By Sean Goff | Cheltenham 2013
Zarkandar completed the Champion Hurdle jigsaw as far as the last key trials are concerned with a workman-like but effective win under Daryl Jacob in the Grade 2 Kingwell Hurdle on Saturday.
The major piece missing from the puzzle however is whether connections of My Tent or Yours (4/1 with a run with Paddy Power) opt to send him to the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle (2/1f) or join Binocular in the line-up on March 12.
My Tent or Yours was given a rating of 162 (from 149) after his Newbury stroll in the Betfair Hurdle but still needs to be supplemented for the opening-day feature in a little over four weeks’ time.
But the stats are heavily loaded against a novice winning the Champion Hurdle with eight of the last 10 winners running between 10 and 25 times over hurdles. My Tent or Yours next run will be only his fifth over obstacles.
Ruby Walsh confirmed over the weekend that he was sticking with 2011 winner Hurricane Fly who clearly wasn’t at his best when a five-length third to Rock on Ruby in last year’s Champion Hurdle after struggling to beat horses he normally ghosted past.
Two key stats are against the Fly though as no nine-year-old has won the Champion Hurdle since Rooster Booster in 2003. More worryingly no horse has regained their Champion Hurdle crown since Comedy of Errors in 1975 and only three winners aged eight and over have won in 58 years.
Sea Pigeon’s second Champion Hurdle crown win aged 11 in 1981 may give favourite backers some comfort though.
But form is temporary and class is permanent and Willie Mullins runner has 16 career wins over hurdles from 19 starts – including 14 Grade Ones.
Harry Fry’s reigning champion Rock on Ruby beat off last season’s Triumph Hurdle winner Countrywide Flame at Doncaster although both would have had to settle for minor honours behind Darlan until his fatal fall.
Retaining the crown has proven easier than regaining it as Hardy Eustace (2004 & 2005), Istabraq (1998-2000) and See You Then (1985-87) have shown.
Seven of the last 10 winners had won last time out so going into the race with a ‘1’ before your name is a big plus while 19 of the last 20 winners came from the first six in the betting.
No winner of the Supreme Novice Hurdle has gone on to claim the Champion crown the following season since Bula in 1970 so Cinders and Ashes has his work cut out.
Brave Inca was the last to win the Supreme (2004) and later win the Champion (2006) but could only finish third to Hardy Eustace the season afterwards. Countrywide Flame would become the first Triumph winner since Katchit in 2008 to win the Champion Hurdle win the following year.
With doubts over Grandouet and Oscar Whisky’s participation – both would be serious players particularly if the ground was in their favour – Rock on Ruby looks the most solid Champion Hurdle option at this stage.