Champion Hurdle Ante Post Preview

February 8th '17 TREVA99

The 2017 Stan James Champion Hurdle could be one of the races of the Festival this year with so many good horses preparing to fight it out following the news that Faugheen would not be making it once again after yet another injury set back. Having pulled out of the Irish Champion Hurdle won by Petit Mouchoir there were no surprises when Willie Mullins announced he wouldn’t be heading to the Festival in March and it leaves a whole host of horses queueing in behind to gain their first ever Champion Hurdle success.

Where else to start but with the favourite (well, in some places) and it’s a horse that has run just once over hurdles all season in BUVEUR D’AIR at 7/2 best price. Switched back to hurdles after an unbeaten stint over fences, Buveur has quickly become the leading contender for the Champion Hurdle with the injuries to Faugheen and Yanworth. He made a flawless comeback over fences last weekend at Sandown, albeit against far inferior opposition, and it told us very little about his chances. He finished a fine third to Altior and Min in the Supreme Novices Hurdle in 2016 before beating Irish Champion Hurdle winner Petit Mouchoir by a neck at Aintree. Both pieces of form put him bang in contention to make a real challenge this March. My slight concern is his lack of top quality hurdle experience this season, whereas Petit Mouchoir has raced in three Grade 1s and a Grade 2, and that would put me off backing him at such a skinny price despite his obvious talent.

YORKHILL, like Buveur D’air, is another horse I didn’t expect to be discussing when it came to previewing the Champion Hurdle but with the injury to Faugheen he now enters equations. With non-runner no bet markets he is favourite in places but you can get him best priced at 6/1, although with his Cheltenham Festival destination undetermined I would advise that you leave that alone. With Willie Mullins it just isn’t worth the risk. Having been put over fences from the start of the season he was expected to line up in the JLT (where he is still favourite) despite having failed to set the world alight with his recent victory in a Grade 3 chase over at Leopardstown, but due to recent events he is now been talked as a potential option for the Champion Chase (and Arkle). He won at last year’s festival in the Neptune beating Yanworth and still has just one defeat to his name in nine starts when he finished fourth to Don’t Touch It on his last start of the 2016 jumps season. He could be a huge player but I would need to see a major commitment from Mullins to back him, after which his price would inevitably drop. He has the talent to win this race, like Buveur D’air, but I can’t commit to a horse who hasn’t run over hurdles for the best part of a year.

Finally, we reach a horse that is a dead certain for the Champion Hurdle as long as he stays fit and that’s the impressive and consistent PETIT MOUCHOIR at 5/1. The Henry de Bromhead hopeful has won some good races this season including the Irish Champion Hurdle and Ryanair Hurdle. Now, it’s arguable that the opposition doesn’t represent much with Nichols Canyon clearly a shadow of his former self but you can only beat what is in front of you. He should have added the Fighting Fifth to his collection where he fell on the home straight whilst cruising into contention and he is the most solid of the market leaders at present. His only previous run at Cheltenham was in last year’s Supreme where he finished a 8th at 20/1 but it is clear he has come on leaps and bounds for a second season over hurdles and will be expected to contest the finish in this year’s Champion Hurdle.

YANWORTH had been a lot of people’s picks for the Champion Hurdle with Faugheen’s participation in doubt but the JP McManus horse has suffered a setback of his own and is now on the drift at 11/2. He has won twice this season – his only runs since losing to Yorkhill at Cheltenham last year – winning a Grade 2 hurdle at Ascot before beating The New One in the Grade 1 Christmas Hurdle at Kempton on Boxing Day. His form is rock solid and he’s only lost a few races so it’s impossible to rule him out should he line up, with positive signs coming from the Alan King yard in recent days. At his current price he is at least an EW shot to nothing and I would be surprised to see him out of the places come March.

We’ll rattle through the remaining players in the market starting with BRAIN POWER and JEZKI best priced 15/2 and 12/1 respectively. The former has come on leaps and bounds this season winning two large handicaps to follow up his strong run between Petit Mouchoir and Yorkhill at Punchestown last season. He beat fellow Nicky Henderson hurdler Consul De Thaix on both occasions, a young horse I rate highly, including when racing through the fog at Ascot last time out before Christmas. He has an outside chance but any value has gone having shortened markedly from around 20s to largely 6s or 7s in places. Jezki is very interesting having won the 2014 Champion Hurdle before a long layoff following injury at the end of 2015 season. He returned with an impressive victory at Navan in January and now has options in both the Champion Hurdle and Stayers’ Hurdle. I would be inclined to say he will head for the latter with Yanworth and Buveur D’air strong fancies for JP McManus but should he to line up you would have to take him seriously. He has the class to win the race again having mixed it with the likes of Hurricane Fly, Faugheen and Champagne Fever for the majority of his career.

VROUM VROUM MAG is unlikely to show up but is in at best priced 14s (as short as 8/1 with NRNB). She’d need to perform a lifetime best to win this and although she’s a smart horse there are question marks over whether she really is top class. I’d prefer to see her back over fences. THE NEW ONE at 16/1 is a really likable horse and has been a great servant to his owners but is one of those not quite good enough to match it at the highest level. He should run his race but expect to see him passed by the younger horses in the last few furlongs. Of the bigger prices in the market SUPERB STORY is just about as good as you can get at 20/1 with his participation almost guaranteed baring a setback. The Dan Skelton six-year old has won four of his nine starts, including three of his last five with one second and a non-finish. He won the County Handicap Hurdle at the Festival last year and is a horse on a steep upward curve. He could run a huge race but would need to continue his rapid progress to get involved against more experienced horses.

SUTTON PLACE is in the market with some firms after his emphatic Grade 3 victory at Naas in January but it is uncertain whether he’ll line up after not making the entries for the upcoming Betfair Hurdle. FOOTPAD ran a good race behind Petit Mouchoir in the Irish Champion Hurdle and will be ridden to come past tired horses at Cheltenham. A best price of 25/1 is a good indication of his chances but could be an in-play EW play should they go a strong pace up front. SCEAU ROYAL is the last horse to mention at 33s. He disappointed last time out in the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle when sent off second favourite behind Apple’s Jade and hasn’t been seen since. He won on his previous two starts, including a Grade 2 hurdle at Wincanton, and has won 50% of his starts to date. He would need to show that the Fighting Fifth was just a blip by running prior to the festival for me to be interested in him. However, a strong performance would surely see his price dip significantly. With NRNB it could be worth taking your chances in what is a wide open renewal of the Champion Hurdle.

Summary

With so many twists and turns in the market this is an extremely hard race to decipher and whilst lacking absolute top class in the shape of Faugheen it could prove to be one of the races of the Festival. My slight preference is for PETIT MOUCHOIR. He is an improving horse who has already won two Grade 1s this season and whereas there are doubts about some of the others at the top of the market we know what we can expect from this Henry de Bromhead six-year old. He’s very backable at 5/1. Having said that, Yorkhill is a horse I like a lot and should he perform like he did at last year’s Festival then I’d be surprised if he didn’t finish in the top two. That’s if he shows up here, of course.

TIP: Petit Mouchoir at 5/1