If you fancy anything other than a five or six year old for this, change your mind. This age group have been totally dominant since the races inception in 1971. Winners of the ‘Neptune’ have usually been contesting graded races during the season, and arrive at the Cheltenham Festival off the back of a winning prep-run, though The New One bucked that trend last year.
Upsets are rare, with Massini’s Maguire the only big price winner in the last dozen years. The race has often introduced the jump racing public to stars of the future. Istabraq, Hardy Eustace, Denman, and the wonderful Tidal Bay have all contested this terrific race.
Willie Mullins has assembled his strongest Festival team to date, and once again it is one from his stable that heads the market for this year’s renewal. Faugheen burst onto the scene when winning a Punchestown Bumper by 22 lengths in May last year. Nicky Henderson’s Josses Hill was a distant second, giving some substance to the form.
His novice hurdle campaign was greatly anticipated, but it has to be said that his three wins this winter, though emphatic, have come in very weak races. For many onlookers a major concern has been his rather less than convincing jumping. Though a powerful traveller he does lack scope, and is inclined to get in close to his hurdles. Faugheen is short in the market, short of a prep-run and without doubt arrives short of quality racing. We wait to see if his performance in March meets many fans expectations.
Like Faugheen, David Pipe’s Red Sherlock will arrive at the Festival undefeated. Currently second in the betting, he was last seen winning on Trials Day at Cheltenham. He defeated Rathvinden in a prolonged duel, showing guts to match his undoubted talent. The two came well clear of a decent field. His best bumper performance of last season came at Ascot, when he out-battled The Skyfarmer. Captain Cutter was back in third that day, and that form, though good, is certainly not exceptional. I could be horribly wrong, but I’m not convinced he’s good enough to win this.
The Nicky Henderson trained Royal Boy is next in the market, and has the backing of the Racing Post’s Pricewise. A second season novice hurdler, this seven-year-old just got the better of stable-mate Josses Hill in the Tolworth Hurdle at Kempton in January. Josses Hill, though likely stronger this campaign, was beaten out of sight by Faugheen just eight months earlier, admittedly in a bumper.
Clearly racing in bumpers and over hurdles differ, but nevertheless it is hard not to compare the two performances and feel that Faugheen versus Royal Boy looks something of a mismatch. The trip should suit Royal Boy and it’s certainly possible that he could run into a place.
The Pipe team may well run their French import Un Temps Pour Tout along with their more fancied Red Sherlock. An expensive purchase, the horse had solid form in France having run behind Paul Nicholls hurdler Ptit Zig at Auteuil. His debut in the UK was a little disappointing when beaten by Zamdy Man at Haydock. He then won well at Ascot in heavy ground, though the form is well short of what is required here. However, I find him hard to dismiss. He has the look of something special, and comes into the race as a horse with plenty of potential. Occasionally you have to believe your eyes and hope that form will take care of itself.
Sure Reef is another Mullins horse likely to run in this. Last seen winning a Grade 2 at Leopardstown, he was outpaced turning for home before finding plenty for pressure. The trip looks sure to suit, but the form of that win looks short of what he will need here. Connections have been second in this race before with both Tidal Bay and Felix Yonger. I’m not sure this fella quite has the ability to go one place better.
Lieutenant Colonel is a really interesting contender. Currently available at 20/1 he carries the famous colours of the Gigginstown House Stud. Connections won the ‘Neptune’ with First Lieutenant and were second last year with Rule The World. This fella has lost twice over shorter trips to Vautour and Wicklow Brave, both fancied for the ‘Supreme’. The form of his last run was boosted when Real Steel came out and won well at Naas. This step up in trip is certain to help, and trainer Dessie Hughes knows a thing or two about winning at the Festival. I fancy he’ll run a huge race.
Of the rest, Captain Cutter would need heavy ground to stand a chance at this trip. Even then, the seven-year-old would likely find a few too good for him. Renneti would be interesting if taking up this entry. Under the same ownership as Faugheen, he ran a blinder behind The Tullow Tank in The Royal Bond. That form is strong, though he has not been seen since. ( Has an entry at Thurles Feb 27 ) He has stamina from the Dam’s side of his pedigree and at 33/1 he could be another each-way option.
Two horses that looked impressive before Christmas are Ballyalton and Royal Regatta. The form of both has taken a few knocks as the season progressed, but both looked good on better ground. Should things dry out at Cheltenham I would not dismiss them at big prices. Ballyalton looks sure to take his chance in this, but Philip Hobbs may take a different route with Royal Regatta.
Finally a mention for Briar Hill. Should he run in this rather than the Albert Bartlett, he has to have an outstanding chance. A stunning winner in the Champion Bumper at last year’s Festival, he is certain to power up the hill. He’s stoutly bred and therefore the Albert Bartlett looks the sensible option for him.
My verdict on the ‘Neptune’ is:
Faugheen Despite worries over jumping, he looks the likely winner.
Un Temps Pour Tout Could prove the better of the Pipe horses. NB
Lieutenant Colonel Overpriced. Has to be the each-way bet.