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The Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle is the relative calm before the storm of the Cheltenham Gold Cup on Friday of Cheltenham Festival.
It’s a good opportunity for distance runners to hone their craft, offering a longer distance than the Supreme and Ballymore Novices’ Hurdles.
The horses compete over three miles of Cheltenham Racecourse for the crown, putting the charges on course for a future in the Stayers’ Hurdle, which many of the winners attempt to compete in later in their careers.
There are no defending champions given the manner of the event, which is seen as a prelude to the other major races of the week. Penhill and Kilbricken Storm are the last two horses to have triumphed in the race and have either won the Stayers’ Hurdle or will be competing in it this year.
Only Jonjo O’Neill has won the event as a trainer more than once. His last triumph came in 2007, highlighting the difficulty in repeat success. Colin Tizzard is the man in possession following Kilbricken Storm’s win last season, although it would be a surprise to see him in the winners’ enclosure again in the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham Festival.
Gordon Elliott’s charge is considered the leading contender for the crown, winning three of his four races to date in his career. The five-year-old has impressed on the track, although the prospect of his first appearance at Cheltenham Festival spreads slight doubt whether he will be able to rise to the occasion. Commander of Fleet has not competed outside of Ireland after making his debut at the end of last season. However, he does have a strong pedigree, winning at two venues.
Commander of Fleet began his career at the Goffs Land Rover Bumper, delivering a confident performance in the two-mile event at Punchestown. He was in rhythm from the off and had the speed to see off the field by eight-and-a-half lengths. The Irish-bred horse made his bow over hurdles in the Kildare Now Maiden Hurdle with Davy Russell in the saddle. Commander of Fleet was fluent on the track and was assertive over the hurdles to close out a comfortable win.
The five-year-old suffered the first setback of his career in the Royal Bond Novice Hurdle at Fairyhouse, finishing off the pace down in fourth out of four competitors. However, he bounced back with a fine performance last month at Leopardstown to beat out his compatriot Rhinestone for the win by half-a-length. He has the form, but whether it translates to Cheltenham remains to be seen.
The Irish-bred horse has come to life in 2019 and has a real shot to leave Cheltenham Festival with the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle crown. Lisnagar Oscar has won back-to-back races against talented competition and will be in prime form for the event. He made his bow at the start of the campaign in October in a flat race, but was narrowly off the pace, finishing in third. There was a slight improvement as Rebecca Curtis put her charge forward for the Maiden Hurdle at Ffos Las where the Irish-bred horse was solid if unspectacular, ending five lengths off the pace in a respectable second place.
In the dress rehearsal for the event at Cheltenham in December, he endured a battled with Tizzard’s Rockpoint for the crown. However, Lisnagar Oscar did not have the pace to close in on his rival, losing out by two-and-three-quarter lengths. The six-year-old secured the first win of his career in the Event Image Novices’ Hurdle at Chepstow where on this occasion he did have the pace to close out a win by a narrow margin ahead of Dickie Diver. Curtis’ charge carried his form forward into the Albert Bartlett Prestige Novices’ Hurdle with a dominant performance at Haydock Park. He was a slight outsider for the crown, but delivered an emphatic victory by 10 lengths.
Nicky Henderson’s charge is certainly one to watch for the week at Cheltenham Festival, although he only has two races under his belt. He could compete in the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle instead of the Albert Bartlett, but given the presence of Champ, Henderson could opt to spread the wealth. His charge made his bow at the end of last year at Warwick in a Maiden Hurdle event over two miles and five furlongs.
Birchdale was installed as the favourite for the race and with Barry Geraghty in the saddle, he duly delivered with a flawless performance to see out the win by four lengths. He carried that form forward into the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham in January for the dress rehearsal for the March event. There he was outstanding to clear the field by a dominant margin, finishing 18 lengths ahead of his nearest rival. If he goes in the Albert Bartlett, who could ruffle a few feathers.
Henderson has another quality horse in waiting behind Birchdale at Cheltenham Festival should he opt to remove him from the field. Dickie Diver has proven calibre in his own right, with a win and a second-place finish under his belt in his two performances to date. His first race came against Lisnagar Oscar in the Event Image Novices’ Hurdle at Chepstow, and although Dickie Diver did not pull off the victory, he still put forward a fine display, being beaten out by a nose.
He found his form on the racecourse last time out at the Pertemps Healthcare Maiden Hurdle. On this occasion the bay gelding was installed as the favourite for the race with Aidan Coleman in the saddle. It was not a flawless performance from the six-year-old, but he still managed to get over the line ahead of the field, finishing two-and-a-quarter lengths in front of second-place Kingsplace.
Commander of Fleet has been impressive in his career, although his one failure did come against elite competition. He has also not raced at Cheltenham, which also raises concerns. Given that he has the status of the favourite it does not scream as a value option on a punt.
Birchdale has the raw potential and could be the horse to choose at value, although given the uncertainty Henderson has over his distance, he’s not a sure bet. Lisnagar Oscar has the form and the win at Cheltenham under his best. Curtis will not have many better opportunities at the Festival to record a victory therefore back her charge for the win at odds of 6/1 7.00 +600 6.00 6.00 -0.17 with Bet365.