The feature of the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival is the Championship race for two mile hurdlers – The Stan James Champion Hurdle. The race is littered with great names from the past. Most recently JP McManus’ brilliant hurdler Istabraq completed his hat-trick of Champion Hurdles in the millennium year, and could well have made it a fantastic four had the 2001 Festival not been wrecked by foot and mouth disease.
Some in Ireland believed they had found Istabraq’s equal when Hurricane Fly arrived from France and announced himself on the hurdling scene, and despite finishing only third as the 4/6 favourite in the 2012 renewal The Fly tops the ante-post lists again this time around. The sponsor’s 15/8 jolly lost one of his most credible opponents this week when Darlan tragically lost his life at Doncaster, but last year’s Champion Rock On Ruby is amongst a bunch of young hurdlers ready for their shot at the top prize.
Hurricane Fly is going to have to overcome a couple of striking statistics if he is once again to be crowned the two mile king:
– Only one nine-year-old or older (Rooster Booster at 9) has won the race since 1994 – before that you have to go back to Sea Pigeon in 1981 for a winner older than 8.
– The last horse to regain the Champion Hurdle is Comedy Of Errors in 1975.
At nine-years-old and having lost the crown last year, The Fly has history against him despite being as short as 6/4 in a place. It’s also worth noting that the only dual winner of the race since Istabraq was Hardy Eustace, and before them you’re going all the way back to triple-winner See You Then in 1987. Backers of Rock On Ruby, Binocular, Punjabi and the fav, take note!
Of the five Champion Hurdle winners since 2007, three were actually beaten at short prices (7/4, 11/8 and 11/8 again) in Kempton’s Christmas Hurdle. On top of that two horses – Overturn last year and Punjabi in 2008 – were beaten in the same race yet were placed at 20/1+ in the Champion, so it would be unwise to dismiss vanquished runners from that contest. In behind the unfortunate Darlan this year were Raya Star (best price 50/1 for the Champion), Dodging Bullets (runs in the Supreme) and Countrywide Flame (6/4f for the Xmas Hurdle but now 20/1 for Cheltenham after finishing only fourth at Kempton). It could be worth considering both Raya Star and Countrywide Flame at big prices, especially John Quinn’s horse who also fits the trend of being sent off shorter than 2/1 for the Xmas race. The Cheltenham test has clearly suited these talented horses better than the flat, right handed track at Kempton.
The last five winners of the race have pre-race records of:
Rock On Ruby: 2312
Hurricane Fly: 1111
Take out Hurricane Fly winning pretty poor Grade Ones in Ireland and it’s clear that it’s not necessary to run up a sequence of 1s in order to have a strong chance in the Champion. However a horse has tended to need to win their prep run if they are to be winning at Cheltenham – 24 out of the last 28 winners have done so.
Montjeu (IRE) (11.7f) — Scandisk (IRE) (Kenmare (FR ) (9.8f)
Notes: The 2011 winner and amazingly the only horse trained in Ireland to even place in the race since Sublimity won it in 2007. Has used his flat speed to clean up in small field Grade Ones over the Irish Sea since his arrival in 2008, and has been beaten only twice in his 16 runs since then. Was sent off 4/6 to win the race last term but could manage only third as Rock On Ruby got away at a crucial stage. Third place is probably not a fair reflection of his ability as he is almost certainly a better hurdler than Overturn who finished in front of him, and Willie Mullins’ horse has reeled off another four wins on the bounce back home since. Has only beaten the usual suspects over there but has won with typical authority and plenty felt his Irish Champion victory was up there with his best performances. A worthy favourite on pure ability, but 2/1 and shorter looks skinny for a nine-year-old who is attempting to regain his lost title.
Al Namix (FR) — Virginia River (FR) (Indian River (FR )
Notes: Ran in probably the most informative trial so far when finishing two lengths behind the race-fit Zarkandar in the International Hurdle over course and distance. A lack of race fitness and giving up 4lbs was too much for the speedy Grandouet, while the heavy ground was also unlikely to be in his favour. Those factors considered it is not overly surprising to see Nicky Henderson’s horse trade a shade shorter in the market than his conqueror, although that is now three times the pair have faced off and Zarkandar has come out on top in all three. The International run suggested there were no long term problems from the fetlock problem he suffered last term, and his four-length beating of overturn in the 2011 renewal was given a massive boost when the runner-up filled the same spot at the Festival. A live chance to provide Henderson with a record sixth Champion Hurdle winner.
Azamour (IRE) (10.6f) — Zarkasha (IRE) (Kahyasi (12.8f)
Notes: Half-brother to one of the finest fillies we’re ever likely to see in Zarkava, and hasn’t done too badly in making a name for himself either. Became a genuine Champion contender last season when winning the Betfair Hurdle off 151. Could only finish fifth on the big day in a race that wouldn’t have been ideal for him – he was quite clearly outpaced at a crucial stage. Many will be willing to give him the benefit of the doubt last year due to an interrupted preparation, and things have been much smoother this time around. Likely to still be improving as a six-year-old who only ran three times on the flat, and although he had fitness on his side when winning the International he’s never going to be the type to do anything flashy and it’s not hard to imagine there was more in the tank should Zarkandar have needed to pull out more. However the 4lbs he received goes out the window in March and on balance he may still need to have improved by then.
