Cheltenham Festival Ante-Post: Mares’ Novice Hurdle

I am sorry to do this to you all so early in the season – and yes I do realise that we’re only at the end of November – but I feel you have to act when you see such a taking performance. I won’t be making these Cheltenham Festival Ante-Post articles on a regular basis until January time as usual, but I will be putting one up every now and again when I have an angle which I believe is worth playing at such an early stage. We’ve all got a certain Filly to blame for this article however, as when I was watching the action at Thurles on Thursday afternoon the performance of Gauloise absolutely blew me away. Having watched the race back multiple times and carried out a lot of research, I think she’s worth investing in now despite the time of year. Whilst there is always going to be a chance of getting it spectacularly wrong considering she has only raced once in Ireland, she does come with a fairly nice price as a reward – one that will undoubtedly be much shorter on the day should I be correct. On Saturday another Filly with a similar profile put in an equally impressive performance, so she will also be joining the team – but you’ll have to keep reading to find out who!

Willie Mullins seems to have a constant conveyer belt of Horses coming over from France, and a common theme is the patience with which he treats them. In fact this November alone he’s already unleashed 8 French recruits, including four winners (Youmdour, Ganapathi, Blue Lord and Gauloise) and he still has many others to come (Fly Smart, Rayapour, Saint Sam, Capodanno, Rambranlt’jac to name just a few). Gauloise is testament to that patience as she wasn’t seen for 578 days after her run in France at Lignieres in April 2019, but allowing these Horses to settle in and acclimatise themselves to the Closutton way is extremely effective – something I know all too well thanks to Grangee.

Gauloise’s run at Lignieres was quite hard to track down on the internet, but having watched it now you can clearly see why the Willie Mullins stable snapped her up. Running in a 1m4f Flat Race for AQPS bred Horses (think of them as the French National Hunt breed), Gauloise settled in fourth place of the six runners and travelled through the race as well as you’d want to see. When the pace quickened turning for home however she had to come widest of the field (3 deep) to make up ground, but with two taps of the stick she absolutely ate up the ground – surging to the front and being ridden out hands and heels to record a two-and-a-half length success. Clearly the Mullins team liked that race a fair amount as the second Gamin Original went on to win on her next start and was purchased for €100,000 by Harold Kirk – before she was then chucked straight into a Grade 3 (won by subsequent Triumph Hurdle winner Burning Victory). Willie was just rushing his Juveniles that day in order to have a few runners in the Triumph Hurdle so she can be excused a poor effort, but she still must work well to be risked in a race like that and have Paul Townend choose her over the others (including the Triumph Hurdle winner!). The remainder in that Lignieres race give the race a strong feel too, with the third placed Graziela Conti only beaten a head by subsequent Grade 2 winner Genola on her next start, and the fourth placed Gemirande won a Novice Hurdle at Wetherby this week for Venetia Williams. Considering many of these AQPS Flat races don’t work out form wise, it’s promising to know that Gauloise’s victory does have a lot of substance to it – so you can already upgrade what was an impressive performance.

Winning over 1m4f on the Flat in France is one thing, but going over Hurdles in Ireland is quite another – so the time that Willie gives them to adjust is invaluable. Purchased privately for prominent owner Kenneth Alexander, a big target for him now having won the Mares Hurdle with Honeysuckle is to win the Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle – as he continues to put together a powerful book of Broodmares. It’s no surprise then that he has turned to Willie Mullins to help him achieve that goal, with Gauloise the fourth Horse to run in his popular blue-and-white spotted silks. Their first attempt at winning the race together came with Elfile in 2019, who had won twice in France before joining Closutton. Elfile made her debut in a Maiden Hurdle over 2m4f at Punchestown following a 417 day break, where she won by a short-head and then was chucked straight into the Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle – finishing 6th behind Eglantine Du Seuil. That rushed preparation was clearly not ideal for her chances, but the fact that Gauloise has started her career in the much more conventional month of November is surely a positive.

Contesting a 2m Maiden Hurdle at Thurles on an unassuming Thursday afternoon, Gauloise was sent off the 4/5 favourite (as with most Mullins runners in Maidens) and settled nicely in fourth place on the inside running rail. Jumping really well for her first start over obstacles, this Filly effortlessly cruised through the race as you would expect – but it was when the tempo started to lift leaving the back straight that she really started to impress. Moving up into third under Paul Townend (who let off a bit of reign), Gauloise cruised into a lead at the second last and quickened really smartly towards the last – where she produced a fantastically quick leap to go on and score by five-and-a-half lengths under a largely motionless Townend. This Filly clearly had loads left in the tank hitting the line, but the turn of foot that she showed sets her out as a very smart prospect going forward. What backs that theory up more is the fact that the second was Joseph O’Brien’s much more experienced Global Equity. This Mare won a Bumper for the stable last season before placing third in a Grade 3 on Hurdles debut at Limerick last December – only beaten 0.75 lengths by Gardens Of Babylon (138), with Soviet Pimpernel (142) a further 2.5 lengths ahead. It’s a shame she was found to be clinically abnormal on her next start in the 2m2f Novice Hurdle at Fairyhouse in January (won by Minella Melody) as it would’ve given an indicator as to how Gauloise matches up with her elder stablemates Colreevy and Dolcita, but either way she has still very easily put to bed a useful rival on what was only her Hurdles debut.

