The Neptune Investment Management Novices' Hurdle may have the longest name of any of the Cheltenham Festival’s 27 races but it also has a long history of being won by some Festival legends. National Hunt heavyweights such as Hardy Eustace, Monsignor and Istabraq all grace this race’s roll of honour and one glance at the past four winners, which include; Peddlers Cross, First Lieutenant, Simonsig and The New One is enough for any jumps racing fan to realise that the winner of this year’s renewal will be one to watch for the future.
Faugheen is one of seven Willie Mullins trained ante post favourites heading in to the Cheltenham Festival and the six-year-old has headed the Neptune betting since winning the Meath Novice Hurdle over 2m 4f at Navan in December. That four length victory was the gelding’s second win of the campaign after he made a winning start to life over hurdles with a six and half length win at Punchestown in November and was enough to see his odds cut to around the 10/1 mark for Cheltenham success.
The Liberty Insurance Novice Hurdle at Limerick was chosen as Faugheen’s next assignment and the step up in class over three miles proved no problem as an impressive front running performance saw him land the Grade Three contest with consummate ease by five lengths. His odds to win the Neptune were subsequently cut to as short as 6/1 and they have continued to contract since as Wednesday’s opening race looks to be the most likely target for the Rich Ricci owned runner, who will be hoping that Faugheen will be just one of several winners over the four days. The multimillionaire banker also owner of Annie Power, Champagne Fever, Ballycasey and Vautour, who all head to Prestbury Park as leading fancies for their respective races too.
The only question mark surrounding Faugheen is whether he’ll handle the Cheltenham hill but with stamina not in doubt given the drop back to 2m 5f, it has to be thought that he shouldn’t have much trouble handling the track. His form of five wins from five runs suggests that he’s a horse with huge potential and he could well demonstrate that in the Neptune and his prominent running style could well see him steel a march on his rivals and he looks a worthy favourite, although 11/4 is the best price available now.
The David Pipe trained Red Sherlock is another who will line up looking to defend an unbeaten record having won his previous six starts. One of those wins for the five-year-old came in a bumper as recently as Cheltenham’s Open meeting in November last year. However, three victories over hurdles since then has seen this son of multiple Group One winner on the flat, Shirocco, catch the eye of punters and odds compilers alike to the extent that his Neptune odds have tumbled from 20/1 in to 5/1 since his latest win at Cheltenham in January. The Grade Two Neptune Investment Management Novices' Hurdle Trial was the stage for a two and half length victory over the much fancied Rathvinden from the Willie Mullins yard that day and the manner of that success saw him emerge as a leading contender to win the main event come March.
Red Sherlock’s three victories over obstacles this season have come on heavy ground and with the going forecast to be good at Cheltenham there is a question to answer about his speed but November’s bumper win showed he had plenty of pace on good ground and with further improvement likely from this youngster, he rates a serious contender and challenger to the Mullins market leader.
Nicky Henderson won the Neptune Investment Management Novices' Hurdle two years ago with Simonsig and this time around, the Seven Barrows trainer will be hoping that Royal Boy can emulate his stablemate. The seven-year-old has won twice this season in a maiden hurdle at Ascot in December before winning the re-arranged Tolworth Hurdle at Kempton in January. As a Grade One winner, the 7/1 chance in the Neptune has to be respected but the strength of that renewal can be questioned and the fact he has found winning difficult prior to his last two starts means that he isn’t necessarily reliable. Also, only one horse aged over six has won this race since its inception in 1971! Therefore, whilst he can’t be ruled out, he could be vulnerable to his younger and more progressive rivals.
The aforementioned Rathvinden, who finished runner up to Red Sherlock over course and distance in January is next in the betting at 12/1, where connections will be hoping that the three pounds he was giving the winner that day will be enough to reverse the form back off level weights but whether he’s good enough to beat the two market leaders, one of which is a stablemate, remains to be seen and he also holds an entry in the Albert Bartlett.
Deputy Dan is another who holds entries in both the Neptune and Albert Bartlett but the former is understood to be the preference for the Oliver Sherwood trained runner who finally looks to have discovered winning ways following two narrow defeats in his first starts over obstacles at the start of the season. However, a 19 length demolition of 14 rivals in a maiden hurdle at Chepstow followed by a nine length victory in Warwick’s Neptune Investment Management Novices' Hurdle Trial in January has signalled the six-year-old as a genuine Cheltenham contender. He would have to find more to match the market leaders on form but at 14/1, he makes plenty of each-way appeal.
Captain Cutter is another contender from the Nicky Henderson yard and it has yet to be confirmed whether he’ll run in the Neptune or Albert Bartlett but wherever the son of prolific flat stayer, Westerner, lines up at the Cheltenham Festival, he has to be respected. The seven-year-old has won all three of his starts this season, including the Challow Novices’ Hurdle at Newbury last time out and whilst like Royal Boy, the age trend is against him, Captain Cutter could be the better of the two Henderson runners but it is advised to wait until it is known which race he will line up for anybody wanting to back him.
Overall, the Neptune Investment Management Novices' Hurdle has proven to be a race dominated by those towards the head of the betting in recent years with the past five winners all coming from the top three in the market and based on form, that trend looks set to continue in 2014. Faugheen is the horse with the biggest reputation and the fact that he comes from a stable that has won this race twice in the past six years means he should be the one to beat but preference is for Red Sherlock who continues to go from strength to strength and the all-important course and distance victory last time is what gives the David Pipe runner the nod to extend his winning sequence to seven.