Cheltenham is set to host some outstanding championship contests for novice hurdlers at The Festival in 2012 after entries were revealed for the William Hill Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, the Neptune Investment Management Novices’ Hurdle, the JCB Triumph Hurdle and the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle.
The Grade One William Hill Supreme Novices’ Hurdle gets The Festival underway on Champion Day, Tuesday, 13 March and a bumper entry of 91 for the extended two-mile contest (five more than in 2011) includes the Jessica Harrington-trained Steps To Freedom. The six-year-old has posted three wins from as many starts over the smaller obstacles, including a game neck success over Prospect Wells in the Grade Two Opus Energy Novices’ Hurdle at The Open in November.
A potential Irish challenge of 31 also includes Midnight Game, one of nine entries from the stable of Willie Mullins, and the Dermot Weld-trained Galileo’s Choice, while the home bid may be headed by Simonsig, Darlan and Grade One winner Captain Conan, who all represent Nicky Henderson, plus the Donald McCain-trained Cinders And Ashes.
Sheikh Fahad Al Thani has become one of Flat racing’s leading investors over the past two years and his Pearl Bloodstock silks have been carried to top-level success by Lightening Pearl and Dunaden, who captured both the Melbourne Cup and the Hong Kong Vase at the end of 2011. The young Qatari royal is due to have his first runner at Cheltenham with Vulcanite, who posted an impressive victory in a Southwell novices’ hurdle on 18 January and is on course for a crack at the William Hill Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.
The five-year-old’s trainer Charlie Longsdon revealed: “Vulcanite is a likely runner in the William Hill Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at this stage. He has been in good form since Southwell, and I plan to give him one more run either at Newbury (11 February) or Sandown (17 February) before Cheltenham. I would like to get another run into him just to give him some more experience and to sharpen him up, but obviously if the weather is not great then we won’t go anywhere.
“His victory at Southwell was only a schooling round and he won as he liked, which he had to that day to be honest. His first run at Kempton (second, 26 December) was good form behind Tetlami. We were very green that day and we threw our race away over the first two hurdles, but he pulled well clear of the rest so you couldn’t knock his attitude.
“I would like to think the more experience he gets the less keen he will be in his races. To be honest, I would not want the ground too quick at Cheltenham because he is quite upright, but it is always on the easy side of good on the first day at Cheltenham so I am sure that it will be fine.
“Sheikh Fahad is very keen on going to Cheltenham and that is reason behind having this horse as a jumper. He will not be investing in the Jump game as he did on the Flat, but if this horse is a success he might have a few more, but if not then he probably won’t have any more, so it is quite important for us that we do a good job with Vulcanite.”
The Grade One Neptune Investment Management Novices’ Hurdle, one of the highlights of Ladies' Day, Wednesday, 14 March, has received 118 entries (22 more than in 2011). Fingal Bay looks set to be one of the leading contenders for the two mile, five furlong Grade One following a faultless start to his hurdling career for trainer Philip Hobbs that included victory in the Grade One Challow Novices’ Hurdle at Newbury on his latest start on 31 December. Other notable contenders include Boston Bob, who boasts Grade One-winning form for Willie Mullins, who has entered 17, and the Noel Meade-trained Monksland.
Gold Cup Day, Friday, 16 March, kicks off with the Grade One JCB Triumph Hurdle over two miles and a furlong. An entry of 77 for this year’s race includes Grumeti and Pearl Swan, who fought out the finish to the Grade Two JCB Triumph Hurdle on Festival Trials Day. Sadler’s Risk and Dildar have both recorded impressive debut wins, while emphatic Irish Cesarewitch scorer Minsk is near to the top of bookmakers’ ante-post lists despite not having jumped a hurdle in public.
Also taking place on Gold Cup Day is the Grade One Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle over three miles. An entry of 95 includes Fingal Bay and Boston Bob as well as the Gordon Elliott-trained Mount Benbulben.