Here are my brief thoughts on Champion Hurdle Day. Get ready for that Cheltenham Roar as the tapes go up for the first!
1.30 2m Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle
MAIN BET: Wicklow Brave. NEXT BEST BETS: Vautour, Sgt Reckless.
Paul Nicholls rates IRVING so highly that he thinks he could be a Champion Hurdle horse next season. If he’s right, he must go close to justifying favouritism in a renewal that lacks serious strength in depth. However, his price is too short when you consider that, in three albeit impressive wins for Nicholls, he has been confined to right-handed tracks and has yet to encounter proper Grade One opposition. A speedy recruit from the Flat, he might be found out up the Cheltenham hill.
Willie Mullins supplies Irving’s main opponents in VAUTOUR and WICKLOW BRAVE. The former has been a talking horse all season, but is a big, scopy sort unlikely to be seen at his best until tackling fences and he did rather pinch a Grade One last time under a canny, front-running ride by Ruby Walsh. I prefer Wicklow Brave, who has progressed quietly from the Bumper ranks and underlined his class by claiming the scalp of a solid yardstick last time.
Of the rest, solid handicap form is represented by irish raider GILGAMBOA, who is improving rapidly, SPLASH OF GINGE and THREE KINGDOMS. And both Nicky Henderson’s VANITEUX and Alan King’s WILDE BLUE YONDER are respected. However, the former might want further and the latter has to overcome final-flight falls on his latest two outings.
David Pipe, who houses a formidable squad of novice hurdlers, looks set to rely on THE LIQUIDATOR. But the six-year-old has plenty to prove after flopping last time, and it’s a shame he hasn’t turned to VIEUX LION ROUGE, whose amazing performance at Sedgefield last month, when giving 21lbs and a 12-length beating to a four-year-old with Listed form on the Flat in France, is in danger of being overlooked.
It’s almost unheard of for this race to be won on the back of just one previous hurdles outing, but Kim Bailey’s wild outsider, UN ACE, oozes potential. At almost as big a price, Mick Channon’s SGT RECKLESS is worth a look because he’ll love the drying ground.
2.05 Racing Post Arkle Trophy Novices’ Chase
MAIN BET: Dodging Bullets. NEXT BEST BETS: Trifolium, Valdez.
Given that this looked a race made in heaven for Willie Mullins’s FELIX YONGER, it is significant that he relies instead on stablemate CHAMPAGNE FEVER, who is a warm order to complete a hat-trick of Festival victories after landing the Bumper in 2012 and the Supreme Novices’last year. However, the grey gives the impression he’s at his best only when allowed his own way in front, while he hasn’t enjoyed the best of preparations. Indeed he hasn’t been seen since Boxing Day when finishing behind another more compelling Irish raider in TRIFOLIUM. The CV of Charles Byrnes’s seven-year-old includes a third in the 2012 Supreme, which he might have won under a different ride by Davy Russell, who is now on record as saying he’s “the best horse to jump a fence that I have ever sat on”. Certainly, he was mightily impressive when accounting for Felix Yonger last time.
Of the homegrown challenge, Paul Nicholls boasted a powerful hand with HINTERLAND and DODGING BULLETS. The former has fulfilled his potential this season to such an extent that he is to tackle the Queen Mother Champion Chase instead. And that leaves the door open for his stablemate, a son of Dubawi who has always been regarded as a top-class animal and who has not put a foot wrong over fences, including when a gallant second at Newbury last month, giving weight to an older rival. He also bounced round Cheltenham in November.
Alan King was double-handed for the race too until opting to wait for Aintree with BALDER SUCCES. Given the way that horse has bolted up on his latest two outings, King must have lots of confidence in VALDEZ, a gorgeous, rangy type who has always boasted a touch of class. He was just below the best in novice hurdles. Now he gets the chance to bridge that gap over the larger obstacles.
