On the outside, it looks like an anomaly within racing. While the common practice sees Derby prospects starting out over as short as six furlongs, or would-be Gold Cup winners aimed at the Arkle in their novice season over fences, so many horses seem to buck the trend of going up in trip through their careers by becoming top-class two-milers after running in the Baring Bingham (Royal & SunAlliance, Ballymore Properties, Neptune Investments etc.) Novices' Hurdle. Recent Champion Hurdle heroes Istabraq, Hardy Eustace and Rock On Ruby all ran in the Neptune as novices, while Peddlers Cross, runner-up to Hurricane Fly in the 2011 Champion, had won the first renewal of the race in its current incarnation the year before. There's also Simonsig, winner of the Neptune last year and hot favourite for the Arkle this March.
As you might have guessed, like so many 'trends' in racing this correlation doesn't really stand up to closer scrutiny. Rock On Ruby was short-headed in the Neptune by present-day Gold Cup contender First Lieutenant, Peddlers Cross beat current World Hurdle second-favourite Reve de Sivola into the runner-up spot, while this century alone Tidal Bay and Denman have both finished second in the race and subsequent Grand National winners Comply Or Die and Bindaree have managed fourth.
Does this help us in any way when looking towards this year's renewal of the Neptune? A little, in so much that it tells us that neither speedster nor out-and-out galloper is heavily favoured. What looks to be more pertinent, as Timeform ratings of recent winners would imply, is quality: at the 12 Festivals so far this century, the Neptune winner has achieved a higher Timeform figure than the Supreme winner on nine occasions, and a superior one to the Spa winner five times in the eight years that race has been in existence.
All of which brings us to the three main British-trained challengers for this year's Neptune: The New One, Puffin Billy and At Fishers Cross. Of the three, it's only The New One who seems to have this race fairly well set as his target; Puffin Billy's connections are currently toying with the idea of sticking to the two miles of the Supreme, while indications are that At Fishers Cross is more likely to run in the Spa (which, in lieu of a full preview on the race, I shall tell you he'd quite possibly win). As we now know, should all three run neither Puffin Billy's speed nor At Fishers Cross' stamina would really matter beyond tactical considerations, so we 'simply' have to decide which has the greatest potential.
Potential is certainly hard to gauge where Puffin Billy is concerned, assuming that 'loads' isn't a satisfactory answer. He simply hasn't been extended in winning all four of his starts so far, two in bumpers and two over hurdles. His latest win came in a Grade 2 at Ascot, which took a fairly substantial level of form that was nonetheless drowned out by the sheer manner of victory, both his travelling and jumping marking him out as already sufficiently equipped for the rigours of a Festival novice. The question- one we can't currently answer- is which one?
We have a slightly better handle on The New One and At Fishers Cross, at least relevant to each other. The pair met on Trials Day at Cheltenham, over an approximate C&D to the Neptune, with At Fishers Cross getting up late in the day to score by a neck.
Case closed? Probably not. It was something of a muddling race in testing conditions and once The New One was sent on after two out it initially looked as though he had the race won. It was probably a combination of that relatively early move and At Fishers Cross' greater stamina that proved decisive on the day, and it's not difficult to imagine that a race run at a more even gallop on better ground could bring about a different result. Incidentally, if you're looking to give some credibility to the result, you need go no further than third-placed Coneygree, a previously unbeaten hurdler and dual Grade 2 winner who was left 12 lengths behind The New One despite being firmly in touch turning in.
The Irish contingent in this year's Neptune looks nearly as strong as what the home team can muster, while there doesn't seem to be the same uncertainty over their targets. Current favourite for the race is the Willie Mullins-trained Pont Alexandre, who could barely have created a better impression on his two starts for current connections. On his debut he rather burst the bubble of top-notch bumper performer Don Cossack before putting up another dominant front-running display at Leopardstown recently, pummelling the likes of Sizing Gold and dual Grade 3 winner Our Vinnie into the ground. Indeed, it's the ground that's the only real question mark over Pont Alexandre, his best form so far on heavy, but he'll surely set the standard if able to transfer his form to less testing conditions.
Other prominent Irish challengers include the aforementioned Don Cossack as well as Rule The World and Champagne Fever. The last-named, winner of the Champion Bumper last season, has it all to prove following a couple of flops over hurdles, most recently when a distant third to Rule The World at Naas. The winner of that race has been most progressive throughout his four-race hurdling career, beaten only once along the way, by a head against the more experienced Our Vinnie. Ultimately, Rule The World will likely be a three-miler, but he evidently has the speed to mix it with top novices over shorter.
It was never going to be easy to pick one this far in advance for the Neptune and there's every chance it'll be no easier on the day. The best form appears to belong to Pont Alexandre, though boasting the most solid overall profile is The New One. Nigel Twiston-Davies' new stable star might have lost his unbeaten record over hurdles on Trials Day, but time will more than likely show that to be no disgrace given how strong At Fishers Cross' previous form is and how far that one looks set to go. Furthermore, in the cold light of day you could easily argue that The New One shaped the better of the pair, if anything slightly enhancing his already stellar reputation. He's demonstrated course form, suitability to most surfaces, slick jumping and smooth travelling, but perhaps most notable of all, The New One has the inherent quality required to win what's so often the Festival's most competitive novice.
Back The New One @ 5.69/2 in the Neptune Investments Novices' Hurdle