You can find a video replay of Gauloise strutting her stuff at Thurles below.

Some people think that trainer comments and quotes are a load of bollocks, and whilst they should definitely be taken with a pinch of salt, I always think they mean more after the race than they do beforehand. When you think about this it makes sense, as trainers have many stakeholders which they need to keep happy before a Horse does their own talking on track. After the race however you usually get a bit more honesty, and a sense of how the trainer actually feels about a Horse – as well as gaining crucial information on future targets. In the case of Gauloise, as soon as Kevin O’Ryan mentioned the Filly’s name on Racing TV you could see Willie’s face light up with a big smile – and that was despite wearing a massive face covering! He went onto say

“We were very pleased how she quickened after the second last. I thought there was going to be a good race down to the last but when Paul moved on her she just put it to bed straight away and really hurdled the last before going away like a Handicapper. She could really move up in Grade. Watching her between the last two Hurdles was the sign that there might be something nice there”

Willie Mullins, Racing TV 26/11/20

These quotes definitely increased my confidence when weighing up if I should be putting a Filly up for the Mares Novices’ Hurdle after one run, but clearly Willie was impressed and thinks she is one to go through the ranks – and that aforementioned 2m2f Grade 3 at Fairyhouse in January is certainly the type of race she could turn up in, as Willie likes to send his best Mares there. Mullins did also say in that interview that they would look at running her in something over Christmas however, but to my eye her only real option is in a 2m Listed race back at Thurles on the 20th December – unless she went to Limerick to take on the boys in a 2m Grade 2 4yo Hurdle on the 29th December. In all honesty it wouldn’t be a negative if she was just left until Fairyhouse in January however, as it is a tried and tested route with both Limini and Laurina.

2020Concertista (FR)611-2Willie MullinsDaryl Jacob
2019Eglantine Du Seuil (FR)511-2Willie MullinsNoel Fehily
2018Laurina (FR)511-7Willie MullinsPaul Townend
2017Let’s Dance (FR)511-7Willie MullinsRuby Walsh
2016Limini (IRE)511-7Willie MullinsRuby Walsh
  • Quite succinctly, Willie Mullins is king here and has won all five renewals of the Grade 2 Mares’ Novices’ Chase to date.
  • Concertista became the first Mare aged 6 to win the Dawn Run this year, but she was obviously only beaten a short-head in the 2019 renewal – so the stats definitely still point towards a five-year-old being key. Dolicta back in second was 5.
  • Whilst Limini was the only winner who wasn’t French bred, all five raced in France before moving to Willie Mullins.
  • As the Mares Novice is a Grade 2, you have to carry a 5lbs penalty if winning a a Graded race beforehand. Limini, Let’s Dance and Laurina all managed this.
  • The optimum number of runs over Hurdles before the race is two, with Limini, Laurina and Eglantine Du Seuil all meeting this criteria. Let’s Dance was an outlier due to running as a Juvenile, and Concerista was an outlier due to running in the race twice. Dolcita only ran twice before finishing 2nd in 2020.
  • No Mare with a P2P background has ever finished in the top 3.

I’m sure you were ticking off the checklist whilst reading through those trends, but Gauloise will be five in January, is French bred, raced in France, will have had 2 (maximum 3) starts over Hurdles beforehand, and of course doesn’t have a P2P background. Oh, and she’s trained by Willie Mullins. Jackpot.

The final segment which is important to take a look at before having an Ante-Post bet is the opposition. Willie Mullins already has the favourite for this race in Shewearsitwell, who looks a grand Mare having won her first three starts over Hurdles on quick ground over the Summer. She was due to run in the Royal Bond on Sunday where her credentials would have been really tested, but apparently she was met with a late setback. She’s certainly not got the profile of a usual Willie Mullins Mares Novice winner though – as she’s Irish bred, and has been raced fairly frequently. Her profile is actually remarkably similar to that of Airlie Beach, who won races in the Summer before picking up a Grade 3, winning the Royal Bond, and being put away until the Mares’ Novice – where she was sent off 4/1 and stuffed 14/16. Now clearly I’m not saying that the same would happen with Shewearsitwell, but I’m always cautious of Willie’s Horses who start off in the Summer – as most of his good Winter Horses don’t run until at least late November.  The opposition looks quite scarce thereafter though; Princess Zoe won’t run having won her Group 1 on the Flat, but Gypsy Island will be popular if making her return. She is an electric Bumper Horse but was beaten on her only try over Hurdles in 2018. She suffered an injury to her hind leg last year however and was ruled out for the whole season, so she will have to defy all the trends as a non-Willie Mullins trained seven-year-old come March. Finest Evermore is another Willie Mullins Horse who has been racing over the Summer, and I’d you would have to be very doubtful she is his strongest bullet. The Glancing Queen, Sayce Gold, Queens Brook, Brandy Love and My Whirlwind can all be ruled out having run in P2P races, which is a trend that I feel is too strong to ignore. Taking my quick dismissals with a pinch of salt as I may have been a bit harsh on some of these Mares, you can quickly make a case as to why Gauloise is a good bet despite the time of year.

