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Neptune Investment Management Novices' Hurdle preview

Opening proceedings on day two of the Festival is the race known by most as the Neptune. Again it's a Novice Hurdle like the Supreme, just four and a half extra furlongs. Is it any stronger or weaker than the Festival opener? You be the judge. Sharing his analysis of the race is aspiring young writer Daniel Knight, @danielknightt. He's also behind the BritishJumpRacing website.

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Neptune Investment Management Novices' Hurdle

The Neptune is always one of the more anticipated races at the Festival. It always attracts an array of top class horses, some of whom are chasers in the making, some of whom are Champion Hurdle contenders for the future. The race is always a spectacle, almost every year there is a story behind one runner, a gamble of some sort or a top class record on the line. This year is no exception. To win a Neptune you have to not only jump well, but you have to have a perfect blend of stamina and speed. The correct combination of all three in a horse often makes it special. This may be why so many top horses have used this race as a stepping stone to greater things, from Champion Hurdle winners to a Grand National winner, they all can come from this race.

Long-time favourite for the Neptune is the very impressive Faugheen for the Willie Mullins stable. After winning a Punchestown bumper by 22 lengths on his debut last year, it was plain for all to see the Mullins team had unearthed another potential machine. He won that race virtually all on the bridle and the form has worked out very well, with the second, Josses Hill, being runner-up in the Grade 1 Tolworth Hurdle and then again in the Supreme Novices’ yesterday. Faugheen’s bumper race has thrown up three double winners, not including Faugheen, and has had seven other horses placed in races.

Since the bumper, Faugheen has three wins from three over hurdles, including a Grade Three last time. That race was not strong at all and he still managed to get a rating of 148 after it, which in my book is a very high rating for a horse whose highest scalp is a 139 rated Azorian. Yes he beat Azorian that day by 36 lengths, but Azorian got beat by Vautour 86 lengths the race after that so what does that really say about Faugheen's form? He is more than likely to improve again and all the signs from the Mullins yard are that this horse is a serious animal, as Patrick Mullins has been quoted as saying he is a “monster.” Another worry is that after running over 3 miles last time, the drop back in trip might or might not suit Faugheen. At 9/4 Faugheen could be a good bet or he could easily flop. He could be huge talent and the likelihood is we haven't seen the best of him yet, but he isn’t proven in the highest class at all. If you back him, you are doing so on the basis of his connections, his potential and that he will improve.

Admittedly, he should improve quite a bit but there are too many unknowns and negatives. He will definitely stay the trip and that is a bonus, but at 9/4 and shorter I can't have him at all. His recent form is not good as good as previous Neptune winners and if he was trained by another Irish trainer, such as Gordon Elliot, there's no way he would be that price. I asked Niall Hannity at a Cheltenham Preview Night what Faugheen's price would be if he wasn't trained by Mullins and he said at least 7/1, which says it all. He might be a "monster" but at the prices he certainly isn't and I couldn’t back him here.

Another unbeaten runner, Red Sherlock, is next in the market at 4/1. The David Pipe-trained gelding, like Faugheen, hacked up on his debut bumper by 23 lengths where the form worked out well. His hurdles debut wasn’t as impressive but after that he has improved leaps and bounds, winning all his races up to a Grade Two last time - the Neptune Trial over C&D in January. He beat Rathvinden that day, admittedly on much better terms than Rathvinden, but he showed his determination up the hill and his course and distance form gives him an added bonus here. He is rated 151, only 3lbs higher than Faugheen yet Sherlock has won a Grade Two and beat a very decent yardstick in Rathvinden.

A worry here is the quickening ground as Sherlock tends to save his best performances for Soft and Heavy but he should still be ok and his trainer thinks so too. Having only won a Grade Two I think his price might be a little short for what he has achieved, but the same can be almost certainly said for Faugheen so Red Sherlock should run well. There is improvement to come but for me he is best left for this race at 4/1.

Royal Boy is next up and he is perhaps the most intriguing runner in the race. Last year he was third to Melodic Rendezvous twice, the first time in a maiden but then the second in the Grade One Tolworth. That form has worked out to be pretty good but after the Tolworth his trainer, Nicky Henderson, put Royal Boy away for the season with the idea of going chasing this season. He was obviously bought as a chaser and connections do have high hopes for him, but after a very poor chase debut, behind the good prospect Baby Mix, Henderson switched him straight back to hurdles. This change has done Royal Boy the world of good, as he has excelled. He won his maiden hurdle comfortably by six lengths and he then went for another shot at the Tolworth, which he won from stablemate Josses Hill, who was second to Faugheen in that Punchestown bumper and now the bridesmaid in the Supreme Novices’ as well.

