The Champion Hurdle is the main event of the action-packed first day of the Cheltenham Festival (3.20pm, Tuesday). Is the 11/10 favourite Faugheen really ‘the machine’ that his odds suggest?
The popular seven-year-old son of Germany, Faugheen, has done everything asked of him, usually in exceptional style. He is unbeaten in his nine starts. They include a point-to-point, a bumper, a Grade 3 hurdle over three miles, a Grade 1 hurdle over two miles and the Grade 1 Neptune Investment Novices’ Hurdle over two miles five furlongs here last year.
He beat Ian Williams’ Ballyalton, a 20/1 shot rated 12lb lower than him, by over four lengths on good ground. It was an extraordinary victory for Faugheen in that it was not described as ‘easy’ or ‘impressive’. For once he had to be ridden out. Was it the distance or the good ground that made him look relatively ordinary?
Most recently we saw him romping to victory in the two mile Christmas Hurdle on Boxing Day at Kempton. He beat John Ferguson’s Purple Bay with his customary ease on the good to soft ground after fluffing his lines slightly at the last.
Faugheen is a worthy favourite and the choice of trainer Willie Mullins’ stable jockey, Ruby Walsh for a reason. He appears to have the necessary gears for two miles and the stamina to get further – always an asset when tackling Prestbury Park’s uphill finish.
Even Mullins (pictured) thinks that Faugheen’s price in the Champion Hurdle betting is ‘extraordinary’ as he’s never encountered a field of this class before. He has a point. Faugheen is also capable of making jumping errors.
Hurricane Fly (9/1), the stable’s second string, was rated by Mullins as a good each-way bet. Now an 11-year-old, his rating has dropped 6lb to 169, a mark he shares with his more fancied stablemate. Walsh has predictably chosen to desert him, even though he has a 50% strike rate in his four starts at Cheltenham.
This son of Montjeu won his three Grade 1 runs in Ireland this season. He beat Jezki twice on soft ground by small margins. Most recently he got the better of his stablemate, Arctic Fire by three and a half lengths on ground described as yielding in the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown at the end of January. Jezki fumbled the last and finished third.
Place money looks the only prospect for this incredibly game little horse. He is probably the most reliable jumper in the race but will not be helped by the relatively fast ground in prospect. He will be partnered by Paul Townend and can be trusted to give his all.
In contrast the Mullins third-string, the six-year-old Arctic Fire (16/1) is open to further improvement and may well find it on ground that is faster than he is used to. He acquitted himself with merit at the Festival last year, finishing second beaten half a length by Paul Nicholls’ Lac Fontana in the County Hurdle.
This season he has run consistently, gaining place money behind Hurricane Fly. The concern is that, if the handicapper is right, he has to improve by 12lb to feature here.
Jessica Harrington’s Jezki (9/2) is rated just 1lb lower than Hurricane Fly and will definitely appreciate conditions. He was the surprise winner of this race last year, beating Nicky Henderson’s My Tent Or Yours by a neck under Barry Geraghty.
We last saw him finishing third, more than seven lengths behind Hurricane Fly in the Irish Champion Hurdle. He made a serious mistake at the final flight, allowing Arctic Fire to take second. He looks likely to put in a solid performance under AP McCoy but it is difficult to envisage him winning.
The New One (7/2) was unlucky in this race last time. He was very badly hampered by the fallen Our Conor, losing at least 15 lengths, but still managed to finish third, three lengths behind Jezki. That performance was impressive.
This season he is unbeaten in his four runs. Most recently he beat Dan Skelton’s Bertimont (100/1) by just over two lengths in a Champion Hurdle Trial at Haydock in January. He was giving Bertimont 8lb and the ground was unsuitably heavy, but he still made pretty hard work of despatching a rival rated 18lb inferior to him. Connections blamed his lacklustre performance on the ground.
Previously he ran here in December, quickening up nicely when it mattered to beat Nicky Henderson’s Vaniteux (33/1) by four lengths when giving him 8lb. The New One’s record at Prestbury Park commands respect. He has won five of his eight starts and has only been beaten once on good to soft, when he had a valid excuse. If his trainer, Nigel Twiston-Davies, has him spot on for this, he has strong claims.
Champion Hurdle Betting Tips Conclusion
Faugheen may well put his rivals to the sword but he holds little appeal at his current price in a field of this quality. THE NEW ONE looks a major danger with conditions that will play to his strengths and has to be our Champion Hurdle betting tip to win, best-priced at best odds of 7/2 with Bet365, Betfred, Coral or BetVictor.
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.