NEXT DESTINATION is one of the leading fancies for the Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle, but with Willie Mullins as his trainer that doesn't mean it will necessarily be the chosen Destination or even the right one.
He won the Grade 1 Lawlor’s Of Naas Novice Hurdle over two-and-a-half miles on his last start in what was a steadily run affair.
The six-year-old was pretty slick over his hurdles at Naas and the form is working out really nicely, with third placed Duc Des Genievres and fourth placed Jetz both finishing second in Grade 1’s at the Dublin Racing Festival last weekend. Cracking Smart was second.
I think Next Destination is opposable even if he does turn up here. He seems to possess a decent turn of foot, rather than being solely a plodder. If there’s any race for plodders at the Cheltenham Festival, this contest is high on the list.
Next Destination finished fourth in last season’s Champion Bumper and whilst I’m often one of the first of many to bang the course form drum, there's a different tune playing today.
Only three horses to finish in the first five in the history of the Champion Bumper have attempted to win the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle the following season.
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They were all trained in Ireland. Two of them won the Champion Bumper. Two of them were trained by Next Destination’s trainer, Mullins. All of them failed miserably in the Albert Bartlett.
Eleventh. Fell. Seventh.
For all of you quiz fans out there, the horses were Hairy Molly, Briar Hill and Black Hercules.
Cracking Smart has finished behind Next Destination on his last two starts and, although the six-year-old has screamed stayer throughout his four starts this winter, I think he's far too short in the market.
Gordon Elliott's six-year-old should at least be suited by the particular test the Albert Bartlett tends to be; a race that provides a thorough examination of stamina and will to win for any novice.
Michael O’Leary’s Gigginstown House Stud operation is essentially built to find top notch staying chasers, so it’s no surprise they often hold a significant hand in this three-mile test.
Matt Butler’s Cheltenham Festival portfolio
*denotes Non-runner no bet
Cheltenham Gold Cup – *Cloudy Dream each-way at 66/: 'Strong travelling Arkle runner-up could follow in the footsteps of Sizing John and thrive for the step-up in trip' (click here to back Cloudy Dream)
Sun Bets Stayers' Hurdle – L'Ami Serge each-way at 12/1: 'Frustrating but talented eight-year-old can get the strong pace he needs to thrive' (click here to back L'Ami Serge)
JLT Novices' Chase – Invitation Only at 10/1: 'Improving seven-year-old has taken really well to fences and should progress into a real Grade 1 animal' (click here to back Invitation Only)
Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle – *Melrose Boy each-way at 33/1: 'This course winner can put his experience of big fields to use to give Harry Fry a second unfancied winner of the race' (click here to back Melrose Boy)
Gigginstown could have further ammunition in the shape of Dortmund Park, Blow By Blow and Delta Work, although the latter is the most interesting prospect of the trio.
What? A handicapper I hear you cry? How can he be an interesting prospect in a Grade 1 at the Cheltenham Festival? Well, let's take a look down memory lane.
Four of the last eight winners – Penhill (flat), Unowhatimeanharry, At Fishers Cross and Berties Dream – entered handicap company in their careers prior to winning the Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle.
Four of the last eight winners had previously run at Cheltenham, with three winning and the other hitting the places.
Putting the two trends together, I think I've found a dark horse for this year's renewal.
Harry Fry gained his first Cheltenham Festival success when Unowhatimeanharry won the race two years ago and, after beginning the campaign in the exact same manner, I think MELROSE BOY could go close to matching his stablemates Albert Bartlett triumph.
The Albert Bartlett is an odd race in that it's run at a punishing gallop in usually a large double-digit field, something that your standard novice hurdle contests throughout the winter generally fail to replicate.
Therefore, it's no surprise that shocks are common and no surprise that horses with handicap experience thrive. Handicaps provide good practice of running in larger fields at a stronger gallop.
Melrose Boy, who won a 19-runner handicap around Prestbury Park with ease at the November meeting, has a progressive profile and lost little in defeat at Sandown last weekend.
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He was caught wide throughout a thoroughly competitive £100,000 18-runner handicap – in open company – but still battled his way into the frame, only to fade late into third in the punishing conditions.
It's why Gordon Elliott's Delta Work, fourth in a big handicap at Leopardstown last weekend, and the Nigel Twiston-Davies-trained Calett Mad also found their way onto my shortlist at eye-catching odds.
Nicky Henderson's Santini, who pulled clear on Trials Day with Black Op in a typically informative Grade 2, deserves the utmost respect.
However, he's only ran twice over hurdles and once in a point-to-point and Henderson has already suggested he's more of a prospect for next season.
His lack of experience is off-putting, although he could prove to be the best animal in the long term.
Grade 1 winner Poetic Rhythm has the guts for this, having defied a recent bout of colic to win the Challow Hurdle at Newbury.
A run since might have helped, while River Don winner Enniscoffey Oscar has to become the first winner of Doncaster's Grade 2 to complete the double.
I'm sure Red River, Mr Whipped, Chef Des Obeaux and Kilbricken Storm have found their way onto other people's shortlists, but I'm convinced shrewd trainer Fry can prepare another Albert Bartlett winner come March.
MELROSE BOY each-way in the Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle (33/1, non-runner no bet)
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