With every passing race on Day Four of the Cheltenham Festival, the build-up and thrill for the Gold Cup gets greater. By the time the Spa Novices’ Hurdle is about to run, those in attendance will be close to peak excitement, given that the main race of the day is up next. Having enjoyed the Triumph Hurdle and the County Handicap Hurdle, it’s the turn of the novices to run a hurdle around the course prior to the world tuning in for the Gold Cup itself.
Spa Novices’ Hurdle is, as the name suggests, a race for novice hurdlers. When it comes to the history of the race, there isn’t an awful lot to tell you. When the Festival was expanded from a three day meeting to having a fourth day in 2005, a number of new races were formed to fill up the added time and this is one of those races. Initially it was a Grade 2 race and sponsored by Brit Insurance. Three years later Albert Bartlett took over the sponsorship honours and it was upgraded to a Grade 1 event. Owing to that sponsorship it is sometimes referred to as the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle.
|Course||Grade||Fences||Distance (m)||Winner / Purse|
|New Course||Grade 1||12||2m 7f 213y (4820m)||£55,127 / £96,000|
At the start of Day Three the races shift from the Old Course onto the New, so this race is like all other on Day Four in that it is run left-handed on the New Course. It lasts for three miles and there are twelve hurdles to be jumped during its running.
Open for four-year-old novices and older, there’s a weight restriction on the youngest horses of ten stone eleven pound. Five-year-olds and older can be eleven stone seven pound, whilst fillies and mares get an allowance of seven pounds.
The fact that this race is for novices means that horses cannot enter it if they’ve won a race prior to the start of that season. Consequently that excludes horses from being able to win this race more than once. Obviously the same is not true for either jockeys or trainers, though the short life of the race so far means that only two jockeys have won it more than once.
Robert Thornton won the race’s inaugural running in 2005 on the back of Moulin Riche before taking Nenuphar Collonges to victory in 2008. It is Tony McCoy who holds the record for wins as a jockey. He managed back-to-back victories in 2006 and 2007 before getting one final victory with At Fishers Cross in 2013.
When it comes to trainers, things are a lot simpler to explain. Only two trainers have won it more than once at the time of writing, with that honour failing to Jonjo O’Neill and Willie Mullings. Interestingly for O’Neill those two wins came in successive years thanks to Tony McCoy, with 2006’s Black Jack Ketchum and 2007’s Wichita Lineman both trained by O’Neill.
There is a family connection in the race, however, with Willie Mullins winning in 2017 thanks to Penhill, two years after his sister-in-law Margaret Mullins has trained Martello Tower to the number on spot. He won it again in 2020 with Monkfish.
CBO Rating | 8/10
Coming directly before the Gold Cup, there’s always a risk that this race could get lost in the excitement over the day’s premier race. That’s why the Festival organisers have made it a novice race, allowing punters to either drift off to place their bets for the big or else watch the race intently to get some tips for the future. After all, the winner of the 2016 Spa Novices’ Hurdle, Unowhatimeanharry, came third in the big race of Day Three, the Stayers’ Hurdle, in 2017.
If, for some reason, you’re not that interested in the outcome of the Spa Novices’ Hurdle, it’s still worth watching the race for any list hints it may offer up about the race that comes after it. Has anything changed with the going? Are horses struggling with the run of the course for any identifiable reason? Are there any obvious ideas you can glean from the winner that might help you in your choice of horse for the Gold Cup itself? All questions you might want to be asking yourself in your bid to pick a winner.
Let’s be honest, by this point punters are gearing themselves up for the climax to the Cheltenham Festival, the Gold Cup. You’d be a fool to ignore the Spa Novices’ Hurdle, however, not only for what it can tell you about the big race of the day but also as the opportunity that it is to place another winning bet.