Wolfish delight as Neon is primed for Neptune challenge
Neptune Investment Management Novices' Hurdle | 2m5f | ITV/RUK
Ascot and Leopardstown are all very well but don't ignore the Cheltenham clues that come from lesser places - venues such as the small town of Ballyragget in County Kilkenny.
It may not have a huge population but it has a point-to-point course where Martello Tower made a successful debut for Mags Mullins in 2013 - two years before coming to the festival to land the Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle.
Now it's Neon Wolf's turn to put Ballyragget on the map as he won the same five-year-olds' maiden point-to-point for the same trainer three years later, and he is favourite to score his own Grade 1 Cheltenham success in the Neptune Investment Management Novices' Hurdle.
He was snapped up privately by Masterson Holdings after that debut victory and has made serene progress since, unbeaten in three races for Harry Fry.
Most recently, Neon Wolf was the hugely impressive winner of the Grade 2 Rossington Main Novices' Hurdle, and jockey Noel Fehily said: "I’ve been excited about Cheltenham ever since I got off him at Haydock."
Mags Mullins is a member of the training clan by marriage and Willie is the man to follow, having won this race a record four times, including twice in the last three years.
He showed his intention to make a bold bid once again by leaving no fewer than 20 horses in it at the six-day stage, and whittling that team down to four still leaves him with leading claims thanks to Bacardys.
Ruby Walsh's mount Bacardys warmed up in traditional fashion by landing the Deloitte Novice Hurdle at Leopardstown last month.
Third-placed Brelade renews rivalry but his trainer Gordon Elliott looks to have more obvious claims with Shattered Love, the only mare in the line-up, who was left clear by the fall of Mullins-trained Asthuria when scoring in Grade 3 company at Fairyhouse last month.
They fit the bill
This has been won by a six-year-old in five of the last six seasons - which points to the chances of leading fancies Neon Wolf and Bacardys, who are that age. Those two both started out in point-to-points, which was the background of five of the last seven winners.
Follow the market
This has not been a race for an upset in recent years. No winner has started at odds longer than 7-1 since Massini's Maguire scored at 20-1 ten years ago.
Bidding to go one better
Messire Des Obeaux took the Grade 1 Challow Hurdle at Newbury for Alan King, who went close with Yanworth in this race 12 months ago.
What they say:
Willie Mullins, trainer of Bacardys, Bon Papa, Kemboy and Livelovelaugh
I thought Bacardys was very good winning the Deloitte at Leopardstown last month and the way he won over 2m2f that day suggested the extra three furlongs here shouldn't pose a problem. He ran a blinder when a close third in the bumper at the meeting a year ago and we think he has improved since his Leopardstown win.
Bon Papa, Kemboy and Livelovelaugh go in the same race and of those three, Bon Papa is a horse we think has improved in recent weeks and we're expecting him to run a big race. Kemboy didn't jump that well when second to Let's Dance at Leopardstown in January. He'll be going a bit further here and that might see his jumping improve, while we decided to run Livelovelaugh in this race rather than wait for the Albert Bartlett later in the week. We thought that this trip with a good pace might suit him better.
Gordon Elliott, trainer of Brelade and Shattered Love
Both are in good shape and should appreciate the step up in trip. Brelade has good placed form in Grade 1s. Shattered Love has done very well this season and has the mares' allowance, which should be a big help.
Nicky Henderson, trainer of Burbank and Consul De Thaix
Burbank has done nothing wrong and the extra trip will help him. We've switched Consul from the Coral Cup to the Neptune as he's still novice. He's in good form.
Warren Greatrex, trainer of Keeper Hill
He has done everything right and the race should suit him. He won't mind the ground and I can't wait to run him.
Alan King, trainer of Messire Des Obeaux
I'm really pleased with him, his run at Huntingdon has brought him on beautifully and he's working very well. Obviously Neon Wolf looks very exciting and there are other good horses in there, but I think he'll run very well.
Noel Fehily, rider of Neon Wolf
I can't wait to get back on him. The ground will be perfect and I am really looking forward to it.
Graeme McPherson, trainer of Skipthecuddles
He ran a good race first time over hurdles behind Keeper Hill at Hereford, then he won impressively at Wetherby. He is still learning what racing is all about and he should run well at a big price.
Ben Pauling, trainer of Willoughby Court
I am very excited about running him, he's in great form. He is as well as I could have him and he should make a bold bid. In my opinion his form is as good as any other's in the race.