Decisions define the start of every year. We opt for a dry January. We tend to try to kick some nasty habits and gyms are full of hopeful souls promising that this is the year they get that chiseled beach body.
Sticking to these vows is usually where we all come unstuck, but many of the protagonists in National Hunt racing are facing huge decisions that will define their whole season.
I find this aspect of horse racing the most fascinating. I will never stop being incredibly intrigued by how a decision a jockey makes mid race can alter a whole result, and how a trainer nurtures a young horse for so long and then must pick their optimum trip based on the limited racecourse evidence available to them.
There is so much that can go wrong in these moments for everyone concerned. Nothing magnifies this more than the Novice Hurdle division at the 2022 Cheltenham Festival.
Everyone in a yard brings a few young horses along in the hope that one is special. For two to come along over the same trip seems almost cruel considering how much work, and luck, is involved.
Trainers, owners, and us punters have just under eight weeks to try to decipher these puzzles.
Cheltenham is a cruel place at times and can even cause seemingly logical decisions to blow up in your face. Just ask AP McCoy, who in 2014 opted for My Tent Or Yours in the Champion Hurdle and At Fishers Cross in the Stayers Hurdle, only for the two horses he turned down, Jezki and More Of That, to win those respective races under super-sub Barry Geraghty.
Govinda once said that “All of us start from zero until we take the right decision and become a hero.” This is scarily true at Cheltenham.
Nicky Henderson has an incredibly tough call to make. Constitution Hill and Jonbon have been flawless thus far and crucially both look out and out two-milers. Nicky will do what is right by his horses, as he has shown in the past when allowing Buveur D’air and Altior to lock horns, as well as Sprinter Sacre and Spirit Son.
We will learn more about Jonbon on Saturday, but he does look the one who needs to stay over the minimum.
Willie Mullins will have to make his festival plans later than ever with the dry winter ground in Ireland delaying his team’s preparations. Dysart Dynamo was nearly flawless at Punchestown, and while financially I would prefer him to go for the Ballymore, that performance did scream out that he is a Supreme horse. Sir Gerhard will look to stake his claim at the Dublin Racing Festival, where it is also more than possible that the smart El Fabiolo may put his hand up too. Splitting these three may be problematic.
Gordon Elliott and the Moran’s must decide where to send Hollow Games and Ginto, with Mighty Potter from the same yard needing a target as well.
Robcour, who are going from strength to strength, will have to decide where the impressive Leopardstown winner Journey With Me goes, along with Gerri Colombe who was very taking at Down Royal on the 26th of December.
Even Gavin Cromwell must decide whether to follow through on his thought process that his novice My Mate Mozzie may be better off running in a Champion Hurdle. This assertion alone from as shrewd an operator as Cromwell shows us how stacked the novice hurdlers are this season.
Novice Hurdle Bingo
I will give this game a go and try to decipher where I think they will all go at Prestbury Park. Of course, I am more likely to be wrong than right, but where is the fun in not trying? I think Jonbon, Constitution Hill, Dysart Dynamo, El Fabiolo and Mighty Potter will face off in the Supreme.
Jonbon’s exuberance means there would have to be a fear that he could boil over in the Ballymore, and his pace will be vital in a race like the Supreme. I do think that Nicky Henderson will opt for this race also with Constitution Hill who would be suited to a test like this.
Unless he shows he is maturing on Saturday, I would worry about Jonbon doing a bit too much in a Supreme at this juncture and I would hold serious experience doubts over Constitution Hill. I actually think the latter won a good Tolworth, the horse in second, Jetoile, is my idea of the 2022 Betfair Hurdle Winner, but Constitution Hill hasn’t faced into a proper battle yet. We just do not know how he will react when asked to fight off another talented challenger.
Nicky Henderson brings his novices along slowly and only the incredibly special ones win a novice hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival. This is shown by the fact that only four of his novices have managed this in 20 years, with some exceptionally good horses like Sprinter Sacre not getting the job done.
In 2011, I firmly believe Spirit Son would have won had he a bit more experience, as he wandered late when the more battle-hardened Al Ferof ran straight to the line.
Saying this, experience is not a concern of mine for Jonbon, he will have done plenty assuming he runs on Saturday at Haydock. Both look special horses for the future, and could well buck the trend, but at the odds I am happy to avoid them.
Dysart Dynamo has looked exceptional and very mature in his runs, and as mentioned on the #racehour podcast earlier this season several times I am on him for the Ballymore, and to an unfortunately lesser degree the Supreme at bigger odds. He should be very well suited to Cheltenham and his temperament looked very assured last time. While the form is questionable, Paul Townend’s clear excitement post-race was the most noteworthy aspect of it all. Of the three favourites, he would the one I would be most keen on, but at the odds now I am not sure how interested I would be.
El Fabiolo needs to take a big step forward at the Dublin Racing Festival to be involved in this discussion, but Mighty Potter is definitely overpriced at 14/1 with FansBet. He has crucial experience in two Grade One affairs where he has faced, and learned from, genuine adversity. The performance at Christmas was excellent considering everything that went wrong. He screams to me as a horse who is learning on the job and if Dysart Dynamo and Jonbon go at each other at the front end early, he could come late to take this contest. He looks the type to vastly improve for a strong pace and he should definitely get this.
Basically, I am not sure how much there is between Dysart Dynamo, Constitution Hill and Jonbon, so I may avoid them and opt for the gritty Mighty Potter to cause a mini surprise in the 2022 Supreme Novices Hurdle.
If it were up to me the Ballymore would see Sir Gerhard, Journey With Me, Stage Star and Ginto face off.
I have an awful feeling Sir Gerhard will end up here, but at this moment in time I am swaying towards Journey With Me as a bet. He won very well at Christmas in a race where the second home has won since, and Journey With Me did this when Henry De Bromhead’s horses were not running well. 6/1 with FansBet seems very fair.
Both Journey With Me and Ginto do look like Stayers of the future, but I do not think they are slow and could well be suited to this at this point in time especially with their owners having other options over three miles.
The Albert Bartlett is not getting attention really, which is understandable considering how strong the Supreme could be, but this is also looking like an above average renewal.
Here we would see Blazing Khal, Hollow Games, Eric Bloodaxe, Minella Crooner and my fancy, Gerri Colombe, facing off.
Blazing Khal is the current 4/1 favourite with FansBet and he looks to be coming along nicely. Charles Byrnes has compared him favourably with Weapons Amnesty which is a huge shout. That horse was a Gold Cup winner in waiting, so if Blazing Khal is up there with him everyone has a lot to fear.
Gerri Colombe though is overpriced at 22/1 with FansBet. His performance on the 26th of December was brilliant and the form has worked out. He gave a stone, and a beating, to Ailie Rose who has won since easily at Ayr. Ailie Rose chased home Hollow Games the time before and on an unscientific line through those two runs it could be argued that Gerri Colombe should be shorter in the betting.
He is far too big for the Albert Bartlett at 22/1 with FansBet as he is clearly talented and I think he could be a bit special. He runs Sunday over two miles and seven furlongs at Thurles in a race won by Monkfish in 2020. Gerri Colombe could shorten in the market significantly after this.
Gordon Elliott does not have a good record in the Albert Bartlett with several beaten favourites, but that could all change in 2022 as he does seem particularly strong.
Decisions will decide the 2022 Novice Hurdles, lets just hope we are on the right side of them.
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