The roar when the tape rises for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle can probably be heard across the Irish Sea as it signals the start of the Cheltenham Festival.
The opening race of the four-day National Hunt feast of racing is a fascinating contest and is often a pointer to future Cheltenham champions. The likes of Hors La Loi III and Brave Inca have subsequently gone on to win the Champion Hurdle after being successful in the Supreme.
This year’s renewal offers the prospect of similarly high-class horses lining up, none more so than the Willie Mullins-trained Douvan.
A facile victory in a Grade Two event at Punchestown on his last run in January made it two from two since Douvan joined the Mullins yard and he is a short-priced favourite. He represents the connections of the last two winners of the Supreme – Champagne Fever and Vautour. Those two horses were also trained by Mullins, ridden by Ruby Walsh and ran in the Ricci colours.
However, Mullins is concerned by the record of favourites in the Supreme and this is one of the trends you should think about when betting on Cheltenham Festival races.
Vautour was sent off joint-favourite when winning last year, but Brave Inca in 2004 was the last favourite before that to oblige in the Supreme. So that is something to be aware of when it comes to making your selection, although the winner usually comes from the first four or five horses in the betting.
Another Supreme trend to note is that nine of the last 14 winners have been trained in Ireland. This year, if that is to happen, then the winner is likely to come from the Mullins yard.
Mullins, whose first Festival success came in this race with Tourist Attraction in 1995, is also likely to be represented by Alvisio Ville and Shaneshill.
Alvisio Ville was third behind stablemate Nichols Canyon last time and will drop back down to two miles, and it will be the same for Shaneshill, if he makes it to Cheltenham.
Shaneshill finished second in the Bumper at the Festival last year, before winning the Punchestown equivalent. But his two runs over hurdles so far have been over two-and-half miles.
The biggest threat to Mullins, therefore, comes from the British team which is headed by the Nicky Henderson-trained L’Ami Serge.
Henderson has twice won the Supreme, although not since 1992, and L’Ami Serge is unbeaten in three starts since his arrival from France. He has plenty of experience and was an impressive winner of the Grade One Tolworth Hurdle last time. The question is whether he will enjoy the ground if it quickens up.
Jollyallan lost his unbeaten record over hurdles when second to the far more experienced Garde La Victoire at Sandown last time, but he will improve for running on a sounder surface. Other leading home hopes, in the betting at least, are the likes of Seedling and Qewy.
The Supreme Novices’ Hurdle is always a fast-paced, pulsating way to start the Cheltenham Festival. It is usually a battle between England and Ireland. This year, it looks a battle between England and Mullins.