The Albert Bartlett Novices Hurdle may not be at the forefront of every racing fan's mind during the build up to the Cheltenham Festival but the three mile contest is fast gaining a reputation for unearthing future stars. Since it was upgraded to Grade One status in 2008, the race has been won by Weapon's Amnesty and Bobs Worth, both of whom have gone on to win again at the Festival following success in the Albert Bartlett and last year's winner, At Fishers Cross, is a leading contender for next month's World Hurdle.
Favourite to win this year's renewal is the David Pipe trained Kings Palace who burst to the head of the betting following his romp to an easy course and distance victory around Prestbury Park in December. A 14 length victory in the former Grade Two Bristol Novices Hurdle followed an even more emphatic win at the Showcase meeting where the six-year-old demolished nine rivals with the nearest competitor some 18 lengths back in second. Those two wins at Cheltenham completed the hat-trick for the season after he started the current campaign by landing a maiden hurdle at Fontwell in October.
With a cumulative winning distance of 33 lengths from his three starts this season, it's hard to quantify how much improvement Kings Palace still has in him but it's quite evident that he's progressive and there should be plenty more to come. His ability to stay up the Cheltenham hill is a huge positive as is the partnership he's struck with jockey, Tom Scudamore, who's three from three on the gelding. As such, the David Pipe runner sets the clear standard and at a current best price of 7/2, he's the fully justified favourite.
The closest challenger to Kings Palace according to the bookmakers is Briar Hill, winner of the Champion Bumper 12 months ago and another who has won all three starts this term. The Willie Mullins trained six-year-old has made a promising transition from the bumper ranks to life over obstacles in Ireland, winning over 2m 2f on his seasonal debut and twice over 2m 4f since, with the latest victory coming at Naas in January.
The distance of those two latest wins would suggest that the Neptune Novices' Hurdle would be a better option for the Graham Wylie owned runner, for which he is currently a best price 14/1 chance. However, it is unbeaten stablemate, Faugheen, who is the 7/2 market leader for Wednesday's opener and it is unlikely that the two will go head-to-head at Prestbury Park. Therefore, the Albert Bartlett looks the most likely race for Briar Hill, for which he can be backed at odds of 5/1 and having won over three miles as a point-to-pointer back in 2012, there's little reason to doubt he won't stay the trip and with Ruby Walsh in the saddle and readied by Willie Mullins, it would be no surprise to see Briar Hill record back-to-back Festival victories.
Sure Reef is the other Mullins runner to hold an entry in the race and is a 16/1 chance after the flat recruit from the Michael Halford yard has made a bright start to his hurdling career, winning two of three starts. However, he's not in the same class as Briar Hill just yet and with entries in both the Supreme and Neptune, this five-year-old son of Australian sprinting sensation, Choisir, is probably best left for this year's Festival but is certainly one for the future.
Captain Cutter is the most likely Nicky Henderson representative to run in the Albert Bartlett and he is another who will line up on the 14th March having scored a hat-trick of wins this season, the most recent of which came in the Grade One Challow Novices' Hurdle at Newbury in December. Wins at Market Rasen and Kempton preceded that, with Tony McCoy doing the steering on all three occasions but the furthest the seven-year-old has won over is 2m 5f, which leaves the question about whether he'll get the three miles around Cheltenham. It is for that reason that he is currently a 10/1 chance in the betting and with none of the 20 horses he has beaten across his three wins so far this season going on to record a victory since, he has plenty to find on form with the leading duo in the market and the fact he's never run at Cheltenham is also negative.
In a bumper at Ascot last February, Captain Cutter was beaten by Red Sherlock from the David Pipe yard and he too holds an entry in the Albert Bartlett, for which he can be backed at 14/1 and as such, represents better value than his rival but with Kings Palace setting the standard in the young stayers event, the unbeaten Red Sherlock is more likely to go for the Neptune, leaving the path clear for his Pond House stablemate on the Friday.
Deputy Dan rates amongst the pick of the others currently holding entries for the Albert Bartlett after the penny finally looks to have dropped for the Oliver Sherwood trained runner recently. Following a promising bumper campaign 12 months ago, the six-year-old recorded consecutive second place finishes in his first two starts over obstacles but a 19 length victory at Chepstow at Christmas, followed by a nine length success at Warwick in January, suggests that this son of former Ascot Gold winner, Westener, is on an upward curve and could very well be a lively each-way contender at the current odds of 16/1 and his chances of victory will only improve if the going at Cheltenham is heavy come the final day of the meeting.
Champagne West was the one who got the better of Deputy Dan earlier in the season and as such, the Phil Hobbs runner must also enter calculations. Also by Westerner, this six-year-old is in fact half-brother to Deputy Dan and the aforementioned Captain Cutter, making the Albert Bartlett a potential family affair and Champagne West boasts solid claims based on his three latest back-to-back wins. Warwick, Wincanton and Ascot have all provided the stage for impressive victories, with the last two coming over 2m 6f with the winning distances of ten and four lengths respectively, suggesting that he should relish the extra two furlongs of the Albert Bartlett. He's another that will prosper if the ground comes up heavy for and whilst his form isn't as strong as some of the rivals he'll go up against, he's a genuine contender at a current best price of 20/1.
Meanwhile, another who could be capable of making his presence felt at big odds is Urban Hymn, who provides North Yorkshire trainer, Malcolm Jefferson, with his best hope of a Cheltenham winner in 2014. Half-brother to two-times Cheltenham Festival winner, Sir Des Champs, and the record breaking Quevega, this lightly raced six-year-old clearly comes from a family of useful performers and could be anything and whilst the 20/1 is a fair reflection of his chances, he can't be ruled out with three wins from four runs to his name this season with plenty more sure to come. His latest win came in the Albert Bartlett trial at Doncaster last month and he will now head straight to Prestbury Park with the trip not in doubt, which subsequently means he makes plenty of appeal to those looking for a bit more value than those at the head of the market.
As it stands though, Kings Palace and Briar Hill set the standard for the 2014 renewal of the Albert Bartlett and with very little separating the pair on form, it is the eye-catching course and distance victory of the David Pipe entry that gets the nod to win the race over the Irish Raider. Urban Hymn is the pick of the rest and completes the forecasted first three home in the race that conclude the Festival's nine novice events.