With less than four weeks to go until the Supreme Novices Hurdle, the opening race of Cheltenham Festival 2016, punters have already suffered a huge blow with the news that reigning champion hurdler Faugheen has been ruled out of the Champion Hurdle with injury. Unless subject to NRNB concession, ante-post multiples and singles will now have been lost and bookmakers have admitted they are breathing a huge sigh of relief. The loyal Willie Mullins punters will sure be keen to claw back all of their ante-post deficits early on in the meeting and will be hoping to get off to a flyer in Festival opener. In the last three running’s of the Supreme Novices Hurdle the winning combination has remained the same, with Willie Mullins, Ruby Walsh and the colours of the Ricci family sending out three impressive winners in the form of Champagne Fever (2013), Vautour (2014) and last season’s winner, this year’s odds-on Arkle fancy Douvan. Unsurprisingly, the same connections have another potential superstar on their hands with French import MIN. Starting off his season in impressive style at Punchestown, the now five year old won his maiden hurdle by an impressive 12 lengths. Returning to the track in January, Min saw off his four rivals in the Grade 2 Moscow Flyer Novices Hurdle race in tremendous style, jumping well and showing a great turn of foot to win how he likes. This race is a good clue normally for the first race at the Cheltenham Festival, with the last two winners of the race going on to land the spoils in the first race at the Cheltenham Festival. I am visually very impressed with Min. Although he is not the biggest scoped horse I have ever seen, he travels with such zest and jumps well enough and gets away from his hurdles super-fast, landing with momentum. My slight reservations on him are that he has only ever raced on soft or heavy ground. When the Festival arrives, will the better ground be in his favour? I really am clutching at straws, and with the reputation set previously by his stable mates and connections, he will surely be a banker for many at this year’s Festival. I would be looking for value myself elsewhere in the race this year as I feel the general 7/4 price is too short plus rumours about his wellbeing surfaced yesterday. The first horse to go in to my ante-post notebook for the Festival way back in early October was the Nicky Henderson trained Altior. Running out a wide margin winner at Chepstow on his seasonal debut, the 6 year old went on to record two quick fire successes at Ascot and Cheltenham. In Ascot in particular, the horse appeared to be in trouble, tanking through his race but seemed to lack a turn of foot. But when shaken up the response was almost immediate, and he ran out a length and a quarter winner. Cheltenham proved to be a similar race for Altior, tanking throughout the race, when push came to shove he found that bit off the bridle which allowed him to power up the hill and score a narrow winner against Maputo. The one race which sealed my opinion of the horse being a likely candidate for the Supreme was his performances at Kempton. Tracking in behind the leaders for most of the race, the now characteristic decent traveller seemed in big trouble on the turn for home when the field looked to have escaped him, but when jockey Nico De Boinville asked him for an effort he found a lot off the bridle and produced a turn of foot that was visually impressive. He ran out an easy 13 length winner against Willie Mullins’ Open Eagle who has since franked the form by finishing a close second to leading handicap fancy Thomas Hobson at Warwick, and then wining on his return to the course last time. Altior is without doubt a leading contender in my eyes for the race. The better ground is sure to suit as all of his victories have been on a better surface. The slight worry would be, if the race is strongly run and he gets left too far back, he may struggle to reel them in, especially if a speed horse like Min kicks off down the hill and the turn for home. Overall, I think the horse is an each way banker if he is up close to the pace during the race. BUY OFFICIAL CHELTENHAM FESTIVAL TICKETS

Tolworth Hurdle winners have a bad record in this race. The last horse to win the Grade One contest and go on to win the Supreme Novices was Noland in 2006. Last year’s winner L’Ami Serge could only finish fourth behind Douvan. This brings me to the Graham Wylie owned winner of this year’s renewal, Yorkhill. The former point to point winner went on to become one of last season’s leading bumper horses, finishing off with victory at the Punchestown Festival. A relatively easy start for Yorkhill in December at Punchestown in his maiden was followed up with his only visit to the UK shores so far, with victory in the Grade One Tolworth Hurdle at Sandown. The form of the Tolworth hurdle this year received a huge boost when the horse finishing third in the race Agrapart went on to win the Betfair Hurdle at Newbury in February. The Betfair Hurdle has produced consistent Festival performers like GetMeOutofHere, Zarkandar and My Tent or Yours in recent seasons. The second horse that day O O Seven has also come out and won since.

Yorkhill does not fit the trends as a winner of the race with none of his performances coming on terrain with the word ‘good’ in the going. I would like to have seen him run over a sounder surface and going left handed as all of his runs have been on a right handed track in Britain and Ireland. I would not be tempted to go in on him here but he may be one for a tilt at a JLT Novice Chase next season over a slightly longer trip and a fence.

This season has been difficult with placement and finding the right races for the Mullins trained novices, and the same owned stable mate Bellshill has been another leading novice that has been difficult to find suitable races for. A big clue in the season is the Grade One Deloitte Novices Hurdle ran at Leopardstown where several of the leading market fancies for the Supreme Novices Hurdle ran. Bellshill went in to the race the highest rated horse, but could only finish third behind Tombstone and race winner Bleu Et Rouge. The Grade One race may have proven Petit Mouchoir is not up the standard required after finishing out of the placings and also last time could only finish third in the Future Champions Novice Hurdle Grade One behind my Neptune Novice Hurdle Festival dark horse, Long Dog.

Buveur D’Air could be the forgotten horse of the race. Last season running in bumpers he twice finished behind Albert Bartlett Novices Hurdle favourite, the unbeaten Barters Hill, albeit well beaten the second time at Aintree. Ground does not seem to bother the Nicky Henderson trained five year old, as he has posted solid performances on all surfaces. Two impressive wins at Newbury and Huntington put him in good stem for a tilt at the opening race of Cheltenham Festival 2016. For what the horse has achieved and yet to win a graded race, his price of 8/1 is very short and I wonder whether this could be a big race too early for him?

A key bumper took place at Punchestown on April 29 2015 (Good to Yielding), where Bellshill beat a field including Modus who finished third in the race and Altior who finished sixth. JP McManus bought this six year old after he posted an impressive second in the Champion Bumper at Cheltenham behind the yet to be seen this season Moon Racer. Two wins at Taunton and Newbury on better ground seemed to suit more than the heavy ground he ran on at Taunton and in the Betfair Hurdle at Newbury. Modus could be one to keep an eye on at a big price when the better ground arrives in March. Supersundae another graduate from the same bumper race (finished 9th) could be another to keep an eye on. He finished a run out winner in his last start against Silver Concorde, albeit again on heavier ground.

Race Verdict

I think this race could be more wide open than people expect. Min may well set the standard with two wide margin wins this year, and I expect him to be travelling well and up close to the pace in the Supreme Novices. He looks sure to have a big turn of foot and a sound jumping technique, but I will not be happy taking 7/4 about a horse who is unproven at Grade One level and on better ground.

Altior for me is the horse I want to side with, he seems to be getting better with every run. He has plenty of experience at hurdling and has been kept fresh by his trainer Nicky Henderson for this race. If he is up and amongst the leaders, he will be there at the business end of things challenging for the win, and I am sure he will find plenty off the bridle.

My each way plays in the race are Modus and Tombstone. As I explained previously, Modus will come on for a better surface and a quickly run race, something he has not had yet over hurdles. Tombstone is another one with very solid form and may improve again for better ground.

Supreme Novices Hurdle Tips

4 Pts Win – Altior @ 4/1 1.5 Pt e/w – Tombstone @ 14/1 1 Pt e/w – Modus @ 25/1