Of course, they’ll be playing for second place if hurdles form can be fully translated to chases by ROCK ON RUBY. The Champion Hurdler of two years ago has tuned up nicely for this in a couple of minor events at Plumpton and Doncaster, but it’s interesting to note that his former trainer, Nicholls, always suspected he lacked the scope to make a top-class chaser. Nicky Henderson’s GRANDOUET wasn’t far behind Rock On Ruby over hurdles, but he’s been put in his place by both Dodging Bullets and Hinterland since switching to fences and hasn’t won a race of any description since 2011.
2.40 3m Baylis And Harding Festival Handicap Chase
MAIN BET: Hadrian’s Approach. NEXT BEST BETS: Vintage Star, Alfie Sherrin.
Considering Nicky Henderson has always regarded HADRIAN’S APPROACH as potential Cheltenham Gold Cup material, he has to be of interest here off a mark of 146. It’s a mark I suspect the champion trainer has minded since the seven-year-old unseated his rider when fancied for the Hennessy Gold Cup last November. The form of his only run since, of his seasonal effort behind the classy Bury Parade and of his performances as a staying novice chaser last season, when third in the Festival’s RSA Chase, stands up to the closest scrutiny.
My one reservation about Henderson’s charge is that this race nearly always goes to a horse rated no higher than 143. So a cursory glance lower down the weights throws up the likes of VINTAGE STAR, a tough stayer cast in the mould of Sue Smith’s Yorkshire yard, and ALFIE SHERRIN, representing the formidable Jonjo O’Neill/JP McManus combination, who boasts an abundance of natural talent that will surely lead to another big prize sooner rather than later.
The JP McManus-owned CANTLOW will have his supporters, but seems too high in the weights, at the foot of which Tony Martin’s lightly-raced eight-year-old SRAID PADRAIG looks interesting.
3.20 2m Stan James Champion Hurdle
BIG-RACE 1-2-3: 1st My Tent Or Yours, 2nd Melodic Rendezvous, 3rd Jezki.
A compelling Champion Hurdle -- and one that gives the brilliant HURRICANE FLY a golden chance to finally silence his doubters by completing a hat-trick of triumphs and notching up his 20th Grade One. Those doubters do not include me, but I do share the opinion that Willie Mullins’s star is not as effective at Cheltenham as in his own backyard and I do feel he’s vulnerable at the age of ten against a posse of talented youngsters.
Mullins has removed some of the obstacles in his champion’s way by switching Annie Power to the World Hurdle and all but ruling out Un De Sceaux. But MY TENT OR YOURS, THE NEW ONE, OUR CONOR and JEZKI are all potential flies in The Fly’s ointment, while MELODIC RENDEZVOUS is an each/way possibility not to be dismissed lightly. Certainly, it is lazy nonsense to suggest that Jeremy Scott’s eight-year-old requires testing ground.
Notwithstanding his minor injury-scare this week, I marginally favour My Tent Or Yours, a seven-year-old brimming with so much speed and class that he would surely have been successful on the Flat -- as he suggested with an awesome display in a Bumper-For-Jumpers race at Kempton last month. This is a horse good enough to win a Betfair Hurdle last season, as a novice, off a mark as high as 149 and although touched off in the Supreme Novices’ at the Festival, he did beat Jezki and both went on to majestic victories at Aintree and Punchestown later in the spring. Such rock-solid form translated itself to Champion Hurdle form when Nicky Henderson’s charge beat The New One at Kempton in the Christmas Hurdle in a race which exposed the myth that he must get there on the bridle.
I remain mystified as to why the Twiston-Davies team sent The New One to Kempton, only 12 days after his hard-fought success in the Bula International at Cheltenham. Two demanding races in such a short space of time, followed by an absence from action of nearly three months, do not add up to the ideal preparation for a Champion Hurdle, in my view. He will need to draw on every ounce of his undoubted combination of speed and stamina to win a renewal of this quality.
Our Conor was the most scintillating winner (last year) of a Triumph Hurdle I have seen and is perfectly equipped to end the diabolical record of five-year-olds in this contest. However, he has already been beaten up twice by Hurricane Fly this term, including when looking all over the winner until the run-in last time at Leopardstown, a speed track that should have suited.
