Unlike the top 5 novice chasers, whose ranks have been battered by injury this month, this season’s novice hurdlers have had a clearer run. However, they’re not a vintage crop at the moment – more Blue Nun than Châteauneuf-du-Pape – though that could all change in three weeks’ time.
5. Airlie Beach
The 149-rated Airlie Beach may only be fifth in this list of top novice hurdlers on Timeform ratings. She’s the best of the females, ahead of her stablemate Let’s Dance (144p). From a family the Willie Mullins yard had already had success with, Airlie Beach is unbeaten in seven starts, six of them over hurdles, and she had the next-time-out winners Saturnas and Penhill (both also trained by Mullins) trailing in her wake when winning the Royal Bond at Fairyhouse last time.
She’s got more options than a customer service call to HSBC but the Dawn Run Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle on the Thursday, won last year by Mullins’ Limini, looks the best fit.
There were some sore heads after Bacardys (149p) did the business (12/1) in our Deloitte Novices’ Hurdle preview last month. He showed lots of stamina over 2m 2f that day and should relish the step up in trip for the 2m 5f Neptune Novices’ Hurdle or 3m Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle at the Festival. He ran well at last year’s Cheltenham Festival when third to Ballyandy in the Champion Bumper and he can provide more cheers next month.
Nigel Twiston-Davies has some very good novice hurdlers, including Ballyandy who won the recent Betfair Hurdle, but the pick of them is the 150-rated Wholestone. He won the Classic Novices’ Hurdle over two and a half miles at Cheltenham last time, but he’d earlier been successful twice over three miles there and his only entry at the Festival is in the 3m Albert Bartlett. Peregrine Run (145), the only hurdler to beat Wholestone this season when successful on good ground at Cheltenham in March, needs respecting too.
2. Death Duty
Death and taxes may be the only real certainties in life but it does look near enough certain that we’re going to get a cracking renewal of the Albert Bartlett, as the second highest-rated novice hurdler in training, Death Duty, was pointed at the race by his trainer Gordon Elliott after winning at Naas in January. However, Death Duty has won all his hurdles starts over two and a half miles and it may be that his shrewd connections decide their best chance of success is in the Neptune instead, for all the unbeaten, 142P-rated Finian’s Oscar won’t be push over.
1. West Approach
Thistlecrack might be missing from the 2017 Cheltenham Festival but his half-brother West Approach—the highest-rated novice hurdler (155) in training on Timeform figures—is set to uphold family honour. He was a staying-on third behind Unowhatimeanharry and Cole Harden in the Cleeve Hurdle, and he does have the option of running in the Stayers’ Hurdle.
However, he looks set to return to novice company in the Albert Bartlett, the race directly before the Gold Cup on the Friday. Will West Approach be the best approach? We think so.