The start of the Cheltenham Festival is less than nine weeks away, but one gets the impression that there are still significant hands to be played in the novice hurdle divisions. While the Dublin Racing Festival is an obvious potential venue for serious contenders to stake their claims, the Moscow Flyer Novice Hurdle at Punchestown this Sunday could well see some significant action that has implications for the Festival.
It is a race that has an impressive list of recent winners that includes subsequent Cheltenham Festival winners Douvan, Vautour and Mikael D'Haguenet. While all of those were very much considered big Cheltenham Festival contenders before they ran in the Moscow Flyer, this year's renewal has the potential to unveil some darker contenders for the Festival.
Elliott has fascinating contenders for Supreme Novives' Hurdle
Gordon Elliott has a very strong hand at the entry stage and the one the eye is immediately drawn to is the current favourite for the Supreme Novices' Hurdle Abacadabras. However, Elliott was quoted yesterday as saying that he is much more likely to be represented by Andy Dufresne and Easywork. Both are fascinating potential contenders, but it is Andy Dufresne that is of most interest to me.
The son of Doyen had only made it to the track once in each of the previous two seasons, but he had created such an impression in winning a point-to-point at Borris House (subsequently sold for £330,000) and a bumper at Down Royal that he came into this season as one of the more high-profile prospects for novice hurdles.
Given the pace Andy Dufresne had shown when winning his bumper, it was a slight surprise to see Elliott start him off over hurdles over a trip of two-and-a-half miles in a maiden hurdle at Navan. The trip certainly proved to be no impediment to him that day, with him eventually prevailing by 11 lengths with subsequent maiden hurdle winners Cobbler's Way and Alpine Cobra back in second and third.
What was particularly impressive about his performance that day was his jumping. Without fear of exaggeration, he put in as slick a round of jumping as one will ever see a hurdling debutant produce. It was his jumping that led to him taking up the running as early as the third hurdle and he bossed the race from there. While stamina wasn't an issue on the day, the power with which he travelled and the slickness of his jumping strongly suggested that he'd be well able to drop in trip if needed.
With Envoi Allen (pictured above) and Abacadabras representing Elliott in the Royal Bond, Andy Dufresne was kept to a mid-range trip for his next start in the Navan Novice Hurdle. While he was sent off at 1/3, it was the Paul Nolan-trained Latest Exhibition that got the better of him by 2½ lengths. Andy Dufresne must have felt like he was back in solitary confinement in the aftermath of the race, as many of his supporters seemed to immediately desert him as a Cheltenham Festival prospect.
However, I find it easy to forgive him for the defeat on a number of fronts. Firstly, I'm not so sure making the running suits him all that well. He ended up making the running in both his starts because his jumping took him to the front on his hurdling debut and nothing else wanted to go on in the Navan Novice Hurdle. To me, the manner in which he carried himself and behaved whilst in front suggested he would be happier following a solid pace.
Secondly, I strongly suspect two miles will suit him better than two-and-a-half miles. He has taken a fair grip in all his races and the manner in which he got quite strong with Mark Walsh in the middle section of the Navan Novice Hurdle very much suggests to me that his cruising speed will be better suited by a stronger pace at a shorter trip. Finally, the manner in which he hung left in the closing stages raises the possibility that he might have been feeling something on the day.
All told, immediately after the Navan Novice Hurdle the only thought in my mind for Andy Dufresne was the possibility of him dropping back to two miles and potentially bouncing back to become a Supreme Novices' Hurdle contender. I was surprised to see 25/1 available about him for that race at that stage, so I am very surprised that it is still available even after Envoi Allen has seemingly had his attentions switched to the Ballymore Novices' Hurdle. With the Supreme Novices' Hurdle not looking to be a particularly deep race at this stage, it is worth taking a chance on Andy Dufresne for it at 25/1.
I might well be reading him wrong and the bubble could be quickly burst on Sunday, but the significantly sharper test that two miles around Punchestown represents compared to two-and-a-half miles at Navan should give a clear answer to the thought that he will be a better horse over the minimum trip.
All being well, Andy Dufresne will get busy living at Punchestown on Sunday and revive his Cheltenham Festival dreams. If he was to win well on Sunday, he would very much be a live one for the second Tuesday in March.