This year’s Supreme Novices’ Hurdle is building up to be one of the most competitive and quality-filled renewals of the race in a number of years.
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The ante-post favourite for the race is the Nicky Henderson trained Darlan. Owned by JP McManus, Darlan has been at the top of the ante-post market since his effortless win on his hurdling debut at Kempton in November. Since then, the son of Milan has gone on to record two very contrasting victories over hurdles at Cheltenham and Taunton respectively. He was pushed as close as ever when prevailing by the narrowest of margins at Cheltenham’s December meeting, while he made the useful but ultimately disappointing Jump City look very ordinary in a race at Taunton. When last seen, Darlan was travelling ominously well in the Grade 3 Betfair Handicap Hurdle at Newbury before crashing out at the second-last flight. Zarkandar, second favourite for the Champion Hurdle, went on to win the race and there are many people who will argue Darlan would’ve won had he not fallen. However, the second last at Newbury is three-furlongs from home and I’m not convinced he would’ve found as much as expected off the bridle. Despite this he goes to Cheltenham as the deserving 5/1 favourite (Boylesports) and cannot be ruled out.
Despite a U.K. trained runner winning the race for the past two years, I’m confident us Irish can regain the crown this year’s crop of novice hurdler’s look to be pretty decent. Steps To Freedom (6/1 Boylesports) has course and distance form in the book which is an invaluable asset to any horse running at Cheltenham. The Jessica Harrington trained gelding showed a very likeable attitude when taking the Grade 2 Opus Energy Novices’ Hurdle, out-battling fellow Supreme Novice contender’s Prospect Wells and Ericht in determined fashion. He hasn’t been seen out since then and the form has taken a few knocks but he is a big opposing gelding who will love the test of stamina and he will certainly be doing his best work at the finish.
Joining Steps To Freedom as part of the Irish contingent is the Willie Mullins pair Midnight Game and Sous Le Cieux (may go for the Neptune), Charles Byrnes’ Trifolium and the Noel Meade trained Dylan Ross. All of the above go to the Supreme Novices’ with outstanding chances but a horse that caught my eye from a very early stage is Dermot Weld’s Galileo’s Choice. Rated as high as 102 on the flat, Galileo’s Choice is arguably the class act of the entire field. Being by Galileo out of a Sir Ivor mare, he is bred to run in a Derby and not in a Supreme Novices’ Hurdle so it comes as no surprise that he has struggled somewhat on Ireland’s winter ground. Weld is a genius when it comes to preparing a horse for a specific race and there is no hiding how highly he regards this horse. He has been nursing him along quietly with the confidence that he will improve immensely for the quicker ground he is likely to get at the festival. A close friend of mine Robbie McNamara is likely to take the ride and you could so a lot worse than backing this horse at 7/1 E/W.
Of the others, Cinders And Ashes, Montbazon and Vulcanite all have to be feared but on the face of things they look as though they’ll need to improve.