Half term report on this season’s hurdlers by David Nelson

I recently looked at this season’s chasers and now I am looking at the hurdlers. Sadly though, Big Bucks shall be a name omitted from dispatches. He has been such a great horse and won for me a few times before everyone else cottoned on to how special he was. It always fills me with great pleasure when I recall backing him at 16/1 Ante Post for his first World Hurdle. With his absence the World Hurdle is looking wide open at the time of writing.

Noel Fehilly on Rock On Ruby wining Champion Hurdle

The ultimate hurdling prize at Cheltenham will be the Champion Hurdle though, so lets take a look at the leading protagonists for that particular contest first. Rock On Ruby will be out to show that last years victory was no fluke. He was a highly creditable 3rd on his reappearance in the International and briefly looked to have Zarkandar in trouble but he just got tired after the last. He’ll come on appreciably for the run. Zarkandar has won twice this season, the aforementioned International following on from his Elite Hurdle win at Wincanton. Both races would not have been run to suit but you have to admit he had the scales tilted in his favour in the International, having a run behind him, receiving weight also. He duly stuck on to beat Grandouet (returning from a long absence) and Rock On Ruby. They all look to have very little between them. Although Rock On Ruby is a very good horse; he got one of the rides of the season last year by Noel Fehily to win that Champion Hurdle having dictated things from the front, I can’t see him repeating that effort this coming Champion Hurdle.

Zarkandar was not right after his Betfair Hurdle win last year and his Champion Hurdle running has been proved wrong thus far this season. He has beaten Grandouet who 3 times our of 3 and whilst it is getting closer between the two but I can’t see any reason why the form would be reversed. Grandouet strikes me as the ideal horse for next years Arkle Chase and I fear he will just come short in a Champion Hurdle.

Hurricane Fly and Binocular, both previous Champion Hurdlers were victims of their jockeys expectations in last years Champion Hurdle and I feel they were both given too much to do, Hurricane Fly has won all his starts since and I think we shall all see the real Hurricane Fly again come March. He is the best 2m hurdler we have had since Istabraq and though some try to knock his form in saying he beats the same horses in Ireland, he has beaten Grade 1 performers and Unaccompanied who was right in the thick of it with Zarkandar and Grandouet in the 2011 Triumph.

Unaccompanied swerves the Champion Hurdle but she could give Quevega something to think about in the Mares race. Countrywide Flame, winner of last years Triumph Hurdle, leapt onto the scene this season when he turned over Cinders And Ashes in the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle. He won well that day but he could not progress from that in the Christmas Hurdle held in similar conditions. That day we saw a most impressive display by Darlan and last year’s Supreme Novices runner-up scooted clear for a fascile victory. He certainly looks the most likeable of the novices from last season and his easy defeat of Captain Conan last backend reads even better now. He has put himself firmly in the Champion Hurdle picture.

Cinders And Ashes has disappointed twice now, although connections were not too downbeat following his defeat in the Fighting Fifth. I was a bit disappointed when he won last years Supreme and he has never been a horse who I’ve been in love with. These 2 defeats may count for nothing when he races on better ground. Countrywide Flame has ran well too, and this bodes well for the return of Grumeti, a horse who I am eagerly anticipating. He seems to have been a little bit forgotten and I was astonished when Countrywide Flame put himself in the Champion Hurdle picture, that Grumeti was wasn’t mentioned, bearing in mind the close form between the 2 last year. I think Alan King is aiming to have Grumeti out shortly.

Binocular reportedly goes for the Kingwell Hurdle and looks likely to face a few strong Champion Hurdle contenders there. I think Rock On Ruby has been mentioned for the Kingwell, along with Grumeti. Binocular is 33/1 with Stan James for the Champion Hurdle and that does look a very big price, even if I don’t really think he will recapture the Champion Hurdle. He is such a smooth traveller and Wincanton will be right up his street so I could see a flashy victory there that would automatically reduce his price.

Oscar Whisky should also not be forgotten and if the ground is particularly soft this year at Cheltenham he would have a very good chance.

Cotton Mill and Peddlers Cross may also come back into the picture should they return hurdling this season.
Champagne Fever won the Bumpers at Cheltenham and Punchestown last year and having returned with a victory on his first try over hurdles, he went to the Royal Bond Hurdle as favourite, but could not repel the late challenge of Jezki.

Jezki at Naas

Jezki subsequently blitzed a quality field over Christmas too and he looks like Jessica Harrington’s flagship contender for Cheltenham glory this year. I’m not sure Ruby Walsh rode the best race on Champagne Fever when 2nd in the Royal Bond. They went quite slow from the front and as he looks a relentless galloper he should have turned it up a bit more and tried to take the sting out of his rivals.

I would love to know what Willie Mullins plans are though regarding his novices as Champagne Fever is a horse I adore and shall follow til the end. Un Atout looks pretty damn good, and Ponte Alexandre also looks top drawer. I’d suggest that these 3 horses should be followed very closely. Jezki beat Waaheb fair and square last time and we all know that he will be going for the Supreme Novices Hurdle. I would be inclined to give Champagne Fever another chance of setting the record straight with Jezki and run in the Supreme, with Un Atout for the Neptune and Ponte Alexandre for the Albert Bartlett. Ponte Alexandre lowered the colours of Don Cossack in bloodless fashion, in similar style to stablemate Arvika Legionnaire over fences Ponte Alexandre went from the front and just kept turning the screw, Don Cossack was bustled along but making no impression when he capsized at the last, Ponte Alexandre looks very good, you would say similar to Mikhael D’Haguenet at the same stage in his career, in fact I am sure they come from the same bloodlines. Un Atout is from the same bloodlines as Sir Des Champs and won well on his reappearance over 2m, he looks like he will relish a bit further.

