Champion Hurdle Preview

This year’s renewal looks the strongest for some time, but I think it’s worth looking back at previous runnings to get a handle on two horses looking to reclaim their Champion Hurdle crown, Binocular and Hurricane Fly:

Binocular missed the 2011 renewal as steroids would not clear his system in time for the race, as such 2012 was the first time we saw Binocular take on Hurricane Fly at Cheltenham.

If you look back at McCoy’s ride on Binocular in the 2010 Champion Hurdle you can see he settles him mid to rear early on, makes his move to be sitting fifth, just off the pace approaching top of the hill, and takes it up approaching two out. In 2011 Ruby Walsh on Hurricane Fly had his mount held up initially, closer order from the fifth and took it up from Peddlers Cross at the last. Ruby replicated these tactics in 2012, held up early, and as in 2011 tried to take closer order in approaching the second last. Something which his mount did not do. Many words have been spoken and lines been written with regards to him not being at his best last March, but I’m not sold on this. He’s looked visually impressive this season, the trainer and jockey are coming out again with the right noises, but I’m struggling to come up with a solid reason as to why he should reverse form with Rock On Ruby in this years renewal. “Back to his best” – Is his best good enough? For me, no.

So what about Binocular. Well McCoy rode a shocker in 2012 renewal, he played the horse and not the race. You can see throughout the race he was in the shadow of Hurricane Fly. Only approaching the second last did he realise his mistake, going from the inside, to jumping the second last 4 wide to try and make his move before coming back inside. My Tent Or Yours not being supplemented for the Champion is a pointer to the regard Binocular is still held, and before Darlan’s sad demise McCoy himself was in two minds regarding Champion mount. I think personally he wants to make up for the faux pas of last season. Given a sighter in the Irish Champion this season, given a “this season must have” racecourse gallop at Kempton last weekend, they are now just looking for some good in the going description. I expect to see a totally different ride from McCoy this time around and in turn I expect him to reverse the form with Hurricane Fly on the first day of the Festival, but I have my doubts if he’s good enough to reclaim the crown outright.

As for the current champion, Rock On Ruby, I expect him to once again sit off a pace, the question currently is whose playing the hare. Thousand Stars may look to make it, but I have my suspicions that Cinders And Ashes could be the one looking to try and get an easy time of it. In the 2012 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle he wasn’t far off the pace throughout:

Reviewing 2011 and 2012 Donald McCain’s horses to sit front rank haven’t fared too badly, Overturn went off too fast in 2011 renewal to increase the pace a few flights from home which left Peddlers Cross to make his own running for 80% of the race, he finished a good second. Overturn last year was given a good ride in front, and he finished a comfortable second, so I expect Donald McCain and Jason Maguire to employ similar tactics should nothing look to make it. However, I expect him to find a few too good for him at the business end, and I’m a firm believer that last years Triumph Hurdle was stronger than the Supreme.

You can’t help but be impressed by Countrywide Flame’s performance in last years Triumph. Off the bridle for most of the way, five or six lengths off the lead coming into the straight after being crowded out and shuffled back, he come home to win going away. Yes, the Triumph is a stiffer test, but he is not short of tactical speed as shown by his wins on the flat during the summer, and also his win in the Fighting Fifth. Doing donkey work didn’t suit him at Doncaster, yet still finished with credit and was closing at the line under sympathetic handling. Sympathetic handling can be a remark thrown at him with regards to his run at Kempton where post race Denis O’Regan was quick to point out he doesn’t go right handed:

“We’ve had plenty of time to think about it because it’s a long drive from Kempton to Malton. I asked Denis O’Regan the following day if it would have made any difference if he had made it and he said not at all – he just wasn’t the same horse going right-handed.

Looking back at his flat form, Kevin Ryan put headgear on him after three consecutive runs on the Kempton All Weather track and under John Quinn’s handling he has only went right handed twice since his first run. Years on a left handed track; The Cesarewitch and the Christmas Hurdle. The lack of a confirmed pace setter is a worry, but I do think they will be racing a long way from home with Rock on Ruby, and the 2011 Triumph Hurdle winner Zarkandar in the field.

Before getting to Zarkandar, a quick look at Grandouet, and it is a very quick one as I just can’t see it. Zarkandar has faced him three times, and beat him three times. Undulating tracks, flat tracks, slow pace, brisk pace, 3-0 Zarkandar, and even though I have my doubts about Zarkandar’s temperament, I can’t see how Grandouet, seemingly fragile individual who has had an interrupted prep, will get on the scoresheet here.

Zarkandar’s temperament? Yes, I was worried firstly by the switch from Ruby Walsh to Daryl Jacob following Ruby’s great ride in the International Hurdle, and initially thought it was due to using his stamina and forcing it a long way from home, but I think if you look back at the Kingwell a few little alarm bells should start to ring. Never travelling, sluggish, hanging across the straight with Jacob having the whip in the correct hand. My hope in him being a Champion Hurdle winner diminishes following every replay. However, his sluggish and lazy style of racing means one thing, Jacob will surely be sitting just off the pace and look to be winding it up as they approach two out, that is where the race begins in earnest, and will begin to unfold.

I do believe that this will play into the hands of Rock On Ruby and Countrywide Flame. Rock On Ruby has very little chinks in his armour, he’s a smooth traveller, a very good jumper, quickens and is very uncomplicated sort. I expect him to sit third or fourth throughout and take it up coming around the bend. He wasn’t electric at his hurdles last year, and I believe there has been a noticeable improvement in that department this year. The one worry would be Soft ground, and I’m happy to leave a play on him closer to the off.

Countrywide Flame on the other hand; A Fighting Fifth winner on Heavy/tacky ground, who will improve considerably for a stiffer test of stamina than the one he subjected himself too at Doncaster, looks destined be given a lead into the race with Zarkandar and Rock On Ruby likely to take it up two from home once Thousand Stars and Cinder And Ashes take them to the top of the hill. Yes the old course is slightly sharper than the new course, but a bigger price than Cinders And Ashes with the books? Baffling!

Champion Hurdle – 1pt win Countrywide Flame @ 16s

By Dan Kelly – Editor of and

Twitter: @muffinmannhc