Yes, says Tommy Lyons
After the best part of a year of being touted as something a little bit special, Melon made his long-awaited hurdling debut, on Sunday afternoon, and produced a performance which resulted in him being promoted to favouritism for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.
Whether it was worthy of such a move or not is the question, as, in effect, there was only one credible challenger on paper, and that’s exactly how it transpired.
Broken Soul may not be a superstar but, having looked impossible to win with, he was expertly handled to win an ordinary bumper at Down Royal with a degree of authority, and looked straight-forward on his return to hurdling on Sunday.
Melon conceded race-fitness, jumping experience, and a lead to his nearest market rival, but readily reeled him in and then stretched clear to win with even more in hand than the official winning margin, of 10 lengths, might suggest.
It’s a huge step from a late-season maiden to the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, and winning if on the back of one public outing over hurdles is quite a task.
However, if there’s one man you want on your side in this race it is Willie Mullins. He knows better than any trainer what it takes to win the race, having won it five times, including three of the last four runnings, as well as being responsible for the runner-up last year.
Considering Mullins is also responsible for Cilaos Emery and Chateau Conti, who are currently fourth and sixth in the market for the Supreme, the confidence behind Melon should carry plenty of weight.
And what of those outside the stable?
Former Cheltenham Bumper winner Moon Racer is extremely talented, but has never been the most straight-forward to train, highlighted by how few times the eight-year-old has seen the track.
A narrow defeat by Blow By Blow in a Grade One bumper on his first run for more than a year remains his sole defeat, but he hasn’t been seen since November, and remains a risky proposition.
Neon Wolf has been impressive, but his trainer, Harry Fry, has been keen to warn punters that this year’s Festival is not a priority and that if he does turn up, it could be in the Neptune Novices’ Hurdle.
Consul De Thaix has risen to a mark of 140 with just five runs under his belt, but has never won a race.
He is a leading fancy for the Betfair Hurdle, on Saturday week, and will have to go very close there to merit serious consideration for Cheltenham.
His trainer, Nicky Henderson, may have bigger claims with Charli Parcs.
Although the gelding is just a four-year-old, this is a route his owner, J P McManus, has taken with juveniles in the past, and they seem keen to keep this fellow and Triumph Hurdle favourite Defi Du Seuil apart.
Subsequent Champion Hurdle winner Binocular, also trained by Henderson for McManus, ran in this race as a four-year-old, and found only Captain Cee Bee too good, while the last four-year-old to win this race was another subsequent Champion Hurdle winner, Hors La Loi, in 1999.
Charli Parcs will have to be up to that level if he is to beat the older horses, but the confidence behind him is as strong as that behind Melon.
A winner of his only race, over hurdles, in France, he ran out an easy winner of his only start to date in Britain. Proven on decent ground, he looks a genuine player, but the fact there is another option open to him raises a note of caution for ante-post players.
Despite the usual array of entries for a Mullins novice, no race other than the Supreme has been talked of for Melon.
This has been on his agenda ever since he impressed his trainer with his early work and, having been patiently handled, we can be positive he will step up considerably on last weekend’s run.
Better ground, a faster pace, and a good test should help prompt that improvement and, given he looked a natural over hurdles, he has everything needed to enhance Mullins’ terrific recent record in the race.
It wasn’t much of a surprise to see bookmakers slash Melon’s price for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle in the wake of his easy victory in the Donohue Marquees Maiden Hurdle at Leopardstown.
The French import, trained by Willie Mullins, has long carried a tall reputation and was already prominent in the betting market for the Supreme before he lined up for his Irish debut on Sunday.
Sent off at prohibitive odds, he won in the manner a 4/9 favourite should, finishing 10 lengths clear of runner-up Broken Soul with the third home, Prince Charmin’, a further 12 lengths adrift.
In response, most firms halved Melon’s price from 10/1 to 5/1 for the festival opener. By yesterday he was generally priced at just 4/1, with one firm going 3/1. The biggest price available was 9/2.
The main reason bookies are ducking for cover is the Mullins factor. This is a race Mullins has dominated in recent years, winning it three years on the trot courtesy of Champagne Fever (2013), Vautour (2014) and Douvan (2015).
Consequentially, it’s easy to see why Melon’s price is now so short. Time may prove him to be a superstar but there are a number of reasons why he should be opposed. The first is obvious. His price is awful.
Secondly, it was noteworthy that, in the aftermath of Sunday’s race, jockey Ruby Walsh said Melon would want another run before heading to Cheltenham. Mullins, however, suggested Melon won’t be seen again before the festival.
Walsh’s remarks suggest he is concerned about Melon’s inexperience and that’s a legitimate worry as winning any race at Cheltenham off the back of just one run is a seriously big ask.
By point of comparison, Altior had already run seven times before last year’s Supreme. Admittedly, Douvan only had two runs for Mullins before his 2015 win but he’s an exceptional case.
Vautour arrived at Prestbury Park in 2014 having won his three starts for Mullins while Champagne Fever’s 2013 Supreme success came in his ninth start for the Closutton handler.
The point is simple: Experience counts. Melon lacks in that department and that has to be off-putting.
Admittedly, the Cheltenham Festival has become a week where Mullins routinely defies conventional logic but, even so, winning the Supreme with Melon looks a tall order.
A third reason to oppose Melon is the possibility that this could turn out to be an above-average Supreme. At present, it’s hard to predict who will even run in the race but there’s some pretty useful sorts among the entries.
Charli Parcs, Neon Wolf, Consul De Thaix and Finian’s Oscar have caught the eye this season and all four warrant consideration.
Of that quartet, Charli Parcs (currently available at a top price of 9/1) excites most. There is a danger he could run in the Triumph Hurdle but given owner JP McManus has the favourite for that race in Defi Du Seuil the hope is he’ll send Charli Parcs down the Supreme route.
Trained by Nicky Henderson, Charli Parcs produced a scintillating display on his British debut when cruising to an eight-length win over Master Blueyes at Kempton at Christmas. Henderson plans to send Charli Parcs to Musselburgh at the weekend before returning to Kempton for the Adonis.
If he wins those races and is declared for the Supreme he really should go off favourite.
Neon Wolf produced one of the most visually impressive displays of the season when winning at Haydock last month and he would be of major interest if he lines up here. However, trainer Harry Fry regards him as a long-term chasing prospect and has suggested Cheltenham might be swerved entirely this year.
Consul De Thaix has finished second to Brain Power twice this season and odds of 16/1 will disappear instantly if he wins the Betfair Hurdle on Saturday week while Finian’s Oscar is a really exciting sort but the Neptune looks his most likely festival target.
Ultimately, the Supreme picture remains a muddy one but the suspicion is the field will turn out to pretty decent.
And if it is, Melon will find one or two too good.