The World Hurdle has always been the poor relation of the four championship races. It’s been called a race for failed chasers, but attitudes have changed a lot and more horses are being trained with this race in mind now. (Big Buck’s is actually the only winner this century that had previously run in a chase.)
This in part reflects the culture of the 4 day Festival. The extra races have diluted the quality and many trainers now just want to win any Festival race, rather than try to win the best race they can. Whilst that does draw horses like Quevega out of the World Hurdle, more good staying types are remaining hurdling, whereas previously so many went chasing to see if they’d develop into a Gold Cup horse. The concentration of the best horses in so few hands also impacts – the mega connections want to split their best horses up, so top novice hurdlers like Briar Hill and Beat That, who were expected by many to go novice chasing, are being aimed at the race.
In that sense it’s a race in transition. Whilst it’s crucial to know your race, it’s also important not to be blind to the fact your knowledge may be getting out of date. Some events, like the Champion Chase, are very similar to twenty years ago. Others have changed, and if you can spot the way a race is evolving before everyone else, you’ll gain an edge.
When watching replays of World Hurdles, the obvious point is how steadily they tend to go. It’s the only one of the four championships where they rarely go a strong gallop. Most of the field are going well coming down the hill and often they’re in a heap turning into the straight.
Of course the tempo varies between different renewals, but it’s surprising few have tried to make it a real test. The most notable in recent years was Bog Warrior in 2013 who, after an initial dawdle, looked like making all until breaking down badly coming down the hill. If you can find a realistic contender that’s going to force it and make it a test of stamina, they could easily run the finish out of the others.
Unless that happens, the usual steady gallop unsurprisingly favours speedy types. The winners invariably have good form at much shorter – rather than being pure 3milers. Solwhit had won 6 Grade 1s, 5 over 2m. Inglis Drever won two Grade 2 Champion Hurdle trials over 2m the season he first won, and had been 2nd in the Neptune the previous season. Bacchanal won the Gerry Feilden, (which was then seen as a Champion Hurdle stepping stone,) over 2m the season he won.
More Of That was having only his 5th career start when winning and hadn’t raced beyond 2m4½f, showing lots of speed to win the Grade 2 Relkeel the time before. My Way De Solzen went off 8/1 for the Supreme the previous season after winning a listed novice over 2m1f, (and subsequently won an Arkle). Big Buck’s had won a Grade 2 and been 2nd in a Grade 1 over 2m3½f at Auteuil and over fences had beaten the subsequent Arkle runner-up over 2m1f. Baracouda won the Grade 2 Ascot Hurdle over 2m4f both seasons he won the World Hurdle. Iris’s Gift won a Grade 2 novice hurdle over 2m4½f and was 2nd in the Aintree Champion Bumper.
That demonstrates that plenty of speed is needed to win a World Hurdle. Horses who only win good races when stepped up to around 3m tend to struggle. That’s not to say that you don’t have to stay to win the World Hurdle, you do. There are plenty of classy horses that haven’t got the trip such as Oscar Whisky and Thousand Stars. The key point is that the World Hurdle is a test of both speed and stamina, not just stamina, (as would be more the case in a faster run race.)
Thousand Stars’ record is a useful pointer to the caution with which French form over 3m+ needs to be taken. He’s twice won the French Champion Hurdle over 3m1½f on testing ground. However, many French races are run at a real crawl and then they sprint. Even at a steady gallop he didn’t get the trip in the World Hurdle. Zarkandar has a similar profile having won a Grade 1 over 3m at Auteuil last month. A related factor is that the steady gallop can cause some horses to race with the choke out and spoil their chance. Whilst you wouldn’t call her a non-stayer, Annie Power might well have won last year if she’d settled better.
The main trials during the season in Britain are the Long Distance at Newbury, the Long Walk at Ascot, the Cleeve at Cheltenham and also the Rendlesham at Haydock. The Irish have a bad record in the World Hurdle with only Solwhit winning this century – in theory the Christmas Hurdle at Leopardstown and the Boyne at Navan are the key trials.
The trials tend to be run at a similar, (steady,) gallop to the World Hurdle, which combined with the historic lack of depth in the division, makes it unsurprising that those trials have proved a fantastic guide. 9 of the winners this century had run in at least one trial, contesting 16 races in all, winning 14, (ie 88%) – a phenomenal record.
None of Bacchanal, Inglis Drever, Solwhit and More Of That had run beyond 2m5f. So you tend to get two types of winner. A proven high-class 3miler, that has almost always won their trials(s), or a classy type stepping up in trip.
It’s worth noting that it’s rare for a horse that’s been beaten in a World Hurdle to win it in the future. The only winner this century who’d been beaten in the race before was Iris’s Gift and he was a novice when a close 2nd to Baracouda. That’s different from more exposed types like Zarkandar and At Fishers Cross winning. Both have had problems, (Zarkandar has been treated for ulcers and At Fishers Cross has a long-standing back issue.) It’s tempting to think that if they show they’ve got over those problems they have a decent chance, but such horses rarely win.
As well as the trials during the season, the other form to look at when assessing the other championship races is the novice Grade 1s from the previous year’s Festival. 5 Arkle winners this century followed up in the Champion Chase. 3 RSA winners followed up in the Gold Cup, (4 if you count Looks Like Trouble who won the 1999 RSA and 2000 Gold Cup.) The Neptune has been a strong guide to the following season’s Champion Hurdle, (and Supreme winners have won the Champion Hurdle further down the line.) Those novice events are therefore doing broadly what they are supposed to – identifying future champions in the division.
