Infection is better than injury in Samcro’s case, acting as an excuse, as well as putting the light into enlightenment, for some light at the end of a turbulent tunnel. It perhaps doesn’t mitigate the black eye by Bedrock and the bloody nose from Buveur d’Air pre-Christmas, the upshot of which was, in whispered terms, a focus on his fall the previous spring at Punchestown and whether it might have had some lasting effect, because his threshold wasn’t nearly so high as it had been for the slow-burning blitzkrieg of his novice season when, even at this stage of the year, he was a short price for the Ballymore.
At the same time, Summerville Boy wasn’t a standout for the Supreme but had already weighed in with a 150-odd rating in the Tolworth, when beating Kalashnikov, while the other novice hurdle winner at the Festival, Kilbricken Storm, though harder to find, as told by his 33/1 SP, had in mid-winter won a Grade 2 at Cheltenham and finished third in a Grade 1 at Newbury (Challow).
The point is that, usually, by now, we know where we’re looking for the biggest and best novice hurdlers, having either spoken for themselves or been spoken about by others, often making for one of the more significant sub-plots of the Festival, but this season seems different, more diluted and less defined, as evidenced by the markets in the main events: it’s 6/1 the favourite for the Supreme with Champ second in at 12/1, and Champ heads the list for both the Ballymore and Albert Bartlett, 7/1 bar him in the former and 12/1 in the latter.
Let’s start with Champ then, top of the Timeform table for novice hurdlers so far but by virtue of his win in a 2½m handicap at Newbury as much as the follow up in the Challow over the same C&D. The fact he’s sat across, and at the front, of all three open novices at Cheltenham tells a tale of the anonymity of the rest as opposed to the standard set by himself, made little clearer by the Grade 1s last weekend.
Elixir de Nutz hung tough in the Tolworth, but his season so far has been an advertisement of attitude as much as ability and a repeat performance at Cheltenham would likely see him only sixth or seventh in an average Supreme. After all that has been squeezed out of him, any progress left is likely to be more in ounces than pounds, whereas Battleoverdoyen, in contrast, is just starting out, and the shoulder-shrugging style of his success in the Naas Novice Hurdle is amply compensated by the context of where he’s at in his career, only three starts and three months in.
All the same, with a little over eight lengths separating the first six at Naas, not to mention a realistic rival (Tornado Flyer) who was pulled up with a problem, it’s more of a foundation than actual form to be packing for Prestbury.
If there’s a talking horse amongst the novices then it’s Angels Breath, who did something unusual on his debut by winning a Grade 2, though it was more of a foot race with just four flights jumped and neither who he beat nor how he beat them screamed monster in the making, at least not for two miles.
What it all means is that the radar races between now and the Cheltenham Festival carry added interest and implication, and there are two Grade 2s this weekend, on either side of the Irish Sea. At Warwick, in a race taken en route by Ballymore winner in two of the last years, namely The New One and Willoughby Court, it’s all eyes this year on Birchdale, whom you get the impression was already working backwards from this point when making a taking debut over the same course and distance in mid-December.
Rathhill had his bubble burst in the Tolworth, for same connections and a similar approach, of a one-hop dive into the deep end, but Birchdale needn’t follow suit, and it was impressive how he opened up in little time after the last, at the end of a steadily-run race, from two next-time winners.
Warwick is where it all started for Buildmeupbuttercup, kicking off with a win there and signing off on bumpers by finishing fifth in the Grade 2 mares event at Aintree, after which she left Mick Channon for Willie Mullins. Her hurdling debut, against the boys at Navan, was much more convincing than the half-length margin might suggest, and it’s significant that Mullins has handed her this sort of assignment so soon.
If Buildmeupbuttercup finishes in the first three, let alone wins, then she won’t be 16/1 for the Dawn Run at Cheltenham, against her sex.