While many punters at Cheltenham Festival will be concentrating on the big four feature races of the week, the novice races are where we will find the stars of tomorrow battling it out. Whether it is novice hurdlers having their first steps into racing at a big meeting, or potential Gold Cup horses of the future in the novice chase events, there is plenty to get excited about with these races.
The Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle at the festival is one of the newer races on the card, and we have only seen three editions so far. However, every single one of them has been won by a top class mare, and all three winners so far have been trained by Willie Mullins.
Looking at the way the race is shaping up so far, it looks as though the dominance of Mullins could be over, and the title could be heading to the UK. The two favourites in the race are trained by Nicky Henderson and Paul Nicholls, both based in the UK, with the Henderson trained Epatante looking as though she could be a bit special based on what we have seen from her so far during her two races in Britain.
Last year we saw Laurina win the race, and she is now heading to the Champion Hurdle this year, which shows the kind of quality that can come out of this race, even though it is relatively new. If we get a winner half as good as her this season, then we are certainly on to a good one. She turned the race into a bit of a procession last year, and was well ahead of her rivals.
Those who spoke negatively about the mares’ hurdle race when it came out will look at the result last year and say that we do not have the strength in depth to have a race like this at the festival. However, it seems more likely that the case is that we just saw something very special from the winner last year.
The horse that has been spoken about for a long time in the build-up to this race is trained in the UK by Nicky Henderson, and she is called Epatante. She would be breaking the Mullins stranglehold on the race by winning it this year, but there is no doubt that she has the talent to go close.
After winning at Exeter on her second start for Nicky Henderson, she went two out of two over hurdles, and punters certainly took note of her performance. After that race, Oddschecker reported that she had been backed into joint-favourite for the race at the festival, with plenty of people taking the available prices on her.
That was last month, and since then, we have heard the news that fellow joint-favourite Honeysuckle would not make the race due to an injury setback. That has given Epatante an even better chance of taking the prize, and more punters have put their faith in her and backed her for success on the back of that news. She is now down to as low as 6/4 in most places, and with the race continuing to cut up, she is becoming one of the Nicky Henderson bankers of the meeting for some punters.
Cheltenham Weather to Turn the Ground Soft for Festival
Something that a few trainers are concerned about at Cheltenham Festival is how the ground will be. There has been rain in the area, and this is forecast to continue both before and during the festival. That means we are very likely to start with ground described as good to soft, and that is likely to turn soft as the days progress and the ground has both racing and rain to deal with.
While Nicky Henderson may have concerns over the ground for some of his other stable stars, he certainly won’t mind any rain falling for Epatante. She has won on good and good to soft ground on her two starts in the UK, but if you look back to her days racing in France, the ground was a lot tougher for her.
She was beaten on her debut on good to soft ground, but won two races after that to take her French record to two wins from three races. Those two wins came on ground described as very soft and heavy, which means she should have no trouble handling the underfoot conditions at Cheltenham, even if we get more rain than we are expecting.
While the rain would be a positive for Epatante, one horse who wouldn’t want too much precipitation before the race is the current second favourite, Posh Trish. She certainly has the experience edge of Epatante, with 10 races under rules so far; five over hurdles this season and five in National Hunt flat races last season. She won a weak race on soft ground this season, but the rest of her wins have come on good or good to soft ground, which she appears to be better on. When tried at the top level on soft ground last season in a Grade Two National Hunt flat race at Aintree she struggled and finished in midfield, when she was expected to do a lot better.
No Strong Challenge from Willie Mullins
Despite winning the first three runnings of this race, it appears that Willie Mullins does not have a strong contender this season. The one most likely to cause any problems to Epatante from his yard appears to be Sancta Simona, although she is a double-figure price as we go into the race.
She has won two of her three starts so far over hurdles, including a Grade Three success, and was only beaten last time out when stepping up into Grade One company for the first time. That was in open company and there is no doubt that she will be more at home and have a better chance dropping back into a mares’ race here, but she still looks some way off the favourite, and some way off the standard that Mullins has sent before.
He could have further runners in the race, with multiple other horses entered up as potential runners, but none of those are anything other than outsiders who would have a small chance if the favourites did not run their races. This looks as though it will be a year when the maestro from Closutton doesn’t take home the mares’ novice title.