By contrast, the Albert Bartlett has been a terrible guide to the World Hurdle. Whilst plenty of the winners have gone novice chasing, 4 of the last 10 lined up in the World Hurdle the next season – At Fishers Cross finished, 3rd, Bertie’s Dream 6th, Wichita Lineman 9th, and Black Jack Ketchum fell. No horse that’s run in the Albert Bartlett has ever won a World Hurdle. Yet if the Albert Bartlett winner stays hurdling they tend to be a short price for the World Hurdle at the start of the next season.
The longer standing Grade 1 at Aintree, (the Sefton,) barely has a better record, with Iris’s Gift the only winner to follow-up in the World Hurdle, (the equivalent race at the Punchestown Festival is fairly new, but no horse from it has won the World Hurdle either.)
I think the reason that these 3m novice Grade 1s are such bad guides is that, relatively speaking, they’re more of a test of stamina. That’s exacerbated by the fact that horses generally stay further as they get older, so those novice winners tend to be even more dour stayers by the time they contest a World Hurdle – Wichita Lineman being a typical example.
It’s the hurdles form over 2 – 2m5f in the early part of a horse’s career that’s tended to be the better guide. Traditionally that’d make Beat That opposable, but as I mentioned, I wonder if better horses are following the ‘3m novice to World Hurdle’ route now, and that trend might be changing.
The first trial was run at Newbury on Saturday and reigning champion More Of That bombed out. Whilst the 2 other winners that were beaten in a trial were also previous winners, they produced much better performances. Defending champion Baracouda got a dreadful ride in the Long Walk when beaten by the top class Deano’s Beeno. Former winner Inglis Drever was on the comeback trail from injury and ran a good race to be 2nd in the Cleeve on heavy ground he didn’t like. By contrast More Of That was beaten 25l by Medinas who looks exposed as below World Hurdle standard. There are excuses – the yard isn’t in great form, he seems to improve with racing – but you’d have to be concerned. There are plenty of trials to come and, given how good a guide they’ve been, many will watch them before striking a bet.
The other option is to look for the second type of winner – an unexposed sort that’s not yet stepped up to 3m. Here are some to consider:
Blue Fashion and Lac Fontana chased Faugheen home in a Grade 2 at Ascot recently over 2m3½f. Neither had the pace to trouble Faugheen but neither has run beyond 2½m. Blue Fashion was having his first run since finishing 2l behind More Of That when conceding him 6lb a year earlier, and given how many of Nicky’s are needing the run it was an encouraging performance. He’s a half-brother to Paul Nicholls’ useful 2m handicap chaser Solar Impulse but also to Halley, a smart stayer when trained in France. He has the right sort of profile, but hasn’t escaped the attention of the layers, (16/1), and has been a bit keen in the past, which is a concern.
Lac Fontana’s price (50/1) looks big given they emerged virtually the same horse at the weights at Ascot. He won the County (2m1f) off 139 and then a Grade 1 novice over 2m4f at Aintree, (looked over the top at Punchestown in May,) so has the right sort of profile. He’s by Shirocco, like Annie Power, and Paul Nicholls thinks he’ll get 3m on a sound surface.
Another potentially relevant form-line from last season’s novices is the Grade 2 Rossington Main at Haydock over 2m. Winner Zamdy Man has only run once since when a good 2nd to The New One, (161 rated Melodic Rendezvous behind,) again over 2m. Given how long he’d been off I’d be running him in the Bula to see whether he can improve into a Champion Hurdle contender. However, Aidan Coleman was mooting a step up in trip, (he’s related to a couple of stayers). If he did stay, his front running style could run the finish out of the others, but if he was ridden to get the trip I’d be concerned he’d be too keen.
Runner-up Un Temps Pour Tout (25/1) looks a more obvious candidate. He stepped to 2m3½f next time and thrashed Cole Harden, before a fine 2nd off 150 in a handicap at Punchestown. David Pipe says he had a hard race there and won’t be back until the new year. He’s therefore a risky ante-post proposition now, but, by Robin Des Champs, might relish a step up to 3m.
Because the Hatton’s Grace was such a weak Grade 1, Lieutenant Colonel hasn’t been given much credit, but it was still a good performance. He doesn’t shape as if obviously wanting 3m, but if he does get the trip, his turn of foot would be a potent weapon, (25/1).
He’s too fragile to be an ante-post proposition but Clondaw Court (25/1) would be interesting if lining up. He’ll be 8 by then and has only run five times, winning a point, a bumper and 3 hurdle races. He looks very talented and he should stay the trip well.
Aubusson (33/1) has recently made the step up to 3 miles, winning the big fixed brush handicap at Haydock off 141, (less Lizzie Kelly’s 7lb claim.) As a family horse, she’ll understandably retain the ride but wouldn’t be able to claim in the World Hurdle. He’s also reportedly fragile so is probably one to consider nearer the race.
Whilst surprises on the day are unusual, (Solwhit is the biggest priced winner this century – SP 17/2), from an ante-post perspective the winners tend to be either from the top 2 or 3 in the market, (often previous winners) – or a dark horse that may not even be quoted at this stage.
Unless More Of That bounces back, there’s a good chance an unexposed improver, who may not have run at 3m yet, will win. My strategy is to keep an eye on both vibes and entries for the sorts of unexposed types I’ve mentioned – it might just yield a big priced ante-post winner come March.