If you’re wondering about the absence of Hook Up in this section, make sure you keep reading…

I will apologise once more for putting up an Ante-Post article at the end of November, but I hope you can see my angle as to why Gauloise is such a strong selection. Considering we may only see her once more on the track before Cheltenham I don’t think it’s too much of an over ration to put her up this early – especially when all the trends point towards her being the exact type of Mare it takes to win this race. There are lots of question marks surrounding her current perceived opposition in the Ante-Post market, and whilst there is still plenty of time for another Mullins aeroplane to surface between now and March, Gauloise should still be there or thereabouts come the final furlong (if making it to the race), which makes for a nice each/way bet at the current prices available. If she does go and win that aforementioned 2m2f Grade 3 at Fairyhouse in January then I’d expect her to go off favourite for the race, as everyone will pick up on the fact it is the exact same route Willie took with Laurina and Limini in the past. Unless she’s stuffed out of sight in the interim period, she should be a much shorter price come the day. I have already fallen in love with this girl and I really hope she can top her division this season.

General price

Horse Racing is an ever changing and adapting sport, and since I wrote this article on Thursday evening another Willie Mullins Filly has produced a scintillating performance that yet again whets the appetite for Mares Novice glory. Rather than sit back and be stubborn with my initial theory that Gauloise is the one however, I think it’s worth adding Hook Up to the team, which should give us a really strong hand in the Mares’ Novice division. This four-year-old Filly will be attempting to take the Let’s Dance route back to Cheltenham in March, as she raced as a Juvenile last season without getting her head in front.

Hook Up started her career on the Flat in France as a three-year-old, with her best performance coming at Compiegne in March 2019 when winning a 1m4f Maiden by 3 lengths. She followed that victory up with a second placed effort in a Saint-Cloud Handicap over 1m2½f off top weight, before then being sold privately to join Willie Mullins. Owned by Rich Ricci, Hook Up had to wait 324 days before making her seasonal reappearance, where she was chucked straight into the Grade 3 Winning Fair Juvenile Hurdle at Fairyhouse in February. As I’ve mentioned previously in this article Willie sent four to the race that day in a bid to have something good enough to contest the Triumph Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival the following month, and Hook Up booked her ticket when making really smooth progress to go from last leaving the back straight to first at the penultimate flight – only being run down late in the day by stablemate Burning Victory and eventually finishing third. Although beaten, that was a really promising effort to be placed in a Grade 3 on her first start over Hurdles, and the form didn’t work out too badly either – with Burning Victory of course going on to be a lucky winner of the Grade 1 Triumph Hurdle, and earning herself an official rating of 144. Hook Up also made the journey across to Prestbury Park in March, but her race panned out a lot differently – as a slight mistake at the second last flight meant she was off her feet due to the ferocious pace being set by Allmankind and Goshen, leaving her no chance of making up ground. Although she was stuffed 37 lengths by her stablemate that day (who had clearly improved), she was looked after by David Mullins, and the experience of going to Cheltenham and coping with the atmosphere won’t be lost on this Filly. It is pretty safe to conclude that it was just too big of a race to contest so early in her career – but it does say a lot about how highly she is regarded.

Returning to the track after 260 days at Fairyhouse on Saturday (28th November), Hook Up was sent off the 10/11 favourite in a 2m Maiden Hurdle. Ridden by Paul Townend for the first time, connections completely switched up the tactics on this Filly by taking her straight to the front of the pack and making the running – and it seemed to work wonders for her. Setting a good pace from the front, Hook Up jumped well and had them all at it heading down to the second last – but she was just cantering along under a motionless Paul Townend. Hook Up recorded a really good time (Just 3 seconds slower than the Bumper, and 8.6 seconds quicker than the second division of the Maiden Hurdle) when winning by 12 lengths on the bridle, and back in second was a nice Horse in Gars De Sceaux – who had won his P2P at Borris House by 6 lengths in the spring and is well regarded by the Gordon Elliot team. Considering the ease of her victory you’d have to assume that she has improved from last season, which makes Hook Up the ideal type to contest Novice Hurdles despite having experience from her Maiden campaign as a Juvenile. As I’ve mentioned before, this was the exact route connections took with Let’s Dance after she was beaten in the Triumph Hurdle – so she certainly would have a chance back at Prestbury Park in the Mares’ Novice Hurdle if building on this performance. Willie said that they will be looking at running her in something over Christmas, and it wouldn’t surprise me if she was highly tried.

Ladbrokes, Coral, Redzone, 10bet, Sport Nation

Good luck! – Jake Price

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