The festival curtain-raiser is the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. Run at a frenetic gallop, it is a unique test for the participants – with most still learning the game prior to their respective Cheltenham runs. Read our ITV Racing Tips page for selections on the build-up to the festival.
This year’s renewal sees the ante-post market currently headed by Angels Breath, an Irish Point to Point winner who landed the Grade 2 Kennel Gate Novices’ Hurdle at Ascot on his debut under rules last month. As hurdle debuts go, he could have hardly been more impressive, but they jumped only four flights that day – and the form has been let down on a few occasions since. Henderson won this with the mighty Altior in 2016, but you have to go back to Flown in 1992 to find his winner prior to that, and it is not as though he hasn’t been well represented – with the likes of My Tent Or Yours and Sprinter Sacre beaten in previous renewals of this contest. Whilst those two went on to achieve much more than the horses that got the better of them, both Champagne Fever and Al Ferof (who beat them in their respective renewals) had more experience prior to their wins – and for that reason, Angels Breath has to be opposed.
Al Dancer is a progressive sort who landed a handicap hurdle at this venue in impressive fashion last time out. He looks likely to contest the Betfair Hurdle at Newbury next month – so will have plenty of experience under his belt prior to taking up this engagement. He warrants respect, but this is a big jump from handicap company into Grade 1 company, and as he is in the same ownership as Angels Breath it would not be a major shock to me were connections to divert him to the Ballymore Hurdle – for which he is currently around the 20/1 mark.
Another experienced entrant here is Elixir De Nutz, who has been a revelation since joining Colin Tizzard. He showed a willing attitude to land the Grade 1 Tolworth Hurdle at Sandown last time out, and that was the same race that Summerville Boy landed prior to his victory in this contest last year. My fear for him would be that his improvement has come since he started performing front-running duties – and with this often being run at a breathless gallop – I fear he may expend too much energy early on.
The horse that catches my eye at this stage from an ante-post perspective is the Olly Murphy trained Thomas Darby. This son of Beneficial had the aforementioned Elixir De Nutz behind when making a winning hurdles debut at Cheltenham in October. He showed a willing attitude there to win by over three lengths and has held his form in three subsequent outings. He was five lengths behind Mister Fisher at Kempton in December, but he will now meet that rival on five-pound better terms – and this track will be far more suitable than the sharp, flat circuit he encountered that day. Interestingly, he is a half-brother to Muirhead – who was sent off the 8/1 co-favourite for this race in 2008. This Diana Whateley-owned six-year-old can race keenly, so a strong pace over this trip should help him settle better, and it would be of no surprise to see him put up a bold showing in what currently looks a weaker than usual renewal of this contest.
THOMAS DARBY – 20/1 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle
FOX NORTON – 14/1 Ryanair Chase
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