On 6 Nov last year, Don Cantillon’s veteran La Estrella won for the 13th time at Southwell, getting up in a titanic tussle with Pendragon to land the Claimer. It wasn’t the most difficult of winners to pick – he went off 2-7 after all – but it was another notch on his admittedly low-level gatepost nevertheless.
Why do I bring this up when I’m trying to find the winner of next seasons Champion Hurdle? Well, in a round about fashion, it seems when looking for the winner, in much the same way as when looking for a Southwell All-Weather winner, you need to look almost exclusively at Southwell All-Weather form and not much else. Similar applies for Cheltenham Festival form and there can’t be many races where this applies more than the Champion Hurdle.
Look at the last twenty years or so. Repeat winners aplenty, not least our current champion, Hurricane Fly. Rock On Ruby, runner up this time around, was last seasons champion. And Countrywide Flame, in third, was a good winner of the previous years Triumph Hurdle. It doesn’t stop there – the likes of Binocular, Sublimity, Katchit and Punjabi had all run well at the Festival the season before. In some ways this is hardly a surprise, you might say – after all, the best horses will continually contest the best races, and Cheltenham is where they’re at – but it’s still a good starting point and means you might be able to rule one or two out towards the front of the market.
For instance, you’d be surprised if the likes of Grandouet or Zarkandar were to prove good enough next year – they’ve already been beaten by the current brigade, let alone the influx of top-class novices and juveniles we were blessed with last season. Neither can I go overboard about Willie Mullins’s Fairyhouse winner Annie Power just yet – not only does she not have any Cheltenham form, but she’ll need to tidy her jumping up a bit too.
Hurricane Fly continues to defy his naysayers – and yep, hands up here, I was one of them last season – and he regained his crown (in itself, a rare feat) with a gutsy victory last season. Looking in a spot of trouble just after halfway, he was back on the bridle turning for home and won driven out, despite drifting right on the run in. It would be foolish to say, despite the advancing years (he’ll be ten by the time next year’s renewal comes around) that he can’t win it again but he’s not going to be getting any faster and younger legs (and possibly quicker ground) might well get the better of him. His undoubted class will take him so far, but he might need yet another personal best.
Rock On Ruby, trained by Harry Fry, deserves a lot of respect. It’s never easy trying to make all in a Champion, and he battled on well in the first time blinkers. He’s building up a good Cheltenham record now, and if (and it is if) Champagne Fever were to line up there’s a possibility he could get a lead off him in much the same way Overturn gave him one back in 2012 when he was Champion. Genuine quick ground would be a bonus too, and he has to be thrown into the mix.
In third was John Quinn’s Countrywide Flame, and being the youngest of the trio he’s arguably the most interesting of the three. An impressive winner of the 2012 Triumph Hurdle, flying up the run in after getting outpaced, he ran a similar sort of race, staying on well up the hill after getting slightly done for a turn of foot. Again, the faster they go the better for him, and at the age of six (only Katchit won a Champion Hurdle at the age of 5, a weak one at that) has a bit more scope than the above pair. At 33-1, and given his Cheltenham profile, he makes a fair bit of appeal.
The New One, My Tent Or Yours and Jezki bring the Novice form to the table, and good form it is too. The Twiston-Davies camp must have been delighted with the progress of The New One last season, culminating in a great ride from Sam T-D in the Neptune, coming there at the right time to quicken away from Rule The World and the Irish banker Pont Alexandre in the Neptune, learning from his earlier mistake when going too soon in his previous race when he gave At Fishers Cross a target to aim at. Those races were, of course over half a mile and more further, but he’s hardly short of speed – let’s not forget he beat My Tent Or Yours in an Aintree bumper the season before, a track that would have been plenty sharp enough.
And onto MTOY then. Talent in spades, of that there’s no doubt – witness his demolition of good opposition in the Betfair Hurdle in February, travelling strongly throughout despite taking a hold early in the race – yet equally the odd doubt remains. It almost sounds foolish to suggest a horse beaten half a length didn’t quite get up the hill, but there’s no doubting he had his head in front of Champagne Fever halfway up the run in Supreme Novices but was outbattled. Was it the hill? Is he not keen on a fight? Was Champagne Fever simply better? Little questions still remain, especially given his free-running nature early in his races. There’s plenty of time yet, but at his current price he’s opposable.
The worry with Jessica Harrington’s Jezki is not so much that he won’t progress; I’m sure he will, but he does seem to act best with cut in the ground. He still impressed with the way he travelled in his races last year though, and although he’s a bit to find with MTOY on that Supreme Novices form, it’s far from impossible.
And so to the best juvenile of last year, Our Conor. Here’s what’s not in any doubt at all – no horse was easier on the eye in any of the Championship races at Cheltenham. Travelling well throughout, and with the minimum of effort, he disposed of the Triumph field in the space of half a furlong. He improved in huge chunks in each of his runs last season; his slick jumping being a key asset. It has to be said that it was all with cut in the ground though, and although the way he points his toe suggests better ground ought not to be an issue, this isn’t yet proven. On top of which, after the race, I had exactly the same feeling I had when Cinders and Ashes won the Supreme the season before – “what has he just beaten?” I’m not yet convinced last year’s juvenile crop were that good. That theory needs to be put to the sword this winter – but my gut reaction is to leave him at the prices. Time will tell…..
Before I finish this preview, I’ll throw one in not so much from left field, as from outer space. It’s a horse who will split opinion right down the middle, but I’m convinced Mr Mole has so much improvement left in him he could yet find the necessary improvement – about a stone and a half on ratings. To say he’s quirky is like saying Aiden O Brien uses the word “listen” a fair bit, [tweet this] but let’s stick a couple of facts down. In his bumper, he beat the much touted and very useful Melodic Rendezvous easily. In all his races, he’s travelled like a very good horse, but the problem is his stargazing when he’s asked for effort at the business end. Having watched his races a few times, my theory is he needs a left handed track but a right hand rail after the last to run against. If he gets that, then he can put his undoubted speed to good use. He’s been overlooked simply because he took the handicap route rather than the novices last year – but he’s young, still unexposed, green even, and I think there’s loads more to come if Mr Nicholls can sort his head out. Told you it was from outer space….
At the current prices I like Countrywide Flame. His Cheltenham record now reads played two, won a Triumph and a close third against one of the best Cheltenham Champions we’ve had in recent times, and next year he won’t have that burden of the “five year olds don’t win Champion Hurdles” tag. Game and genuine, the demands of Cheltenham seem to suit him down to the ground, and he’s my selection.
What’s your view? Please let us know in the Comments below.
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