The Boodles Juvenile Novices’ Handicap Hurdle was added to Cheltenham’s biggest week in 2005 when the Festival was extended to four days. It is, to some extent, a consolation for the Triumph Hurdle with those not quite cut out for graded level taking this handicap option instead.
From bottom of the weights to top of the weights, English or Irish trained, flat recruits or outright National Hunt types, there have been a whole clutch of differing profiles who have gone home with the spoils in recent years.
When first run in 2005 the top weight was off a mark of 127 and the last horse in was off 111 but things have changed significantly over the years and, along with the race being upgraded to Grade 3 status, the class of runners has improved dramatically.
In 2021 the top weight was Nassalam off a mark of 141 and the last horse to make the cut was 123 but that was a fraction of an outlier year in comparison to recent renewals and generally the cut off point would be in the mid-to-high 120s.
There have been surprises over the years, none more so than in 2021 when Jeff Kidder won the race at 80/1, and there have been other shocks in the contest over the years too, so it is advised to look beyond the obvious if they fit the criteria elsewhere.
Mullins leads the Irish challenge
Willie Mullins has four entries in the race currently and targets for most of those remain unclear but one that is seemingly crystal clear is Gaelic Warrior going to the Boodles.
He’s very much the unknown quantity coming into this, and has yet to even race for the yard, but he has been favourite for the race for the last few weeks and he was done no harm by the UK handicapper when given a mark of 129. This will see him towards the middle of the weights and, as a result, he will have to buck some of the more meaningful trends if he is to win this.
Firstly, seven of the last eight winners carried 11st or more, and on top of that, as he hasn’t yet been seen this season, he will go to Cheltenham off a break of 283 days and, with nine of the last 12 winners having raced within 32 days of the festival, that also doesn’t fit the profile.
Having said all of that his three placed French runs were very good and the form stacks up with horses that beat him that day coming out and taking Listed and Graded events since. Mullins has been very positive about his work at home in recent stable tours and we know from the past how bringing a horse to Cheltenham off a long lay-off isn’t an issue for horses from Closutton.
It’s one of the rare Cheltenham events that has so far eluded Mullins, but the last four Fred Winter winners were all Irish trained, and the sustained support for Gaelic Warrior is significant to say the very least.
Others in the race for team Mullins include the likes of Icare Allen, who may well run in the Triumph instead, and Feigh who would need to take a big step forward to be in the mix.
The Tide Turns ticks plenty of boxes
Gordon Elliott has won three renewals of the race and this year he has plenty of options with various chess pieces to move around the board in regard to his juvenile squad. Fil Dor is one who remains an unknown in terms of his target but recent reports suggest that he will go against stablemate Pied Piper in the Triumph instead of taking up his entry in this race.
One that is more than likely to run in the race is The Tide Turns. An ex-Sir Mark Prescott inmate on the flat, he was a classic Heath House horse in the sense that he got his mark by running over 7f before being stepped up to 1m4f on his handicap debut and bolting in before backing that up with another win shortly after.
Sold at the Horses In Training sale to Elliott for 42,000gns he has since had three starts this jumps season. He won on his hurdling debut and went on to finish well behind Vauban in the Spring Juvenile on his next start, but it was his most recent showing that caught the attention.
In against older horses for the first time, and a genuine Champion Hurdle contender in Teahupoo, he was held up for a long way and considerately handled for the most part. His jumping remains a work-in-progress as he was a little too big at times at Gowran and not slick enough at others, but most in the Fred Winter are in the formative stage with technique and he will be a long way off the worst of them in the jumping department.
He clearly has the gears and engine to travel at a high cruising speed which is a big benefit in a race of this nature and all that remains to answer now is just how much is under the bonnet when the buttons are pressed.
His mark of 137 means he will tick all the trend boxes given that he will carry upwards of 11st, he is trained in Ireland, he has had a recent run and he’s had the bare minimum of qualifying runs over hurdles – 11 winners of this race have only had three hurdle starts.
The Tide Turns makes great appeal on paper and in reality, of the two Irish horses heading this market, I would prefer to side with him over the Mullins mystery box.
