The Grade 1 Champion Hurdle is the feature race on Champion Day, the first day of the Cheltenham Festival where all of the best two-mile hurdlers do battle, and this year’s renewal is shaping up to be one of the very best we’ve seen for many a year.
The current defending champion is the magnificent Willie Mullins trained Hurricane Fly. The best two-mile hurdler around for the past few years, certainly the best since Istabraq, and many feel Hurricane Fly is the best two-mile hurdler in history of the sport. He has entered the record books for winning a remarkable number of grade one’s, a total which at the time of writing stands at 19. Most of these coming in the seemingly effortless fashion we’ve come to expect from a truly top class individual.
Montjeu (IRE) (11.7f) — Scandisk (IRE) (Kenmare (FR) (9.8f))
Notes: A winner of 21 of his 24 hurdles starts, he has looked untouchable in Ireland over the past few years, oozing class as none of his rivals have been able to get near him. He won this race in 2011 and 2013, and he finished a disappointing 3rd in the 2012 renewal after reportedly not being at his best. Although he is not getting any younger, he has looked as good as ever in Ireland this year, winning 3 grade 1’s and defeating some top class horses in the process. Although he has won two Champion Hurdle’s, I still believe Cheltenham does not completely suit his running style and he is much more at home around his home courses such as Leopardstown, where he has asserted his dominance many times.He couldn’t make the ground up on Rock On Ruby in 2012, and last year he looked in trouble at the top of the hill before staying on to win, although he was helped with that rival going much too fast through the main part of the race. He is suited by a slow pace that he usually gets in Ireland and doesn’t tend to get at Cheltenham. Even so, he has been by far the best two-mile hurdler for some time. This year though, he faces a whole new challenge with many young guns battling to wrestle away his crown. Those who will almost certainly travel better than him through the race and I have my doubts he will be able to live with some of these rivals throughout the race. Age will catch up with him one day, and with many formidable opponents this year, I’m not convinced he will be good enough to beat these up and coming stars, of which there are a few. There is no doubting that this is the toughest race Hurricane Fly will have contested in a long time, and should he complete the feat he’ll become the first horse since Sea Pigeon in 1980 to win the race as a ten-year-old, and you have to go back even further to Hatton’s Grace in 1950 to find the next double-figure aged winner.
Jeremy (USA) (7.8f) — Flamands (IRE) (Sadler´s Wells (USA) (11.4f))
Notes: Our Conor was the leading Juvenile in both Britain and Ireland last term, and went through his first campaign over hurdles unbeaten, which culminated in a breath-taking display to blow away his rivals in the Triumph Hurdle. He left the impression that day that he was something special, and has been my pick for this year’s Champion Hurdle since. He jumped superbly in the Triumph, travelled powerfully throughout and effortlessly pulled clear, dispatching of some very useful rivals in the process. He was the easiest and most impressive winner of the Triumph Hurdle that I have ever seen, and if he can run to that level back at Cheltenham he most go very close. This season he has had two starts over hurdles, finishing 3rd and 2nd behind Hurricane Fly. His first run he travelled well in to the straight before fading in to 3rd, this was a promising run as he had missed work in the run up to the race and wasn’t 100% fit. He greatly improved on this effort last time, where he looked like beating Hurricane Fly before being out-battled after the last. He has been brought along superbly by Dessie Hughes, and you can be sure he will be tuned to perfection come Champion Hurdle day. He jumps extremely well which is also a vital asset to winning a Champion Hurdle, and clearly this has been the target since his runaway Triumph success on a course that will suit him perfectly with a fast pace to aim at, there won’t be many travelling better than him coming to the last. This year’s renewal looks one of the strongest in many years, and although winning a champion hurdle aged 5 is a huge ask, Katchit managed it in 2008 after winning the Triumph Hurdle the previous year and I believe this horse is something special and can go on to land this hugely competitive renewal.
My Tent Or Yours
Desert Prince (IRE) (9.2f) — Spartan Girl (IRE) (Ela-Mana-Mou (12.3f))
Notes: This Nicky Henderson trained horse has won 6 of his 8 starts over hurdles in his career so far, and has looked like a potentially top class horse in the process. He has such a high cruising speed and travels so well through his races that you’d imagine this will be a massive positive in a typically fast run race like the Champion should be. He was sent off a short priced favourite in what was a very hot renewal of the Supreme last year, and he travelled into the race exceptionally well to be delivered at the last, although he didn’t find much off the bridle and was out-gunned up the hill by course specialist Champagne Fever. Many then labelled him as a bridle horse that didn’t find when asked, although he dispelled this myth when he out-battled The New One in the Christmas Hurdle, showing he has plenty of grit and determination as well as speed, and an abundance of raw talent. He has looked as good as ever this year, winning the Fighting Fifth in good style as well as the Christmas Hurdle, and proved his well-being when running out an easy winner in a Jumpers Bumper recently at Kempton Park. Although he has all the attributes to become a Champion hurdler, he can be very keen and fresh during his races and this will at times have a detrimental effect on his finishing effort in the top sphere of races. He looked sure to win the Supreme last season before being outstayed up the hill, and it remains to be seen whether the stamina demands that Cheltenham requires once again will suit him as well as others. There is no doubting his ability and he will be one of the last off the bridle during the race, but the uphill finish worries me and he is much more at home on a flat track, where he can use his speed and powerful stride throughout the race and not have to rely on stamina. His jumping isn’t always the slickest too, and this needs to improve in order to win a Champion Hurdle. However he still has a big chance and is expected go close with the Champion Jockey, Tony McCoy on board, I would be surprised if he wasn’t travelling well coming down the hill and turning for home, although whether he will get up the hill is a question waiting to be answered.
