In the most open betting heat of the Cheltenham novice races, the Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle betting is dominated by four horses.
The Nicky Henderson duo Birchdale and Dickie Diver take on the vastly more experienced Lisnagar Oscar and Commander Of Fleet, with serious questions to answer, but undoubted talent.
Birchdale in particular has shown Cheltenham Festival-winning qualities with a comfortable victory at the course, and it remains to be seen whether he can defy his youth.
Just two horses aged five have won this gruelling test of stamina, each had run at least four times over hurdles; Birchdale's experience is two runs - and two wins.
The Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle is a 3m Grade 1 hurdle race, which pitches the season's future Stayers' Hurdle candidates against one another. It's sponsored by a potato company, Albert Bartlett, whose owner Ronnie Bartlett has been a prolific supporter of horse racing, racing the likes of dual Cheltenham Festival winner Simonsig and Cheltenham Foxhunter Chase winner Zemsky.
This races is worth £70,337 to the winning connections, and falls early on the Cheltenham Gold Cup card, the final day of the Cheltenham Festival.
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There are four horses that look good betting options based on the Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle trends; Lisnagar Oscar, Derrinross, Ask Ben and Commander Of Fleet.
Vying for favouritism in the Albert Bartlett betting are two of those, Lisnagar Oscar and Commander Of Fleet, though preference is for the six-year-old Lisnagar Oscar (7/1 William Hill), over his five-year-old rival.
If you're comparing Irish and British ratings, the Rebecca Curtis-trained star ranks 10lbs inferior, but his last two runs have shown him vastly improved, including his victory in the Prestige Novices' Hurdle at Haydock, which has been a key trial for the Albert Bartlett.
Ask Ben (33/1 888Sport) was beaten 10 lengths by Lisnagar Oscar at Haydock, but would be much closer on softer ground. However, if it is soft come Friday, then the bet to have is Derrinross at 12/1 with Black Type. He has bags of stamina and experience, and comes in having won his last two in Grade 3 and Grade 2 company.
Missing from the trends tips is well-fancied Birchdale (8/1 Betway) because there are two big trends against him; he's too young at five, and has had too few runs, but amongst those outings are two wins, including in a 17-runner field, and at Cheltenham in the number one Albert Bartlett trial - the Grade 2 Classic Novices' Hurdle.
I think he's worth taking the chance on, given trainer Nicky Henderson's enthusiasm for his novice hurdle crop as a whole. It is a leap of faith, but it might pay to trust a man who has won 60 Cheltenham Festival races that he will be ready?
"Commander Of Fleet won the 2m6f Grade 1 at Leopardstown last time out. They came out round the last hurdle with no running rail and it's a big daunting place when they are on their own so he ran around a bit. He was green, but he has the engine and you’ll see a sharper horse the next day.
"I think three miles will suit him, and I think the Albert Bartlett will suit him too. He can take his time early and just hunt away. He’s a nice horse, he won a Land Rover Bumper last spring.
The one negative for me is that he does lack a bit of experience with only three runs over hurdles.
"Defi Bleu was well-beaten behind Commander Of Fleet last time out, but the ground was too quick and I shouldn’t have run him. He might be joined in the race by Dinons, who won at Cheltenham over 3m in October, but has not run since Navan."
"I was pleased with him when he won at Haydock last time out. He was impressive that day. Everything went well. He seems to improve with every run. He should run well at Cheltenham and hopefully will be thereabouts.”
"Birchdale and maybe even Dickie Diver will run in the Albert Bartlett. Birchdale is good. He did well to win the other day as he was very green. I hope he's learned enough and I think he should have done. He could go two and a half or three miles."
"I was very disappointed with Relegate at Leopardstown. Maybe the ground was just too good for her. Last year, in the Champion Bumper, I took my binoculars away from her just after the water fence because I thought she was finished.
"Next thing, she’s powering up the hill to win. So, horses for courses - hopefully she brings her A game back to Cheltenham.
"Allaho, I sort of said he'd run in the Ballymore Novices' Hurdle or Albert Bartlett, and I think he will more than likely go for the Albert Bartlett now after his win at Clonmel."
"He really needs soft ground, and that's why he hasn't run since Christmas. I wouldn't risk him on unsuitable ground because he's a horse who's had his problems. His form is working out well. He's tough, an out-and-out galloper and we're hoping for the best."
"He's going in under the radar. He finished sixth in the Cleeve [Hurdle at Cheltenham] and that was a cracking run for a novice, it's been completely overlooked.
"People will look and see he finished sixth last time out and maybe not realise what sort of company he was in - we were delighted so hopefully he'll run well."
"He could be a little bit underestimated going into the Albert Bartlet,t but he's clearly got quite a few pounds to find on the form he's shown so far. He has course winning form, which is a plus and I think he'll stay well."
Commander Of Fleet defied his own inexperience to win the 2m6f Grade 1 at the Dublin Racing Festival last month. The last hurdle was bypassed and it through the five-year-old off, as jockey Jack Kennedy tried to steer him around the omitted obstacle. But he knuckled down afterwards to pip the year-older Rhinestone by half a length. Trainer Gordon Elliott is adamant a sharper horse will line up at Cheltenham, and that his engine is Festival-winning quality. There is just that maturity question.
Despite winning the Grade 2 Prestige Novices' Hurdle by 10 lengths, Lisnagar Oscar remains the lowest-rated horse in the top five in the Albert Bartlett betting by a long way. Dickie Diver has not received a mark yet, but Commander Of Fleet is 143, Birchdale is 146 and Lisnagar Oscar is 133. There isn't a winner of the Albert Bartlett who has been rated less than 135, and eight of the last 10 winners were rated in excess of 140.
Birchdale and Dickie Diver have impressed all-comers in their point-to-point wins and two hurdle runs for trainer Nicky Henderson, who does not hide his high-regard for them, nor does he hide his concerns about their lack of experience.
It was matters out of his control that led to them only achieving two hurdle runs, but there is a reason no Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle winner has lined up with less than three hurdle runs; it is the toughest stamina test, a real marathon for a young horse unhardened by racing experience.
The majority of winners have in fact run at least four times over hurdles, with some even winning in their second season as a novice. What could defy these statistics is a horse with immense class, and maturity beyond their years, which a trainer of Henderson's calibre could indeed produce.
Perhaps the most likely horse priced in double figures in the Albert Bartlett odds is Derrinross, who twice beat Willie Mullins-trained favourites in Graded novice hurdles last December. The Mullins yard was under the weather at the time, but they were not his only rivals, and he boasts five hurdle outings, including in some really big maiden hurdle fields, which will really stand to him in the hurly burly of the Albert Bartlett.
The catch for the Phillip Dempsey-trained contender is that he must have soft ground.
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