The Supreme Novices Hurdle on the first day of the 2011 Cheltenham Festival is possibly on subsequent results one of the best races in the history of the prestigious meeting. Cue Card and Sprinter Sacre were beaten in the race and the horse that was too good for both horses was Al Ferof. Cue Card and Sprinter Sacre have since gone back to Cheltenham to win championship races.
Form in hurdle races doesn’t always transfer to chases but on the basis of that novice hurdle Al Ferof is the horse to back for the King George V1 Chase at Kempton Park on Boxing Day and subsequently the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Al Ferof is proven at the highest level and now looks a leading contender to beat Bobs Worth and the rest in March.
Al Ferof is owned by John Hales who may feel he is owed a Gold Cup after another one of his horses, One Man, never quite had the stamina to win over three miles two furlongs at Cheltenham. One Man was tragically killed at Aintree and Hales got some retribution for that loss when Neptune Collonges won the Grand National in 2012. Al Ferof could be the horse to provide him with a first Gold Cup.
Both that horse and Unioniste, also owned by Hales, are trained by Paul Nicholls who has won the Cheltenham Gold Cup four times. In the early part of his career See More Business won the Blue Riband of steeple chasing, Denman won the Gold Cup in 2008 and Kauto Star won the prestigious race twice in a wonderful career.
The Aintree theme continues as Unioniste won a decent chase at the track in November and now appears in ante post betting for the Gold Cup at 33/1. However, it is Al Ferof that provides the businessman who made a fortune from manufacturing the Teletubbies who looks much more likely to win the Gold Cup. Hales’ firm produces toys and he was fortunate to win the contract to make the puppets in addition to official Olympics mascots.
When Neptune Collonges won the National the race was marred by the fatalities suffered by Synchronised and According to Pete. So, even at the time of his greatest win as an owner Hales had to deal with the death of a champion at Aintree. Celebrations were muted after the closest finish in the history of the race that saw a grey win it for the first time since 1961.
Hales was not too keen to run Neptune Collonges in the National, possibly due to the painful experience of losing One Man at Aintree. He was persuaded to make an entry by Nicholls on the understanding that the horse would be retired after the race, win, lose of draw. The narrow margin win over Sunnyhillboy, in the same ownership as Synchronised, meant Neptune Collognes ended his career with his best run.
Al Ferof is unlikely to run in a National as he now looks too good for handicaps. At his level there are few options which means the horse is now being trained with the Gold Cup as his main objective. The King George is often a good trial for that race and is the mid-season championship for staying chasers. Long Run, Kauto Star and Kicking King have won both races in the last ten years.
Spirit Son finished second behind Al Ferof in that novice hurdle at Cheltenham. The horse had a decent but short career which ended prematurely due to injury. He won an Aintree Hurdle but it is the subsequent achievements of Sprinter Sacre and Cue Card that highlight how good Al Ferof could be. The horse won the 2012 Paddy Power Gold Cup but then could not run for a year due to injury.
Al Ferof got his career back on track by winning a two runner race at Ascot. The horse he beat, French Open, found only Eastlake too good in a hot handicap at Cheltenham earlier this month and has also been placed behind Sprinter Sacre. Al Ferof jumped well at Ascot but its difficult to assess the form in such a small field. However, if he reproduces the form that saw him beat Sprinter Sacre and Cue Card the King George is a winnable race.
Cue Card is the favourite to win the Kempton race, on the strength of an impressive run in the Betfair Chase at Haydock in November. He beat most of the British contenders for the Gold Cup, including two former winners in Long Run and Bobs Worth. Dynaste and Silviniaco Conti were placed at Haydock and they take on Cue Card again at level weights.
In the context of the King George Dynaste was the horse to take from the race at Haydock. He won the Feltham Chase last Christmas over the course and distance of the King George and represents the best novice form from last season. Dynaste is trained by David Pipe who has ensured a successful transition for the stable from the days when his Dad, Martin, was in charge.
Pipe junior won the Grand National with Comlpy Or Die but he is yet to win a major championship race at the Cheltenham Festival. Dynaste finished four and a half lengths behind Cue Card at Haydock but has won a Grade I at Kempton where Cue Card ran poorly in last year’s King George. Silvinaicao Conti was a further length and a quarter off the pace at the line in the Betfair Chase.
The Boxing Day race could take on a new complexion if Cue Card does not run. The trainer, Colin Tizzard, said in the press that the stable has had a virus all season but at the time of writing there no plans to withdraw the horse. However, in a championship race of this nature there is no room for doubt about a horse’s well-being but the bookmakers still make Cue Card the 5/2 favourite.
Al Ferof is 5/1 to win the King George and 16-1 for the Gold Cup. That price would contract with an impressive run at Kempton and a reproduction of his best novice hurdle form would be good enough to win the race. Cue Card is now the highest rated chaser in training in the absence of Sprinter Sacre this season to date so in theory Al Ferof is the one to beat at Kempton and then at Cheltenham in March.