The Supreme Novices' Hurdle is shaping up into a fantastic first race of the Cheltenham Festival and a wide-open one at that.
With Simonsig heading for the Neptune Novices', bookmakers have been quick to promote his stablemate Darlan to the head of the market, with 6/1 the best on offer at the time of writing. A winner of his first three hurdle starts this season, including here in December by a nose from High Storm (has let the form down since), he looked set to take a hand in the finish of the ultra-competitive (albeit slowly run) Betfair Hurdle last time out only to take a crashing fall two out. If none the worse for that tumble, he must go well.
Best of the Irish?
Steps To Freedom, who was made favourite for this after winning at the course in November and has been waiting for better ground since, carries plenty of stable confidence. However, he might not be the shortest priced Irish raider on the day as there has been plenty of money around for ex-classy flat performers Galileo's Choice and Midnight Game. The latter's defeat of solid yardstick Dylan Ross at Naas in January is just about the best form on offer and he's expected to improve for better ground at Cheltenham.
Who's the likely winner?
Alan King has his horses in great form coming into the meeting and his MONTBAZON looks to have as good a chance as anything in an open heat. He was a classy bumper horse last season, finishing second to Steps To Freedom in a Grade 2 event at Aintree, and is getting better over hurdles. After going down by a length to Colour Squadron on his debut at Newbury, he had no trouble in justifying odds of 1/10 at Plumpton on his next start and made the most of Colour Squadron's fall when beating Vulcanite last time. He's got to improve again but King is anticipating just that and he won't mind good ground.
Coral are going a stingy 7/1 so let's grab some of the 12/1 on offer, who will refund my stake if he finishes second (see below). However, I will be having a bit more on in running as he gives the impression he needs plenty of stoking by his jockey and might well be trading at bigger odds at some stage.
Charlie Longsdon has always had a high opinion of Vulcanite and he might be better than he showed at Newbury last time as the stable's horses were under a cloud at the time. Whether he will cope with good ground as well as Montbazon is open to question, though.
The forgotten horse in the race is Prospect Wells, who has form with Steps To Freedom and has had a breathing operation since disappointing in the Tolworth Hurdle. His trainer Paul Nicholls has a good record in the race, having won it with Al Ferof and Noland in recent years, and he could make the frame at a price.
Darlan has beaten nothing in his three hurdle wins and although he won the last of these at Taunton on the bridle, I'm not convinced he had that much left in the locker. A strong travelling sort, he might not find as much as expected in the finish, so get ready to lay him late on in running at short odds.