Rock On Ruby
Oscar (IRE) (13.7f) — Stony View (IRE) (Tirol (8.6f))
Notes: The defending champ for precocious trainer Harry Fry. Picked up the pieces after Darlan’s horrible fall at Doncaster and that was probably his best effort since his big day at Prestbury Park. Didn’t convince everyone that he was the best horse in the Champion Hurdle last year despite the convincing winning margin of nearly four lengths, with a pretty even split between those who thought Noel Fehily had ‘stolen’ the race and those who believed the right horse had won. Hasn’t done an awful lot to suggest he’s actually a better horse than Hurricane Fly since and he’s now eight years old which is not ideal for a Champion Hurdler- he did only finish a short head away from winning the Neptune at the Festival the year before that though and clearly enjoys himself around Prestbury Park. The value in his price has possibly disappeared seeing as he was still double figures not long ago and while he could very well win I would rather look elsewhere.
Haafhd (9.4f) — Third Party (Terimon (12.0f))
Notes: One of the more intriguing ‘outsiders’. First things first, a five-year-old winner of the Champion would be very rare- other than Katchit in 2008 you’re looking way back to the greats Sea You Then, Night Nurse and Persian War to find such young winners. As with a lot of the novice races at the Festival the form of Countrywide Flame’s Triumph is a bit hit and miss but he beat good horses like Grumeti and Dodging Bullets on his big day. While that isn’t obvious Champion Hurdle-winning form his demolition of Cinders And Ashes in the Fighting Fifth was a lot more like it, and as a strong stayer on the flat he is likely to be suited by the demands of the Festival. He can certainly be forgiven his fourth of seven in the Christmas Hurdle in a farcically slowly run race, and the flat track at Doncaster wouldn’t have played to his strengths last time. The record of beaten Christmas Hurdle runners in the Champion gives hope that Countrywide Flame can bounce back at Cheltenham, and having been as short as 8/1 before Kempton he can now be backed at 20/1 with several firms. The 5-y-o statistic is a concern but John Quinn’s horse isn’t a bad price to find out if he can emulate Katchit.
Binocular: Probably the best jumper of a hurdle since Istabraq. He’s getting on a bit as he’s now a nine-year-old and was easily dismissed by Hurricane Fly in Ireland on the face of it. That race caused a bit of a stir with the apparent tender handling McCoy gave Binocular and it’s not totally out of the question that JP’s horse could ask a much more serious question in March, but he will do well to confirm form with Zarkandar in particular from last season.
Cinders And Ashes: The Supreme winner in 2012 trained by the popular Donald McCain. Beat Darlan that day but was thrashed by the same horse at Kempton after a similar beating in the Fighting Fifth- both times behind Countrywide Flame. As we’ve seen already it’s no impossible to be beaten in those races and come on to win a Champion, although the record of Supreme Novice winners in the race isn’t great either – Brave Inca was the last to win both. Will need a major turnaround in March.
Cotton Mill: The potential fly in the ointment, as recognised by Pricewise in his own preview. Looked capable of giving the very smart Simonsig a race in the Neptune last season and that race has been a very good trial for the Champion in the last couple of seasons. Can definitely be forgiven his Aintree third to Lovcen as he blatantly didn’t stay, and no surprise he’s dropped right the way back to two miles for the Betfair Hurdle- if he wins that well off 145 then expect prices of 25/1 to crumble right the way down into single figures.
VERDICT: With the favourite basically doing his own thing over in Ireland, the International Hurdle has been the most solid-looking trial for the 2013 Champion so far. Zarkandar came out on top from Grandouet and Rock On Ruby, but having received 4lbs from both and with race fitness on his side there will be plenty willing to side with one of the two beaten horses. Grandouet hasn’t been seen since and as such has run only once since the end of 2011, and Rock On Ruby was booked for second behind Darlan at Doncaster before the latter suffered his fatal fall. Both will be primed to give their best on the day that matters, although Zarkandar too may have more to give on the day and it is a tough choice between the three. Marginal preference would be for the strong-staying Zarkandar should he have a more smooth preparation than last season, however I think it is worth taking them all on with COUNTRYWIDE FLAME who appeared to thrive over C&D in the Triumph Hurdle last season and will certainly get up the hill strongly on his flat form. He is a five-year-old but a very experienced one having had 29 career starts over the two codes, and his demolition of the Supreme Novice winner at Newcastle showed he doesn’t lack gears. Hurricane Fly is clearly the one to beat on his 2011 run but at age 9 he is worth taking on at 2/1 and below. Cotton Mill – the Pricewise selection – is a very lively outsider.