Cheltenham Festival Preview: Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle

Throughout this week I am going to be previewing one of the big Grade 1 races at the Cheltenham Festival one week from the off time, and on Wednesday I’m looking at the opening Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle.

This 2m5f Novices’ Hurdle has been won by some legends of the game down the years, with the likes of Simonsig, The New One, Faugheen, Yorkhill and Envoi Allen all featuring on the recent rollcall. Something quite striking when you look through the recent winners is that you almost have to be a six-year-old, with 9 of the last 10 winners all fitting that age category – The New One being the exception to the rule way back in 2013. Another big trend in the race is the fact that Irish trained runners have won 7 of the last 10 renewals – so I’m sure you can quickly start to piece together who I am going to be siding with here. Nevertheless, much like the Champion Hurdle on Tuesday we do seemingly have three Horses for top connections who are the main ones to focus on: Bravemansgame for Paul Nicholls, Gaillard Du Mesnil for Willie Mullins, and Bob Olinger for Henry de Bromhead.

I’ll start off by looking at Paul Nicholls’ big hope for the week in Bravemansgame, who this season has really started to show why connections paid an eye-watering sum of £370,000 to secure his services. Bumpers were never going to suit this sizeable chasing type for the future, but he ran some nice enough races at Ascot behind Soaring Glory and Israel Champ. Connections decided it was worthwhile giving him a wind-operation over the Summer before embarking on his Novice Hurdle campaign, and they were proved right. Running a belter on his first start over Hurdles despite it only being over 2m, Bravemansgame went very close to beating the subsequent Betfair Hurdle winner Soaring Glory (143) – in a race which very much suited the speedier Jonjo O’Neill Horse. With such a promising run under his belt however, Bravemansgame then went to a weaker race at Exeter and bolted up by 11 lengths, before stepping up in trip to 2m4½f at Newbury in November and defying his penalty in equally impressive fashion – seeing off Es Perfecto (134) by an easy 7.5 lengths.

The British Novice Hurdle division certainly hasn’t been a strong one this season, but those good performances in Autumn Novice Hurdles clearly entitled Bravemansgame to take his chance in the Grade 1 Challow Novices’ Hurdle ran over the same course and distance a month later. Running a big race from the front, Bravemansgame looked like he could potentially have a battle on after the penultimate flight, but after jumping the last he sauntered away from his rivals to score by 10 lengths back to Star Gate (145). This six-year-old clearly fits the age bracket then to win a Ballymore, and he’s done nothing but beat what has been put in front of him since – but I do have slight reservations as to how strong that form might be compared to the Irish. Another major negative towards Bravemansgame’s chances is the fact that no Challow Hurdle winner has ever gone on to win the Ballymore at Cheltenham – and his victory marks the 45th running of the race! Most famously amongst those who have tried (and failed) is Paul Nicholls’ very own Denman, who finished 2nd in what is now the Ballymore at Cheltenham in 2006 – so Bravemansgame will clearly be a very talented animal if he manages to break the curse! When you combine that hoodoo with the fact that Ireland have dominated a race which Paul Nicholls has never won, I am happy to take him on.

Willie Mullins is currently responsible for 13 of the 24 favourites at Cheltenham next week, and he could be set for a massive day on Wednesday with both Monkfish and Chacun Pour Soi lining up at a short price. Many punters will be adding Gaillard Du Mesnil to their Mullins accumulators in the opener, and he clearly has a good chance in the Ballymore. This five-year-old came to Closutton with a big reputation having placed in Graded Bumpers in France, but he was fairly disappointing on debut for the yard in November when thrashed 8 lengths by Holymacapony – a Horse who’s since regressed quicker than the Royal Family’s integrity. Quite a few of Willie’s Horses were needing their first start of the season in November mind, and Gaillard Du Mesnil put in a much better performance in another 2m4f Maiden Hurdle at Leopardstown over Christmas; beating subsequent Maiden Hurdle winner Mr Incredible by an easy 9.5 lengths, and the 3rd placed Magic Daze has also come out and won his Maiden since.

Connections didn’t have all too many options in terms of where to run him next, and rather than rushing him for the Lawlor’s Of Naas just 2 weeks later, they sensibly decided to wait for the Grade 1 2m6f Novice Hurdle ran at the Dublin Racing Festival. Considering the Horse was quite keen at Leopardstown on his previous start, Willie decided to put a hood on Gaillard Du Mesnil to keep him nice and calm over this extended trip – and it definitely worked, as he just crept into contention under Paul Townend before showing a much superior turn off foot. Whilst it certainly was an impressive visual performance to put 5 lengths between himself and Gentlemansgame, I think the nature of the race is highlighted by the fact that I have put up both Stattler (3rd) and Fakiera (4th) for the longer 3m Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham. Beating a bunch of three-milers over 2m6f then suddenly doesn’t read as strongly as it first appears on paper, but nevertheless Gaillard Du Mesnil does clearly have strong claims in the Ballymore. With some slight doubts about his form combined with the poor five-year-old record that I mentioned previously however, at the prices I’d rather take him on with a Horse who I believe to be a monster.

