The action at Newbury takes centre stage this Saturday and there is plenty to get excited about, with the Betfair Hurdle being the main event of the day.
A race as deep and competitive as this can be approached from any number of angles, but the one that is intriguing me the most is that of Irish-trained runners. Given the success that they have enjoyed in handicap hurdles at the Cheltenham Festival this century, one might have expected that Irish-trained runners would fare well in a race like this. However, that hasn't been the case with only Spirit Leader (2003) and Essex (2005) winning the race for Ireland since 2000.
The reason for this is likely to be a simple one. If an Irish trainer has a horse that they think could be suited to a race like this, they are likely to wait for the Cheltenham Festival in just over four weeks' time. This is illustrated by the fact that a total of just 17 Irish-trained runners have run in this race in the last 10 renewals.
Can Ciel De Neige get Mullins off the mark?
Willie Mullins was responsible for 10 of those 17 runners and while he has yet to win the race, Bleu Et Rouge finished second for him in the 2018 renewal. This year will see him bring over a fascinating contender in the shape of Ciel De Neige that will seek to get Mullins off the mark in the race.
The five-year-old remains a maiden after six starts over hurdles, three of which came in his native France. However, there is much more to the story than those bare facts. His first start for Mullins (pictured below) came in the Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival last March and having been well backed on the day, he finished an excellent third despite enduring a wide passage. Absent until December, he caught the eye when finishing fourth in valuable handicap hurdle at Fairyhouse in December, finishing off well from the rear despite his rider dropping his whip.
From there, Ciel De Neige went to Limerick's Christmas meeting for a maiden hurdle and while he was beaten at 1/4, he was quite literally one of the unluckiest losers one will ever see. Having been shut into a pocket from before the second-last hurdle when travelling very well, he made a mistake at that flight that put him on the back foot. He flew home up the short run-in, but came up a head short of Argumental. It was a painful watch for anyone that had rowed in with him at the short odds.
The British handicapper has been unusually kind to Ciel De Niege, with his British mark of 135 being identical to his current mark in Ireland. A well-run handicap hurdle such as this promises to show him to best effect and, while he may be suited by a longer trip in due course, he has shown enough over the minimum trip to suggest he can be very competitive in this race. It is surprising to see him available at as big as 14/1 and market support for him on the day would be encouraging.
Chantry House worth a close look
The opening Set Your Own Odds On Betfair Exchange Novices' Hurdle is one that should be watched closely, with the Nicky Henderson-trained Chantry House being the most exciting of the likely runners. While the six-year-old is a general 10/1 shot for the Supreme Novices' Hurdle, he hasn't attracted much in the way of coverage in recent weeks, but that could all change after Saturday.
The son of Yeats has looked very promising from the outset. He was in front and travelling as well as anything when unseating his rider in a point-to-point at Stowlin in April 2018 that was won by Monkfish with Opposites Attract, Fury Road and Fiddlerontheroof in behind.
He wasn't seen again until the following December, but he made no mistake at the second time of asking, winning a point-to-point at Tattersalls Farm. Five days later he travelled to Cheltenham where he sold for £295,000 to JP McManus and was switched to Henderson (pictured above).
Henderson very much took time and care with Chantry House, twice pulling him out of his intended debut in bumpers due to the ground being firmer than ideal. When he finally did make his debut in a bumper at Warwick in March he created a very good impression in beating what has turned out to be a smart novice hurdler in Edwardstone by three-and-a-half lengths.
Put away for the rest of the season after that, Chantry House made his seasonal and hurdling debut in a novice event at Cheltenham last December. Sent off at 5/6, he again looked an exciting prospect in victory. Despite being unsuited by what was a notably steadily-run race, he jumped well in the main and having been caught a shade flatfooted after the second-last hurdle, he powered home to win with authority.
Henderson has again opted to give Chantry House plenty of time since that win. It seems that he is very much considered a staying chaser in the making that will benefit from being looked after in the relatively early stages of his career. Thus, if he was to win in good style at Newbury on Saturday, it would be advised to wait and hear what Henderson has to say regarding Cheltenham Festival targets, as it wouldn't be a total shock if he chooses to skip Cheltenham with him this year.
Whether or not Chantry House establishes himself as a Cheltenham Festival contender on Saturday, he is very much worth keeping an eye on as he could well develop in a top-class chaser in the coming seasons.