest come March. His pedigree suggests a step up in trip is possible. I can see him running in the Neptune. Faugheen looked less fluent over his obstacles when winning at Punchestown in November, though improved markedly last week. He is a horse full of potential, but just how good he is remains a mystery. He looks to have ‘gears’, but has to brush up on his jumping. Almost favourite for both the Neptune and Albert Bartlett, the jury is out on his Festival target. Moyle Park won at Navan, again in November. Another easy Mullins winner, his pedigree shouts out ‘chaser’! Physically less impressive than others in the stable, I’m still to be persuaded that he has what it takes to win at Cheltenham in March. The markets suggest that he is a Supreme or Neptune horse. Time will tell. My final Mullin’s horse to catch the eye is Arctic Fire. He was an eye-catching third in the Royal Bond when meeting traffic problems in the home straight. This was the strongest novice hurdle of the season so far. Held up too far back, he finished like a train and looks a real Supreme prospect. Noel Meade rarely fails to find a potential star, and his hopes this winter appear to rest with Apache Stronghold. A big powerful son of Milan, he looks every bit a chaser for the future. He was very impressive last time at Navan. His jumping was patchy that day, but he won without breaking sweat. He looked capable of stepping up in trip. It’s possible he may need a fence to be seen at his best, but he is undoubtedly talented. Arguably the best Irish novice hurdle form so far this winter rests with The Tullow Tank. Winner of The Royal Bond Novices’ Hurdle at Fairyhouse, he looks a class act. He had a strong field behind him that day, including the unlucky Arctic Fire, when he showed real battling qualities. He may be suited by a step up in trip, and I would fancy the Neptune to be a likely Cheltenham target. The Irish have a powerful looking squad, but the usual suspects this side of the Irish Sea will be ready for the challenge come March. Nicky Henderson has two in particular that could mix it with the best novice hurdlers. Volnay De Thaix comes under the ‘could be anything’ category. He has won twice so far this winter but has yet to be truly tested. The opposition in both runs was poor, but his trainer clearly likes him and believes that he has plenty of speed and class. He looks a type for the Supreme. West Wizard is a high profile stablemate of Volnay De Thaix. Beaten in his first start this season, his jockey Barry Geraghty, seemed no less bullish after the race, clearly expecting the horse to improve tons for the run. It seems pretty clear that the stable fancy this one to take high order. A son of King’s Theatre, he is towards the top of the Supreme market. Irving looks to be Paul Nicholls’ main hope for top novice hurdle honours this season. A French import, he has been impressive, winning at Taunton and then at Ascot. He looks speedy and has been neat over his hurdles. Whether Cheltenham will suit is questionable, as he may become a sharp, flat track type. The Supreme looks to be a target, and any Nicholls novice has to be respected. David Pipe and his team are better known for their handicap exploits, but this winter they appear to have two novice hurdlers capable of taking high rank. Kings Palace is yet another son of King’s Theatre, and has won twice so far this winter. He was devastating at Cheltenham in October, when thrashing a decent sort in Creepy. He had everything in trouble a long way out that day. He looks a relentless galloper and is currently third favourite for The Albert Bartlett. The Liquidator was no-less impressive at Cheltenham in November, when running away with a Supreme trial. Thought to be Pipe’s best novice hurdler, he was fourth in the Champion Bumper back in March before wining at the Punchestown Festival. His target looks to be the Supreme in March. I’m not sure he’ll be quick enough to win that race and would rather see him in the Neptune. Finally to a trainer who has had a terrific start to the season. Philip Hobbs appears to have his strongest stable for some years. He certainly has two novice hurdlers set to challenge the very best this season. Royal Regatta has won at Aintree and Leicester looking impressive on both occasions. He is a beautiful looking son of King’s Theatre and is highly thought of by the stable. A little keen on both starts, the Neptune looks the most likely target, though he is not short of speed. I’m a big fan and would not be surprised to see him in the Supreme come March. To my eye, he has the right mix of speed and stamina which could enable him to emulate Menorah, who won the race for the stable back in 2010. However, Mr Hobbs has another who looks just as talented in Garde La Victoire. His form is stronger than his stablemate having beaten Regal Encore at Aintree, before thrashing another McManus hotshot at Warwick last time. Still only a four-year-old this French bred has looked awesome. Like his classy stablemate, he could turn up at either the Supreme or the Neptune. It’s possible that they will be kept apart. I fancy they will go close in which-ever they contest. So there you have it. Others are likely to step out from the pack, but I believe those listed above have been the most eye-catching so far this winter. They represent powerful stables, always likely to produce the main contenders at the ‘sharp end’ of the season. It’s just possible that ‘The Master of Minehead’ could hold two aces out of a formidable looking novice pack.
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