After the Tolworth win, Henderson said Royal Boy should definitely get and will be better over the 2m4f. This can only heighten his chances for the Neptune and he has been backed. His stamina shows he will get up the hill and as his rating is 149, it shows he has a live chance here. He is perhaps the under-appreciated horse in this race and he does have a strong chance but unfortunately, even at 11/2 I can’t back him. Faugheen has a stronger chance of the win and others do of a place.

Another runner who has a perhaps under-appreciated chance here is the Mullins second horse, Rathvinden. After winning his debut bumper by seven lengths for a different yard, he was bought for different connections and put straight into training with Willie Mullins. He then won his next start in a bumper by 12 lengths, before following up at Cork on his hurdles debut by 11 lengths. He was seen as a very good prospect and he was then sent over to our shores, to have a crack at the Tolworth. As that was abandoned, this led to him step up in distance in the Grade Two Leamington Novices’ Hurdle at Warwick. After jumping quite poorly, he fell at the third last fence while third and the race was won by Deputy Dan. Instead of going back to Ireland he stayed in Britain and was prepared for the Neptune Trial at Cheltenham, for which he was sent off favourite. He finished second to Red Sherlock that day but he was 3lbs higher than him and the ground suited Sherlock more.

On better terms in the Neptune, Rathvinden could easily reverse the form. Rathvinden doesn’t actually have an official rating but on his second to the 151 rated Red Sherlock, he has to be in the 140s. He was 16/1 in some places a week ago and he looked to be a very good each-way bet. Since then, after being tipped up in many a Cheltenham Preview Night, he has been vastly supported and is now as low as 5/1. He has lost all his value compared to the front two and he can’t be backed here, not at 7/1.

Lieutenant Colonel is the Gigginstown House entry for the Neptune and could be the underdog of the race. He won his Punchestown bumper in a determined fashion and on his hurdles debut, he was runner-up to Vautour, form which doesn’t look too bad after Vautour’s demolition job in the Supreme Novices’. Colonel won his next race in seriously good fashion, winning by 14 lengths at Fairyhouse. He then started favourite in the Listed Hurdle won by Wicklow Brave, which again isn’t bad form due to the third in that race, Reel Steel, winning a Grade Two next time. All his previous starts have been over two miles but trainer, Dessie Hughes, is sending him up in trip to go for it in the Neptune and based on Dessie’s record in the race, he should be respected.

Dessie trained Hardy Eustace to win the race in 2003 and he won the race twice as a jockey. Davy Russell and Bryan Cooper are also quite keen on this horse and the vibes from Ireland are quite strong. The step up in trip is sure to suit the horse due to his galloping and he might just have gone under the radar here. His price has been consistently shortening over the last week, coming in from 20/1 to as low as 10/1 in places. A few Cheltenham preview nights have brought this horse up as an outsider and although he is just that, he does have a chance and offers more value than the rest at 12/1.

Until last time Ballyalton was seen as a contender for this, as his form was working out really well, but he then flopped on horrible ground on New Year’s Day and he hasn’t been seen since. He has though been supported and is now 12/1. Fennell Bay has more racing experience than any of these, albeit not over hurdles, but he does love a battle and he was very impressive at Musselburgh last time out. He is 16/1 and shortening for this and although he’s a long shot, he is worth a watch due to the quickening ground. The same can be said for Cup Final. He was a huge price at 66/1 last week before Nicky Henderson confirmed him for this race but he has shortened to 20/1 and lower. Henderson seemed quietly keen on this horse’s chance of running well and due to his connections; he should be respected with AP on board.

Verdict
I can’t help but be a little bit taken by Faugheen’s performances so far this season, they have all been visually impressive. He has looked good, and I know he can only beat what has been put in front of him, but in all honestly, is his form really good enough to win a Neptune? He has been favourite for this race since the start of the season and apart from the fact that he is from the Mullins stable with powerful connections, I see no reason how he can be 5/2 favourite and attracting support. Yes he is likely to improve again, but as I said earlier, there are holes you can pick with him and I just can't back him at the prices here, regardless of the vibes from the Mullins stable. I have to say though, if you are going to back him, back him now because if Vautour or Champagne Fever win on Tuesday, he will probably go off a lot shorter than 5/2. Value is the reason I can't back Red Sherlock either and his form ahead of Rathvinden doesn't impress me, especially at the prices. Rathvinden being 7/1 and Red Sherlock 5/1 is about right and I can’t back either here. With the front four in the market being all 11/2 or lower, I’d rather side with the value here and that comes in the form of Lieutenant Colonel. Has attracted support during the last week and has contracted into 12/1 and lower in some places but that still offers a good each-way price. I am sure he will be shorter tomorrow as punters will be latching onto the lack of value in the market and they will want a victory for Dessie Hughes, as he deserves a victory after yesterday’s tragedy.

Each-way Lieutenant Colonel at 12/1

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