Jezki has also trailed the champion twice this term, but I am certain we have not seen the best of him yet. The application of a hood and the introduction of new tactics to ride him more prominently could transform Jessica Harrington’s six-year-old into a serious danger to all.
4.00 2m4f OLBG Mares’ Hurdle
MAIN BET: Highland Retreat. NEXT BEST BETS: Swing Bowler, Glens Melody.
Opposing the mighty QUEVEGA as she attempts to break Golden Miller’s 78-year-old record of six consecutive Festival victories is illogical, irrational madness unless you have a sound reason for doing so, which I haven’t. But there must come a time when she relinquishes her crown and when this freakish habit of turning up at Cheltenham to win without a prep race comes to an end. She wasn’t that impressive last year and by all accounts, she gets moodier and less tractable at home the older she gets. So, as she hits the age of ten, let’s look for something to beat her.
It’s far from easy, but it would be fitting if the impact Harry Fry has made as a trainer this season could be rewarded with success for HIGHLAND RETREAT. The seven-year-old does need dig in the ground but she has developed into a wonderful racemare.
Although she is a stablemate of the favourite, GLENS MELODY might well take her chance, even though she was badly outclassed on a fact-finding mission to Cheltenham in December. That was her only bad run on more than a year of classy progression.
Of the other challengers, the race is unlikely to be a stiff enough test of stamina for the admirable MICKIE, but David Pipe’s SWING BOWLER must have a squeak. She has run blinders in the last two Betfair Hurdles, but it must be said she appeared not to get home when tackling this contest in 2013.
4.40 4m Terry Biddlecombe National Hunt Novices’ Chase
MAIN BET: Shutthefrontdoor. NEXT BEST BETS: Shotgun Paddy, Foxrock, Touch The Eden.
Jonjo O’Neill invariably keeps us guessing over the target-races for his Festival team -- and so it is with staying novice SHUTTHEFRONTDOOR, who looked a seven-year-old with immense promise early in the season, only to blow out badly on his latest outing in December. However, he has since undergone a wind operation and given that he prefers decent ground, he is expected to return to his best for his chosen engagement. In my view, he is too harshly treated to be competitive in the 3m handicap chase earlier in the day, while his owner, JP McManus, has a better chance with Carlingford Lough in the RSA Chase. Therefore, it makes sense to plump for this race, which should suit a seven-year-old who is all about galloping and jumping.
The market is headed by the likeable FOXROCK, trained by Ruby Walsh’s father, Ted. Only one negative is attached to his chances -- the statistic that of the last 65 six-year-olds to contest the race, just one has succeeded.
In an event restricted to amateur riders, jockey ability is key, so Emma Lavelle’s decision to hire crack Irish amateur Derek O’Connor adds considerably to the chances of SHOTGUN PADDY, who defied a hefty mark for a novice to land a big staying handicap at Warwick in January. He too comes with a warning message, though, in that he must have cut in the grouind.
Of the rest, that man Willie Mullins might well throw a genuine spanner in the works if he opts to run the under-rated TOUCH THE EDEN.
5.15 2m5f Rewards4Racing Novices’ Handicap Chase
MAIN BET: Manyriverstocross. NEXT BEST BETS: Present View, Attaglance, Persian Snow,
Finding the winner of what has developed into a fiendishly competitive contest is no easy matter. But I like the chances of Alan King’s consistent handicapper MANYRIVERSTOCROSS, who has taken surprisingly well to fences and gave the top-class Oscar Whisky a fright last time.
The no-nonsense win of PRESENT VIEW suggests to me that Jamie Snowden’s six-year-old might still be well handicapped off 137, while PERSIAN SNOW, highly regarded at Philip Hobbs’s yard in his younger days, has been a model of consistency since switching to fences. He’s been slogging through the mud but was better on better ground as a Bumper horse.
Malcolm Jefferson’s ATTAGLANCE must be of interest too, if only because of his liking for Cheltenham. He won the Martin Pipe over hurdles at the 2012 Festival and ran a stormer, for a novice, when fourth in the Paddy Power Gold Cup last November.