The 2016 Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham could be anyone’s race with most of the field rated within a few pounds of each other (3.30pm Tuesday, Channel 4).
After the injury of the current titleholder Faugheen, Annie Power was installed as the 9/4 favourite for the same, all-powerful connections. This eight-year-old mare trained by Willie Mullins has not had an ideal preparation. She knocked a joint schooling in November and has only been out once this season. She won easily but it was more of a dress rehearsal than a race.
Annie Power’s only two defeats have been at the Cheltenham Festival. Last year she looked a certainty in the Mares’ race but fell at the final flight, possibly confused by a shadow. In the 2014 World Hurdle she was outstayed by More Of That. Whilst three miles stretched her stamina, this distance looks shorter than ideal for her. Her jockey Ruby Walsh (pictured) thinks it should not be a problem as she won over two miles two furlongs at Punchestown. Mullins believes that she will be an easier ride in a fast run race and has not declared the hood she sported last time out.
Mullins also saddles the 11/2 second favourite, Nichols Canyon, for the Wylies. He was fancied to win the Neptune here last year but was beaten five lengths into third, outpaced on the good ground. He has won four Grade 1 hurdles since. He got the better of a lacklustre Faugheen first time out but was last seen getting beaten 28 lengths by his more illustrious stablemate in January.
This six-year-old son of Authorized has won twice on good ground over two and a half miles but probably needs testing ground over this distance. His official rating of 161 puts him right in the mix but softer ground would have helped him.
The Mullins third string is another six-year-old, Sempre Medici (25/1). Owned by the Riccis, he was beaten a length by Old Guard here on his seasonal debut in December. He has scored twice in very weak races in Ireland since, making him difficult to assess. He is currently rated 157 and will be wearing a tongue tie for the first time. If it helps him who knows where he might finish? ‘Also rans’ from the Mullins stable have done well here before.
Another young Irish contender is Henry De Bromhead’s Identity Thief (6/1). This son of Kayf Tara was beaten five lengths by Sempre Medici in April but won a decent Grade 2 at Down Royal first time out. He went on to beat Henderson’s Top Notch a neck in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle in November. He was last seen finishing a couple of lengths behind Nichols Canyon over Christmas on heavy ground.
Bromhead thinks Identity Thief is in good order and that better ground will suit him. His massively over-qualified work rider, stable jockey Andrew Lynch, is very bullish about his chances too. Identity Thief looks the most progressive horse in the line-up. He has never been to Cheltenham but has proved he copes with travelling to England. Owned by Gigginstown, Bryan Cooper will partner him and stands a good chance of visiting the winners’ enclosure.
The veteran of the field is Nicky Henderson’s nine-year-old, My Tent Or Yours (10/1). He is a class act who gained a rating of 168 after finishing a close second to Jezki in this race in 2014. He has been plagued by a variety of leg problems since and we haven’t seen him race for nearly two years.
Owned by JP McManus, My Tent Or Yours used to stretch Sir AP McCoy’s arms on a regular basis. Barry Geraghty has ridden him on a couple of racecourse gallops recently in a Citation bridle for extra braking power. He believes he retains his ability and has chosen to partner him. Geraghty is better than McCoy was at settling horses and he will need to be. After such a lengthy absence we can expect My Tent Or Yours to be extremely keen. The use of a hood and a fast run race should make Geraghty’s task easier.
Henderson also has the gorgeous grey five-year-old Hargam (25/1) for McManus. He looked to need his first run here in October and went on to finish third in the International Hurdle in December. Hargam was subsequently beaten about eight lengths by Faugheen into third in the Christmas Hurdle. Geraghty’s defection suggests his stablemate has stronger claims.
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Another pair from Seven Barrows are Top Notch (18/1) and Peace And Co (25/1). Both run in the familiar green colours of Simon Munir and Isaac Souede. The five-year-old Top Notch is very useful but has not quite lived up to his name. He was narrowly beaten in the Triumph Hurdle by Peace And Co last year and was the runner-up in his first two starts this season. He was beaten by Irving at Haydock in November and by Identity Thief in the Fighting Fifth.
Top Notch did not quite get home here on the heavy ground on New Year’s Day in the Relkeel Hurdle over two and a half miles. He finished fifth but posted an easy win last time out in February over two miles two furlongs. He is rated 1lb higher than Peace and Co at 158 and appears to be in good order. Daryl Jacob, the owners’ retained rider has chosen to partner him.
Peace And Co has been disappointing on both his runs this season. He looked to be a very good horse last term, winning here twice but has something to prove now. He has the help of the talented Nico de Boinville for the first time.
Nigel Twiston-Davies is upbeat about The New One (6/1). On Saturday he said he couldn’t be happier with him – but if he did not say that we could reasonably expect that the horse is in need of intensive care. His son Sam’s decision to partner The New One rather than subsequent non-runner Old Guard for his boss, Paul Nicholls, could be seen as encouraging. Sam has said that The New One is his best chance of scoring at the meeting.
The New One is certainly a proven performer at Prestbury Park. He has won here five times and was very unlucky in this race two years ago when he was horribly hampered but still finished a close third. The trouble is that we know he is damaged and prefers better ground than he is likely to encounter here, though it is drying out all the time.
A horse with a decent each-way chance is Neil King’s Lil Rockerfeller (33/1). This five-year-old has been supplemented for the race and deserves his first crack in Grade 1 company – especially now the stars of this division are off injured. He won well last time out in a Grade 2 at Fontwell and finished second in the Relkeel Hurdle. The yard is in extraordinarily good form and it would not be a surprise to see him filling a place.
Camping Ground (20/1) won the Relkeel in style and is rated a pound above the field. He didn’t quite get home in the Cleeve Hurdle over three miles here in January but needs further than this to show his best.
Our Preview’s Champion Hurdle Betting Tip
Class act Annie Power may romp home thanks to her 7lb mares’ allowance but her dodgy Cheltenham Festival form, compromised preparation and suitability for this distance make her easy to oppose. Most of the field have reasonable claims but we have to ignore the hype surrounding the Irish contenders.
- This is not the strongest line-up and Top Notch could well be good enough. He seems a generous price for a horse so closely matched to the more fancied Identity Thief. We know he can perform at Prestbury Park and he should enjoy conditions. Our preview’s Champion Hurdle betting tip is to back TOP NOTCH each-way, best priced at 18/1 with Paddy Power or William Hill.
Fiona Derek is our Reality TV and horse racing expert. The only time you won’t find her riding or mucking out a racehorse is when she is watching Reality TV or racing on the box.