Dodging Bullets, Tarquin Du Soleil and My Tent Or Yours look the best British hopes at the moment although Dodging Bullets wins have been penalty kicks. Tarquin Du Soleil looks to want very soft ground and his Ascot conqueror My Tent Or Yours needs to settle better. Forgotten Voice shall be waiting in the wings too. A previous Royal Hunt Cup winner on the Flat for Jeremy Noseda, he would want better ground.

Coneygree is a nice type who I really like. He looks a dour stayer and having notched up 2 wins at Cheltenham he will go to the Festival with a leading chance. Both times he raced prominently and looked likely to be swallowed up only to pull out more on the climb to the line. Being related to Carruthers it is clear that a stiff test of stamina suits him. Not being from a fashionable yard will only help his price, should he and one of the Willie Mullins hurdlers I have already mentioned clash at Cheltenham, perhpas in the 3 miler. Before his 2 wins at Cheltenham he beat Corrin Wood by 20 lengths at Uttoxeter. Corrin Wood has since got to within a nose of Gavrey Chambertin who himself is a very talented brother to Grand Crus.

The World Hurdle has been blown wide open following the injury to Big Bucks. The Bet365 winner Tidal Bay won the John Smiths Hurdle at Wetherby on his seasonal reappearance and has since run Bobs Worth very close in the Hennessy. Then in an amazing Lexus Chase in Ireland he squeezed through to win right at the death. In doing so, he beat the best Irish contenders for this seasons Gold Cup. He really has had a new lease of life since joining Paul Nicholls and looks to be in as good form now as he has ever been. Should the ground be on the soft side I think connections would plan a Gold Cup assault but Paul Nicholls has also mentioned the possibility of going to the World Hurdle followed by the Grand National. Should he line up in the World Hurdle he will have a great chance at keeping the title at Ditcheat.

Monksland had quite a reputation as a novice hurdler last season and Noel Meade’s charge has started this season well. He won over 2m on his reappearance, stepped up to take 2nd behind Zaidpour in the Hattons Grace at the start of December and then reversed the form with his conqueror when staying on strongly at his first attempt at 3m in the Christmas Hurdle at Leopardstown. He looked booked for 3rd or 4th turning in and he hated the ground but his class saw him through and having appeared at the front at the last he swept clear from Zaidpour who would have loved the conditions. Noel Meade does not have the greatest record at the Cheltenham Festival but with Monksland’s stamina now proven they have to go there hoping they can improve on last seasons 3rd to Simonsig in the Neptune.

Reve De Sivola was 2nd to Peddlers Cross in the 2010 Neptune. He followed that up with a 3rd to Bensalem over fences at the 2011 Ffestival. He is very similar to Big Bucks in the respect that they tried there luck over fences but he looks to show a bit better form over hurdles. Having come back from a year off he finished a remote 2nd to Big Bucks at Newbury before stepping up on that and drawing right away from his rivals in the Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot where he easily beat last years World Hurdle 3rd Smad Place. Looking at the market, a big chunk is taken out by horses unlikely to go for the race; Quevega will probably go for the Mares race, Grand Crus will run over fences, Rite Of Passage looks likely to be saved for a Flat campaign, Oscar Whisky had his stamina limitations exposed last year so will probably go for the Champion. Coneygree is priced up but I prefer the more traditional route and I hope they stick to taking on the novices.

Of the others, Peddlers Cross is due out soon and it could be quite exciting should he return as good as he was as a hurdler after a failed campaign over the larger obstacles last season. Bog Warrior has come back to himself over hurdles but his participation is dependent on very soft ground. Voler La Vedette has yet to recapture her brilliant form of last season.

Cause Of Causes followed on an eyecatching late run at Cheltenham behind Olofi with a good success in the Ladbroke at Ascot. Many horses disappointed in that race, none more so than Balder Succes and it remains to be seen where they go with him now. I feel he maybe one for small fields. Double Ross was 4th and ran another gallant race. He really loves soft ground and he had earlier beaten Close House in a 2m4f Handicap Hurdle at Cheltenham. Close House was a good 4th behind Simonsig in last years Neptune and followed up his 2nd to Double Ross with a win in a Pertemps Qualifier at Wincanton. Dark Lover was unable to get involved in the Racing Post Hurdle behind Olofi, Cash And Go and Cause Of Causes but either side of that he has notched up 2 wins at Cheltenham. His last victory was emphatic and should he be aimed at one of the handicap hurdles at Cheltenham he will be of interest. Cash And Go was a top novice last year for Edward O’Grady in Ireland and having ran well when a good 2nd to Olofi in the Racing Post Hurdle he unseated Barry Geraghty in the Ladbroke. Now in the care of Nicky Henderson and with his handicap mark unchanged since the Ladbroke, I should expect connections are eyeing up the old Tote Gold Trophy at Newbury. Bearing that in mind he maybe a trade proposition for the Champion Hurdle (currently 300 on Betfair).

At Fishers Cross was another to win at Cheltenham in December. Rebecca Curtis’ horse saw out the 3m trip well in stamina sapping conditions having won quite comfortably the week before at Newbury over 2m3f,. I would think the Coral Cup or the Pertemps Final would be the aim now. Midnight Game has won twice this season for Willie Mullins and it shall be interesting to see where they go with him now too. Far West has looked the best juvenile so far this season but he has yet to be really tested and has no experience in a big field of which he will encounter in the Triumph.

If you have any thoughts on this season’s hurdlers please add them to the Comments below – JP.

You can follow David Nelson on Twitter @YoungNelsie.