After the bombshell news earlier in the week that reigning champion Faugheen will miss this year’s Cheltenham Festival through a suspensory ligament injury, the market for the Champion Hurdle has been blown wide open.
Can A Stop-Gap Solution Be The Answer?
The Rich Ricci owned, Willie Mullins trained, Annie Power has been installed as a firm 2/1 favourite with most bookmakers after it emerged connections were willing to re-route the infamous mare from her apparent target of the Mares Hurdle. Annie Power’s lack of graded form at the 2m distance is concerning, given she has only raced once over the trip since February 2013 out of a total of 9 races, so it is not unreasonable to assume she is at her best over an intermediate distance. Despite receiving 7lb from her male rivals, Annie Power faces a gargantuan task in winning a Champion Hurdle over a trip too short for her.
Poorly Campaigned Arctic Fire?
The next two in the betting are also trained by Willie Mullins, Arctic Fire (7/2) and Nichols Canyon (6/1) have had very differing campaigns. A brilliant second in last year’s renewal, Arctic Fire started the season with two victories over 2m 4f, before incredibly being stepped up to 3m at Leopardstown’s Christmas meeting, which is hardly the blueprint preparation for a potential Champion Hurdle winner. He ran in the Irish Champion Hurdle on his latest start, however he was beaten 15 lengths by Faugheen, although he was a further 13 lengths clear of stablemate Nichols Canyon. Arctic Fire may have benefitted from sitting off the strong pace that day and ran on without troubling the winner. It is interesting that only 2 of his last 6 races have been over 2 miles, in addition he has a career record of 4/18 and a even more dismal record over 2 miles standing at 2/13. This is not the profile of the Champion Hurdle winner in my opinion, I can envisage him running similarly to last year in which he is held up and then storms home to fill a place.
Too Much, Too Soon for Nichols Canyon?
The ex-flat recruit has been a revelation over hurdles winning 6 (!) Grade 1 hurdles in little over a season and a half, that includes a defeat of Faugheen in the Morgiana Hurdle in November. However it has been much harder work since for Nichols Canyon, just edging out Identity Thief in a slog at Christmas and then perhaps feeling the effects of that race when bombing out in the aforementioned Irish Champion Hurdle. He remains a very classy horse and a very dangerous weapon from the front, but whether he has had too hard a season remains to be seen.
A Step Too Far For Identity Thief?
Identity Thief (6/1) has improved leaps and bounds this season, especially as he was only a mere maiden winner in his novice campaign. Trainer Henry De Bromhead started him out in a Grade 2 hurdle at Down Royal in October beating lowly opposition, before being thrown into the Grade 1 Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle and emerging victorious. The fact he only overcame the since disappointing Top Notch by a neck that day is disconcerting, especially when those in behind included handicappers like Wicklow Brave and Purple Bay. His biggest form claim comes from the 2 length defeat to Nichols Canyon at Christmas, he looked like winning for a while up the straight that day and it might just have been the heavy ground that allowed his market rival to get back past. He is undoubtedly an intriguing contender, but it has to be taken on trust that he has the class to win a Champion Hurdle.
Too Much To Overcome for My Tent Or Yours?
The next two in the market are both British-trained and both on comeback missions of sorts. My Tent Or Yours (8/1) has not been sighted since flopping in the Scottish Champion Hurdle two years ago and before that he was just touched off by Jezki in the 2014 renewal of the Champion Hurdle. Undoubtedly an animal possessing the talent to win a Championship race like this, a layoff of over 700 days looks likely if he goes straight to the Festival and putting faith in a profile like that is risky. In addition, he has just been touched off in two races at Cheltenham, beaten 1/2 length in 2013 Supreme Novices and a neck in the 2014 Champion after seemingly travelling like the winner. So, one has to have concerns over whether he truly gets up the famous Cleeve Hill.
Third Time Lucky for The New One?
