The Grade 1 Champion Hurdle is the highlight of the opening day and the climax of the NH hurdling season.
Known for epic finishes, and won last year by Binocular, it’s open to five year old and above horses, run over an extended two miles, on the Cheltenham Old Course, with a total of eight hurdles to be jumped.
Binocular – N Henderson
7yo bay gelding
Enrique (UK) – Bleu Ciel Et Blanc (FR) (Pistolet Bleu (IRE))
Followed a second in the Supreme, with a close third in this race two years ago. A poor season by his standards followed and was all but ruled out of last year’s renewal, due to a muscle problem. Not only made the line-up but dispelled fears about the Cheltenham Hill by returning an emphatic winner. The standard of that renewal has been brought into question since and whatever your views on that, no doubt this will prove tougher. Clearly in need of his seasonal debut when blowing up behind Peddlers Cross before getting firmly back on track in Christmas Hurdle. Ultimately well below expectations in a recent prep race but on a going day, his hurdling is unmatchable and every chance or defending his crown.
Hurricane Fly – W Mullins
7yo bay gelding
Montjeu (IRE) – Scandisk (IRE) (Kenmare (FR))
No superstar on the flat over in France, but has looked every inch of one since. Having initially battered a maiden hurdle field, it didn’t take long for Grade 1 success to follow. A narrow success in the Royal Bond was soon eclipsed by a wide margin victory in the Future Champions, and made up for missing Cheltenham when completing a Grade 1 hat-trick at Punchestown. Only defeat came on past seasonal reappearance when refusing to settle in a race won by Solwhit, but since then, that rival has been firmly put in his place. Seven Grade 1 successes’ and counting but due to an injury hit career, yet to race outside Ireland. As a result, form is hard to evaluate in comparison to the opposition here and Montjeu is yet to sire a winner at the festival.
Menorah – P Hobbs
6yo bay gelding
King’s Theatre (IRE) – Maid For Adventure (IRE) (Strong Gale (UK))
Yet to finish outside the first two in nine races to date and looked a hugely talented, if not frustrating novice, often let down by sloppy jumping. Until that is, everything came together in landing last seasons’ Supreme. Started this season with a gutsy win in the Greatwood, shouldering top weight and duly brushed aside two highly regarded novices’ a month on, when taking the International. That was a hugely impressive performance that put him firmly in the Champion Hurdle picture but it’s probably not ideal that he hasn’t been seen since.
Peddlers Cross – D McCain
6yo bay gelding
Oscar (IRE) – Patscilla (UK) (Squill (USA))
Snapped up after a point to point success and began life for Donald McCain jnr in a bumper, winning comfortably. The winning hasn’t stopped since! He arrived at last season’s festival on the back of two wide margin successes’ and duly walked away with the Neptune, swooping down the straight to claim both Reve De Sivola and Rite Of Passage. A pretty comfortable win at Aintree followed, before stepping out of novice company to tackle the Fighting Fifth. Victory was his once again, taking down Binocular in the process, but he’ll have his work cut out confirming that form. Returning from a near three month break, he could only really be described as workmanlike in the Morebattle but that was in reality, nothing more than a means to an end. Not sure he can go toe to toe with some of the other main pretenders but should the race pan out to suit, it’ll take a good horse to fight their way past him up the Cheltenham Hill.
Others of note:
Dunguib was a red hot favourite for the Supreme last year but the chartering of a wide course seemed to put paid to his chances. With that race in mind, there is a certain logic that would suggest wherever you find Menorah, Dunguib won’t be far away, but his jumping will determine how accurate that proves. His recent return was one of promise and his hurdling was better, but due to the nature of that contest, it’s difficult to assume his flaws have been corrected with certainty. Oscar Whisky finished a place behind Dunguib in the Supreme and has enjoyed two comfortable successes’ this term but when I look at those two wins, I see a very good horse, not a Champion Hurdle winner. Alan King has made some lofty comments about Mille Chief and his easy victory in a hot Sandown handicap showed glimpses of why. He’s since won the Kingwell, all be it narrowly, and though I’m not sure what to make of the race itself, he must be given credit for coming out on top. He jumps well and it’s worth remembering the yard was cold when he suffered a couple of reverses during the tail end of last year but this looks a tall order nether-the-less. I wasn’t convinced by Khyber Kim last year, yet he ran a fine race chasing home Binocular followed by a win at Aintree. He was well below that form on his return though and talk of the World Hurdle doesn’t inspire. He’s not on my radar but I could see why he’d be considered interesting each way.
[frame_right src=”http://www.cheltenhamtips.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/Hurricane-Fly-2-150×150.jpg” href=”#”]Hurricane Fly[/frame_right]
Next season will truly determine how good a renewal this is but for now, initial impressions are its pretty hot. Firstly, there doesn’t appear to be that many candidates from a pace angle, and while a few of the principals could employ pacemakers, I don’t think we can blindly bank on the usual end to end gallop seen in this race. That aside, it’s time to narrow things down; Dunguib doesn’t look a natural over the lesser obstacles and that may well cost him in this company. I wouldn’t class Peddlers Cross as slow, not by a long way, but he does lack the tactical speed and pure acceleration of others in opposition. It’s worth recalling he was momentarily outpaced in the Neptune last year and for me, he’ll need to manipulate this race in such a way as to blunt his opponents’ superior attributes; Something I just don’t see happening. Bula, back in 1971, was the last Supreme winner to follow up in the Champion Hurdle, a statistic Menorah must overcome. The Hobbs charge is undefeated at Prestbury Park and looks a future champion all but guaranteed, just maybe not this year. Last year’s Champion Hurdle hasn’t hugely held up, and as impressive as Binocular was in claiming the crown, I’m not convinced a repeat performance would be good enough. That said, he is a class act, and if he jumps the way we all know he can, it’ll take a serious horse to dethrone him. He’s been similarly unspectacular, in the main, throughout this season as was the case last, but said seasons revolve around one race and one race only, so it’s of no surprise to see him now open up some daylight at the top of a compressed market. For me however, Hurricane Fly, is the one to side with, even if an element of faith is required. The Irish raider has an abundance of star quality and every facet needed to be a Champion. His career to date has been blighted by injury but finally, it appears, the opportunity to truly shine has arrived. The festival stat regarding his sire is pretty damning, and as such, how he’ll take to Cheltenham is a worry, but stats are there to be broken and this is the Montjeu to break them.
[notification_box]3pts win Hurricane Fly @ 11/2 with Stan James. [/notification_box]