Of Elliott’s remaining four entries not already mentioned, Britzka and Ebasari both have similar marks, are similar prices and have similar profiles too being from the flat, having had the qualifying three hurdle starts, both won on their debut and then both haven’t progressed since in two starts in differing ways.
JP McManus has won this race only once before with the Gordon Elliott-trained Aramax in 2020 and as you would expect for a race of this nature the leading owner has a multitude of options to run in the race and for a clutch of different trainers.
This year there are five entries in the green and gold for four different trainers. Joseph O’Brien, who won the race with Band Of Outlaws in 2019, has three entries in the race and Champion Green for JP McManus is the shortest of those in the market as things stand.
He belatedly won his maiden at the end of January on his fourth attempt and although he was impressive that day he can still take a keen hold in his races. Bred by Noreen McManus and with no other entries it looks likely that he will go here and a strong pace in a big field may well just help him drop the bridle a little.
O’Brien also has Celestial Horizon entered but his heavy defeat when favourite on hurdles debut and then his recent defeat to Irare Allen when we last means that he has something to prove.
The beautifully-bred Brazil (brother to Irish Derby winner Capri among others) is another to don the green and gold in here this time for trainer Padraig Roche. He finished behind The Tide Turns two starts back but then shed his maiden tag over hurdles when we last saw him at Naas.
He finishes his races strongly yet had the class on the flat to win a Curragh maiden over a mile with a Group 3 winner in behind him that day as well as the aforementioned Britzka, then trained by Edward Harty.
Jonjo O’Neil was the lucky receiver of Petite Tonnerre back in November of last year. The two-time French Hurdle winner has just had the one start in England and landed short odds at Market Rasen fairly recently. He would be entitled to come on for that run but he wasn’t as impressive as his price tag suggested he would be and I wouldn’t be surprised if they left him for another target with a bit more time since his last run.
Paul Nicholls’ Bell Ex One could surprise rivals
There is a general feeling the Irish juveniles are going to prove significantly better than their UK counterparts and the ante-post market suggests just that.
Jane Williams’ Saint Segal is one of the shorter-priced home-team players. The French-bred landed a low-level Juvenile at Warwick on his latest start and that was little more than a racecourse gallop for him given the form of the race and the way in which he went about it, but the run before in the Finale Hurdle at Chepstow behind Porticello is his standout piece of form.
He can be keen in his races and he is yet to experience the hustle and indeed bustle of a big field like this and I fear that his inexperience may be his downfall here.
Ex-flat/Irish recruit Bell Ex One may well have his first start for Paul Nicholls in this but the fact he has been off the track since early-October isn’t ideal. His two hurdle wins were in the crossover period between the summer jumps and the winter season but they weren’t short on class as he beat the subsequent Listed winner Sea Sessions on his final start.
He wouldn’t have been the best of these on the flat and would need to be improved by the Champion trainer to be in the shake up here. However, I wouldn’t put it past Nicholls to pull a rabbit out of the hat.
Skelton’s runner most likely to join list of shock winners
As previously mentioned, this is a race that has had some shock winners in the past as well as plenty hitting the cross bar at healthy each way prices.
If Dan Skelton’s Too Friendly gets in the race at the bottom of the weights and the ground has ‘good’ in the description then I would be positive on him as a lively outsider.
He was highly rated on the flat compared to a lot of these having been given an opening mark in the high 80s after winning his 1m2f maiden. Since switching to the hurdling sphere and to Skelton’s he won two on the bounce, the second of which at Newcastle in dismal conditions but in the style of a horse with a serious engine.
On his last start we saw him finish behind Triumph contenders Knight Salute and Porticello in the Grade 2 Summit Hurdle at Doncaster and that has proven to be a very attractive form line given what those two horses have gone on to do since.
Good ground and a faster pace to aim at will help him, he will stay up the hill and has the flat class over a few in here.
A question mark would be that we haven’t seen him since the beginning of December but he has had wind surgery so that would have kept him on the quiet list for a few weeks and a recent racecourse gallop may well have put him spot on for the day.
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