Henry de Bromhead is no stranger to training top-class Horses, but Bob Olinger mightn’t be far off the best Novice Hurdler he has ever had under his care. This facile Turtulla P2P winner went and absolutely bolted up in a 2m2f Bumper at Gowran in March last season on debut for the yard, and since then he has ran three very good races over Hurdles. Often you see these exciting young Horses pitched into the weakest Maiden Hurdles that the trainer can find, but testament to the regard that Bob Olinger is held in by Henry, he decided to let him take his chance up against none other than the reigning Champion Bumper winner Ferny Hollow. Considering that race was over 2m, connections just decided to bounce Bob Olinger out and try to make all of the running – and he jumped really well for what was only his first start over timber. When the pair headed over the second last Bob Olinger was certainly travelling best, but once Paul Townend got serious on Ferny Hollow he managed to get past jumping the final flight – although Bob Olinger very much kept to his coattails when only beaten a length at the finish. It was a massive shame to see Ferny Hollow ruled out for the season subsequently due to picking up an injury as he clearly would’ve taken high rank in the Novice Hurdle division this season, but in terms of Bob Olinger it was a top-class opening effort.

Stepping up in trip at Navan in December for a 2m4f Maiden Hurdle, Bob Olinger this time did find one of those aforementioned weak races, as once again Rachael Blackmore bounced him out in front to score by an impressive 14 lengths without coming off the bridle. He was clearly entitled to win as he did when sent off a 1/8 shot, but the second placed Horse that day is actually pretty useful himself – with Dunboyne rated 130 having won a Maiden of his own subsequently. That run just before Christmas teed him up perfectly for a tilt at the Grade 1 Lawlor’s Of Naas Novices’ Hurdle in January however, and he once more put in a brilliant performance – this time quite importantly from a tactics point of view showcasing that he can sit in and track the leaders. By the time they got to the second last however Bob Olinger was ready to burst into the lead, and he did so under no uncertain terms – putting 6.5 lengths between himself and Blue Lord (145) when properly asked for an effort for the first time in his short career to date. You could feasibly argue that Bob Olinger won that race in equally impressive a fashion as Envoi Allen did 12 months prior, and whilst he is yet to prove himself as being quite that good, I think Bob Olinger has an outstanding chance of repeating what his new stablemate did by going onto land the Ballymore on his next start. When you throw in the trends that recent Ballymore winners are six-year-old’s (9 of the last 10) trained in Ireland (7 of the last 10) who have had 3 Hurdles starts prior to Cheltenham (7 of the last 10), then I rate Bob Olinger as one of the bets of the week.

Outside of the front three in the betting then there isn’t all too much left to shout about, but in case you weren’t aware then the following Horses are unlikely to be running here: Appreciate It (Supreme), Metier (Supreme), Dreal Deal (Non Runner), Ballyadam (Supreme), Stattler (Albert Bartlett), Blue Lord (Supreme/County Hurdle), Farouk D’Alene (Albert Bartlett if making the Festival) and Duffle Coat (Non Runner). Some who do look likely to turn up here include Joseph O’Brien’s Keskonrisk, who has seen a lot of support over the past couple of days. This 6yo would be an interesting runner stepping up in trip for the first time, but this renewal of the Ballymore will probably be a bit too much for him on just his third start over obstacles. Bear Ghylls is worth a mention for the British as he clearly has a big engine, but his Jumping has let him down time and time again this season, and he won’t be able to afford to make any mistakes in a contest like this. Another potential British runner worth a mention is Make Me A Believer, as he looked a dour stayer when winning a 2m1f Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham in December. He’s since ran a nice race in the Grade 2 Leamington Novices’ Hurdle at Warwick when only beaten 0.5 lengths into 3rd, but again he would need to improve to be winning what looks quite a hot Grade 1.

I’m really looking forward to the 2021 renewal of the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle, especially with top prospects Bravemansgame and Gaillard Du Mesnil ensuring that it will be a competitive and informative race. I am firmly in the camp of Henry de Bromhead’s Bob Olinger however, as I think he could just be a different class to these lot considering the form lines he brings into the race, and the trends boxes that he ticks in the process. Rachael Blackmore has plenty of options in terms of tactics considering Bob Olinger has shown he is capable of making all or sitting in to take a lead, and he possesses the perfect combination of speed and stamina needed to win a Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle.

Put up on Telegram 04/03/21

Good luck! – Jake Price

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