In the first of what may or may not become a series on the ante-post markets of the big races of the Cheltenham Festival, we take a look at the Champion Hurdle. Last year, Hurricane Fly finally stayed fit enough to take his chance at the Festival and he didn’t disappoint with a gutsy victory over Peddler’s Cross. With his closest challenger from last year now tackling the bigger obstacles, is there anyone that can stop him? Well no, is the short answer, but here’s a look at the market fluctuations involving some of the market leaders for this year’s renewal that may give you some flashes of inspiration.
Perhaps understandably, the first few months of the season were spent wrapped in cotton wool for Hurricane Fly. After a 2011 campaign that took in Grade 1 victories in the Irish Champion Hurdle, the Champion Hurdle and the Punchestown Champion Hurdle, Willie Mullins’s star had little to prove so he could bide his time and plot the best course for his return to Cheltenham. It’s been a straightforward preparation, despite his drift out to 9/4 around Christmas time when Willie announced he’d be staying indoors to watch Charlie and the Chocolate Factory rather than making his seasonal reappearance at Leopardstown. That price was gone not long after when it emerged there was no major problem and a trip to the Dublin track a month later was on the agenda. His win in the Irish Champion Hurdle on Sunday saw him trimmed to Evens for the defence of his title and it looks like avoiding injury rather than his opponents that will be the biggest concern between now and the first day of the Festival. The sight of horses defending the Champion Hurdle happens almost as regularly as John McCririck upsetting feminists, so although the price may not be to everyone’s tastes, it looks entirely plausible that he can make two in a row.
Playing the role of the plucky young challenger trying to defy the odds and ominous statistic of only one five year old having won the Champion Hurdle in the last 500 years or whatever is the plucky young challenger, Grandouet. Nicky Henderson’s youngster showed plenty of ability during his juvenile season and was initially chalked up as a not entirely hopeless 12/1 shout for the Champion Hurdle. That price is long gone after an impressive win the in International Hurdle at Cheltenham at the start of December suggested he’s capable of progressing right to the top of the hurdling division. That progress will need to be very rapid if he wants to upset Hurricane Fly. He tasted a mud sandwich when falling at Wincanton in November and his jumping remains as convincing as Jeffrey Archer under oath, but he’s developing and isn’t without a chance for Cheltenham.
Another one doing it for the young’uns is Zarkandar. We’ve only seen him race over hurdles thrice in a six week spell just under a year ago, but what a six weeks they were as the Paul Nicholls trained French import enjoyed the type of quick fire success in the UK not seen since Vanessa Paradis. He racked up a hat-trick of victories in graded juvenile company – including the Triumph Hurdle at the Festival – but hasn’t been seen since. That didn’t stop something of a plunge on him back in December, seeing him trimmed from 12/1 to 10/1, before more recently settling at 7/1. Paul Nicholls says he’ll have a prep for Cheltenham in the next couple of weeks and if he was to win impressively, he’ll get his supporters talking about an upset of the reigning champ. There will be those who say he lacks the experience to claim a Champion Hurdle, but then again, there’ll be those who say he’s a horse and experience doesn’t matter as much as the ability to run faster than everyone else, which this horse might well be able to do.
Defending the Champion Hurdle is something that happens regularly enough, but a horse regaining it after losing it happens about as often as someone saying “God, we don’t see nearly enough of John McCririck’s moobs on Channel 4.” At his best, the 2010 champ is capable of being a factor in the race, but it’s been a couple of years since he’s been at his best – at least that’s the story the official ratings tell us. He’s not without his support as his contraction from 12/1 to 8/1 for the Champion Hurdle suggests. That was on the back of a gutsy win in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton, but since then it would appear the gulf in class between himself and Hurricane Fly has been noticed and he has been eased back to 10/1. He’s been around years and maybe it feels like he’s older than the 8 years he actually has under his belt, so maybe there is still some room for improvement and not just a long slightly depressing decline.
Rock On Ruby
Rock On Ruby was plonked into the Champion Hurdle betting back in November after an impressive victory in a Listed hurdle at Newbury. The competition he beat that day wasn’t of a standard to have you thinking ‘genuine contender for the Champion Hurdle’, but anyone who took the 25/1 on offer back then can feel pretty chuffed with themselves a few months later. It’s still going to take a dramatic improvement to win the Cheltenham showpiece, but narrow defeats in the Neptune Novice Hurdle and the Christmas Hurdle at least hint this Paul Nicholls runner has the potential to be something above the norm. That narrow defeat at Christmas saw his priced chopped to 10/1, but that has drifted slightly in recent weeks. He seems to like Cheltenham and that nugget is always nice to have in the back pocket, but so do a lot of his competitors, so it has limited value in this instance. He’s got some improving to do, but clearly the champion trainer is the right person to coax that improvement out of him.
Nicky Henderson has something of dilemma on his hands with regards to Oscar Whisky. Does he send him to not win the Champion Hurdle or does he send him to not win the World Hurdle? That overly dismissive assessment is based on a few factors. Firstly, on the form, it’s hard to see him getting the better of either Hurricane fly or Big Bucks. Secondly, his optimum trip seems to be the neither here nor there distance of 2 1/2 miles – a distance not catered for in any of Cheltenham’s championship races. He’s only really getting mentioned in this piece because I could fit one more horses onto the graph without it looking cluttered. He’s not been the subject of a great deal of support for the Champion Hurdle, but he is into more ‘dark horse with an outside chance’ territory at 16/1 after back to back wins at Cheltenham in the last couple of months. Horses less fancied than Oscar have won the Champion Hurdle and the link between Cheltenham and hangovers will probably mean he gets his fair share of support from people who back their horses based on coincidental names, but he’s got his work cut out to cause an upset.
So, does anyone have a hope of stopping the Hurricane? Put your theories in the comments section below.
Join me next week as I wax cynical about another one of Cheltenham’s showpiece races.
– Champion Hurdle Betting