The New One
King´s Theatre (IRE) (11.4f) — Thuringe (FR) (Turgeon (USA) (10.4f))
Notes: The New One is very closely matched with My Tent Or Yours after their prolonged duel in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton over the festive period. This Nigel Twiston-Davies trained horse is thought the world of by his trainer, and his win in last year’s Neptune Investment Novices’ Hurdle confirmed he was a horse of immense potential. With an electric turn of foot, he put his rivals away in a matter of strides at last year’s Festival, and beat a good field in an extremely eye-catching fashion. He was still a novice at the Aintree Grand National meeting last year, yet he was pitched in to the ultra-competitive Aintree Hurdle. He ran with immense credit, finishing second to a revitalised Zarkandar who was ridden to perfection that day by Ruby Walsh, benefiting from the first time application of headgear. This showed he could mix it with the best hurdlers around, even as a novice. He reappeared at Kempton back in October, where he used his trademark turn of foot to easily defeat top class hurdler and 2012 Champion Hurdle hero Rock On Ruby. Although Rock On Ruby wasn’t anywhere near 100% fit that day, it was still a visually impressive performance and proved he belonged right at the top over hurdles. Not always the slickest jumper, he is prone to making a few mistakes in his races, and arguably it was his jumping that lost him the aforementioned Christmas Hurdle, where he looked to be holding My Tent Or Yours before a shuddering error at the last put paid to his chance, costing him precious momentum. He is ideally suited to a track such as Cheltenham, as it puts an emphasis on stamina as well as speed, of which he has both in abundance. I personally would fancy him to turn the Christmas Hurdle form around with My Tent Or Yours back at Cheltenham, where he was oh so impressive last year. Although his jumping does need to improve, there is no doubting his ability and he has outstanding claims of capturing this year’s Champion Hurdle.
Milan (13.8f) — La Noire (IRE) (Phardante (FR) (12.7f))
Notes: Jezki is another Irish horse many had high hopes for this season after his impressive campaign as a novice, which culminated in him finishing a respectable 3rd in the Supreme. However he hasn’t been seen to best effect season and needs to improve to trouble the main market leaders in this year’s renewal, of which a stronger pace than he’s encountered in Ireland thus far will help enhance his claims. Trained by Jessica Harrington, he was unbeaten going in to last year’s Supreme and he was challenging before a mistake at the last put paid to any chance he had. He has won a Grade 1 this season, beating Zaidpour in workmanlike fashion in the Hatton’s Grace Hurdle at the start of December, but has since gone on to be beaten twice by Hurricane Fly. The first of these was a useful display where he finished in front of Our Conor, although Our Conor wasn’t anywhere near 100% fit. Last time out he finished last behind those two rivals who re-opposed, and also Captain Cee Bee who is usually well beaten at the top-level. This on the face of it was a very poor run, but he was given a fairly bizarre ride on the day by Tony McCoy and the ground lost at the start meant his task was insurmountable from the get-go. However to my eye throughout his races he looks like he needs further than two-miles to show his best. Although he is clearly a talented horse, he has been beaten fairly by a couple of these rivals before and I see no reason why he should turn the form round come Champion Hurdle day.
Annie Power also needs a mention should her trainer decide to go down this route rather than the World Hurdle. This unbeaten mare is now 10 out of 10 under rules, and has oozed class in all of her runs to date. She has readily disposed of a decent yardstick in Zarkandar twice, and has never looked like being beaten. She is clearly a top class mare and would have solid credentials for this race, however it does look unlikely at the moment as they seem to be favouring the World Hurdle route. Her only question mark would be her jumping, as she hasn’t always been that slick which could affect her in a race of this calibre. There is no question about how good she is, nor how far she is likely to go in this sphere, and she would go there with a great chance should connections go the Champion Hurdle route.
Melodic Rendezvous has enjoyed a fine season so far, winning 3 of his 4 hurdles starts this term. He has been a rapidly improving horse both this season and last, only denied his chance to run at last year’s Festival due to injury. He came back as good as ever, winning the Elite on his reappearance when not 100% fit. His only disappointing run came in the Fighting Fifth, where he sustained an injury and therefore you can put a line through that effort as not his true running. At his best on bad ground which he is unlikely to get at Cheltenham, he is a very good horse although I suspect he might be slightly below the standard required to win a race of this nature. I’m not convinced for two-mile on decent ground, and would be much more suited to further. He is an admirable horse who I am a big fan of and has fully earned his right to be in the race, but I suspect he won’t quite be quick enough to live with some of his rivals and would much rather see connections wait for the Aintree Hurdle over 2 and a half miles, in which I think he would have a huge chance.
This year’s renewal is shaping up to be the race of the Festival, with so many potential stars doing battle with not much between them on ratings or in the formbook. As already stated, Our Conor gets my vote for this ultra-competitive affair. He looked like a hurdler right out of the top draw when running amok in the Triumph Hurdle last year, and if he can return to that level again he will prove extremely tough to beat. Last year he showed greatly improved form at Cheltenham, and he should hopefully be able to do it again this time around. He is an incredibly slick jumper of a hurdle and has speed in abundance. He will be tuned to perfection come race day, so in the knowledge that Dessie Hughes has had experience in preparing Hardy Eustace for back-to-back Champion Hurdle successes I believe he will take all the beating. The New One was impressive in last year’s Neptune and if he can brush up on his jumping he will go very close, as should My Tent Or Yours if he can harness his energy in the early stages. Although Hurricane Fly is the defending champion, I believe it will take a huge effort to record his third victory in the race and I personally cannot see him being good enough against this young improving opposition.