The New One (10/1) has been one of the most consistent horses in Britain over the last few years, racking up large sums of prize money and mopping up a slew of pattern races. However since winning the Neptune Novices Hurdle in 2013, he has tasted defeat at the Cheltenham Festival in two runs in the Champion Hurdle. The New One was exceptionally unlucky in 2014 after nearly being brought to standstill after the fatal fall of Our Conor, he flew home for an unlucky third. Last year, there were no excuses when he was quickly beaten turning for home unable to quicken with the likes of Faugheen and Arctic Fire. Similar to Annie Power, it could be that his best distance is 2m 4f and that will make winning a Champion Hurdle at the third attempt very hard.
Famine For The Juvenile Crop?
Last year’s Triumph Hurdle excited many observers by seemingly throwing up three very good horses in the shape of Peace And Co (20/1), Top Notch (25/1) and Hargam (25/1). However, the victor of that race (Peace And Co) has let his freshness issues overcome him this season and posted two highly disappointing runs at both Cheltenham and Sandown. Top Notch started his year with two promising second place finishes, but then bombed out in the 2m 4f Relkeel Hurdle at Cheltenham being beaten a total of 21 lengths. Since then he has lost some lustre to his profile and a facile victory at 4/11 around Kelso did little to inform us if he is back to his best. Finally, Hargam was said to be a horse desperate for fast ground after his run in the Triumph, although he flopped on such conditions next time out at Aintree’s Grand National meeting. His first two starts this season were at Cheltenham, he was a semi disappointment on his reappearance coming home fourth. Hargam ran much better next time finishing a close run third in the Grade 2 International Hurdle, he then seemingly ran a career best when almost nabbing second in the Grade 1 Christmas Hurdle on Boxing Day. That form entitles him to be highly considered and if for some reason My Tent Or Yours were not to turn up, Hargam would be an intriguing contender under Barry Geraghty.
Best Of The Rest
Perhaps the most interesting of those further down the market is Old Guard (25/1), who is unbeaten at Cheltenham this season in three starts. After a good handicap win to start the season, he was then victorious in the annually competitive Greatwood Handicap Hurdle, he then followed up in the Grade 2 International Hurdle. That makes him a real Cheltenham specialist, but his limitations were perhaps exposed in the Grade 1 Christmas Hurdle at Kempton in which he was well beaten by Faugheen, The New One and Hargam. He would need to run a career best to even trouble those at the head of the market, but his proven Cheltenham form means he could sneak a place.
25 horses have won 6 Grade 1s since 1990 – only 3 have not tasted success at the Cheltenham Festival (Nichols Canyon, Silviniaco Conti, Beef Or Salmon)
There are doubts about every horse in the Champion Hurdle market and that is not unusual after such a strong favourite – 1/4 before being withdrawn – in Faugheen has been ruled out. It is hard to pin my colours to the mast of any horse with absolute confidence, but if one horse deserves to be crowned Champion Hurdler this season, in the absence of Faugheen, it is Nichols Canyon. Not many horses can win two Grade 1 hurdles over 2m in a campaign and still be rated an 6/1 chance ante post, but that is how we find the Graham Wyile owned hurdler. Hopefully Ruby Walsh elects to ride him in the big race, but it would be no surprise to see him plump for favourite Annie Power, in that case the booking of Paul Townend would be vital as this would continue the relationship formed in the Irish Champion Hurdle. One notable fact unearthed by Pat Mustard (@OlManRiver_) is that 25 horses have won 6 Grade 1s since 1990 – only 3 have not tasted success at the Cheltenham Festival (Nichols Canyon, Silviniaco Conti, Beef Or Salmon). So it is highly likely that the horse will taste success at the Festival at some point in his career, unless he is to become an infamous hater of Cleeve Hill such as the other two. In my opinion, it is worth staking that he will become the 23rd horse to complete the 6 Grade 1s + Cheltenham Festival win double and be victorious in the 2016 Champion Hurdle.
2pts on Nichols Canyon to win the Champion Hurdle at 6/1 (Paddy Power)