The appeal of the 2021 Cheltenham Festival appears undiminished despite the various strands of uncertainty hovering over the event, with huge entries revealed for the novice hurdles on Wednesday.
A massive 120 horses have been entered for the Ballymore Novices' Hurdle, 96 for the Sky Bet Supreme Novices' that opens the meeting, 74 for the three-mile Albert Bartlett Hurdle and 54 for the juvenile hurdling championship, the JCB Triumph Hurdle.
Given the potential of additional complications for Irish travellers, it is a sign of the ever-growing power of Irish jumps racing that 59 of the 96 entries for the Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle are trained there.
The contingent is headed by hot ante-post favourite Appreciate It, trained by Willie Mullins and the winner of the Weatherbys Champion Bumper at the meeting last year. He has looked hugely talented when landing both his starts over hurdles this season, most recently sauntering to a nine-length victory in a Grade One contest at Leopardstown last month.
The sponsors' 7/1 second favourite is Metier, trained by Harry Fry. Five-year-old Metier has been a revelation since joining Fry, taking novices’ hurdles at Newton Abbot and Ascot before recording a breath-taking 12-length victory in the Unibet Tolworth Hurdle at Sandown Park on January 2.
Metier takes the Tolworth Hurdle under Sean Bowen
Giving an update on the son of Mastercraftsman, Fry reported: “Metier is a Tolworth winner and the Supreme is the much more likely of the two races [Metier is also entered in the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle] but we will just keep our options open at this stage.
“He has got an entry in the Betfair Hurdle at Newbury in just over a fortnight’s time but there is no definite decision yet. He has done everything right so far over hurdles and he is a very exciting novice that seems to be progressing into either Supreme or a Ballymore horse.
“There is a race at Exeter the day after in which he would only have a 5lb penalty but then if you are looking at that why not run in a Betfair?
“I would say that if he doesn’t run in the Betfair, he would go straight to Cheltenham though you can never say never.
“If the weather keeps as it is there is every chance he will line up in the Betfair Hurdle. I think a better race with an even stronger gallop will suit him better again. We were able to drop him in the last day in the Tolworth, but we would have still been happier if they had gone faster.
“Sean [Bowen] turned in with a double handful and he put plenty of distance between himself and his rivals, particularly after the last. Not many came up the hill that day in the manner he did. He has only just turned five so hopefully there is more to come.
“All his form is on slower ground and it would be interesting to see him on better ground. At some point, we will encounter it but good horses go on all ground.
“We would have to weigh up and decide the pros and cons whether going on better ground means we would have to step him up in trip.”
Fry has also entered Boothill in both the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle. The six-year-old landed a bumper at Kempton Park in February of 2020 and could not have been more impressive on his hurdling debut when scoring by nine and a half lengths at Taunton on 10 December.
The trainer continued: “Boothill had a splint flare up about 10 days after he won at Taunton and that just held us up for a few weeks. I had hoped to get him back for the Sidney Banks at Huntingdon but that is just going to come too soon. He could end up going to the Dovecote at the end of February. In the worst-case scenario, he might even end up going straight to Cheltenham but I would like to get another run into him between now and then but we will be guided by him.
“We are back pressing on again with him. Hopefully, we don’t get a recurrence of the splint injury and get a clear run with him. Certainly, on the manner of his debut win at Taunton, there looks to be lots to look forward to.
“Boothill and Metier are completely different types. Metier is an ex-Flat horse that is very workmanlike at home and is very much a hurdler whereas Boothill is a proper chasing type who impresses in everything he does at home.”
Envoi Allen takes the 2020 renewal of the Ballymore Novices' Hurdle
The Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle, held over two miles and five furlongs, is the opening contest on day two of The Festival, Wednesday March 17.
St Patrick’s Day falls on March 17 this year and there is a good chance of Irish-trained success with 65 of the 120 entries hailing from Ireland.
Currently disputing favouritism are Bob Olinger, trained by Henry de Bromhead, and the Paul Nicholls-trained Bravemansgame.
Bravemansgame was compared to the mighty Denman by Nicholls following his success last time out in the Challow Hurdle at Newbury, his third win from four starts over hurdles. Bob Olinger is also a previous Grade One winner, recording a very comfortable victory in the Lawlor's Of Naas Novice Hurdle on January 13.
Willoughby Court landed the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle for Ben Pauling in 2017 and the trainer looks to have another live contender in 2021 with Optimise Prime. The five-year-old caused a 50/1 upset when winning on his hurdling debut at Hereford in November but proved that was no fluke when following up with a smooth victory at the same venue in December.
Bourton-on-the-Water based Pauling reported: “Optimise Prime is in great order.
“He is entered at Cheltenham on Saturday. If he doesn’t run there because the ground is terrible, he would probably wait for the Sidney Banks at Huntingdon.
“He is a lovely horse that has done nothing wrong in winning a couple of races at Hereford, which will hopefully work out okay, but he has got to prove he can do it at the next level now.
“I took him out of the Leamington at Warwick as it was bottomless ground and I wasn’t overly fussed about missing it as we always knew that his next race would be his prep for the Cheltenham Festival, where we plan to go for the Ballymore.”
The longest of the G1 novices’ hurdles at The Festival™, the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle takes place over three miles on the final of the day meeting, March 19.
There are 74 entries for the race, with 39 hailing from Ireland.
Prominent in the very open betting market are Stattler (Willie Mullins), impressive when scoring in a maiden hurdle at Leopardstown last month, and Barbados Buck’s (Paul Nicholls).
Out of a half-sister to the mighty Big Buck’s, four-time winner of what is now the Paddy Power Stayers’ Hurdle, Barbados Buck’s has looked good in winning three of his four starts this season, following up a pair of Southwell successes with victory at Kempton Park on 9 January.
Four-year-old Duffle Coat also takes eye among the entries, getting a 9lb age allowance from his older rivals.
The JCB Triumph Hurdle gets day four of The Festival underway and there are 54 four-year-olds entered for the extended two-mile contest this year, headed by unbeaten favourite Zanahiyr.
A winner of all three of his starts over hurdles, he was last seen out when scoring very easily in the Knight Frank Juvenile Hurdle at Leopardstown, often an important stepping stone to the Triumph,
Three fillies have triumphed in the race previously – Shawiya (1993), Mysilv (1994) and Snow Drop (2000). Trainer Harry Fry is hoping he could add to that list with Fortunes Melody. A Listed winner at Auteuil in September, she placed on her next three starts in Graded company for her former trainer David Cottin. She has yet to start for Fry.
Fry said: “Fortunes Melody has some very good form in France and is the second highest-rated juvenile filly there. We are very excited and grateful for her owners Simon Munir and Isaac Souede for giving us the opportunity to train her.
“She has been with us since the turn of the year but has been in England since the start of December. She spent some time with Sally Taylor who does a lot of the pre-training for the owners, so she has had the chance to settle and acclimatise there.
“We are learning about her all the time but hopefully she will be ready to run in the next couple of weeks. We have given her the Triumph Hurdle entry as an option. We need to run her first to see what we have got.
“There is some good form in the book already though as she is a winner of a Listed hurdle in France.”
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