Cheltenham Festival: Champion Hurdle Preview

Nicky HendersonThe Champion Hurdle is the highlight of the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival and looks to be an intriguing contest (3.20pm Tuesday) . Can one of the young pretenders relieve the veteran Hurricane Fly of the Champion Hurdle crown he regained last year?

At five-years-old Dessie Hughes’ Our Conor (4/1) is half Hurricane Fly’s age. The statistics suggest that he might have age issues of a different kind. Only one five-year-old has won this race in the past 20 years – Alan King’s diminutive Katchit in 2008.

Our Conor demolished the Triumph Hurdle field at this meeting last year in memorable style, beating Paul Nicholls’ Far West by 15 lengths. He came into that race on the back of three consecutive wins. He has not won since but appears to be improving if his proximity to Hurricane Fly is any indicator.

He was last seen at Leopardstown in the Irish Champion Hurdle in January finishing just a length and a half behind him in second, receiving 2lb on ground described as soft to heavy.  In his previous run in the Ryanair Hurdle (also at Leopardstown) at the end of December he finished nearly six lengths behind Hurricane Fly in third. As a son of Jeremy he should appreciate better ground but did he do too much too young? They start off level weights here.

Another Irish raider with decent claims is Jessica Harrington’s Jezki (9/1). Owned by JP McManus, this six-year-old is at a better age to join the list of Champion Hurdle winners. Six of them have scored in the same time period. Seven-year-olds have done equally well.

Jezki finished runner-up by two and half lengths in the Ryanair but he was disappointing in his latest run in the Irish Champion Hurdle. He started as the second favourite but finished fourth and last, just over three lengths behind Hurricane Fly. He didn’t help himself by pulling hard under AP McCoy who has partnered him in all four runs this season.

He will be wearing a hood for the first time. Having Barry Geraghty on board may also be in his favour. He has ridden him four times and always won. Jezki was not disgraced at the festival last year, finishing third in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. If we forgive his latest run he looks interesting.

The 5/2 favourite, The New One, is another six-year-old. This much praised star of Nigel Twiston-Davies’ yard posted a win here last year, taking the Neptune Novices’ Hurdle over two miles five furlongs.

He has been successfully dropped back to two miles since and made an encouraging start to the season. He beat Harry Fry’s 2012 Champion Hurdle hero, Rock On Ruby, by ten lengths in a listed hurdle race at Kempton in October.  He went on to win the Grade 2 International Hurdle here in December, outpacing Paul Nicholls’ Zarkander to win by six lengths.

Most recently he disappointed as the odds-on favourite in the Grade 1 Christmas Hurdle on Boxing Day at Kempton. Nicky Henderson’s (pictured) My Tent Or Yours got the better of him by half a length after he blundered at the last. The lack of pace in the race certainly did not help his cause either and the intention to saddle a pacemaker here was announced shortly afterwards. They seem to have forgotten about it since.

Serendipitously for the Twiston-Davies family, a pacemaker actually has been entered, JP Mc Manus’ Captain Cee Bee (200/1). Trained by Edward Harty, this admirable 13-year-old’s chances of scoring in this company are pretty remote. He ran a blinder to finish third in the Irish Champion Hurdle and was raised 5lb by the handicapper as a result. Harty deserves praise for garnering improvement in a horse of his age but that still only leaves him on a mark of 154.

He will be setting the pace for JP McManus’ most fancied runner, My Tent Or Yours (4/1). This seven-year-old tends to be keen and should benefit from a strongly run race. Henderson seems painfully aware that the presence of a pacemaker may benefit his rivals too. The decision to run one was left with his jockey, AP McCoy.

My Tent Or Yours provides his trainer with a good chance of gaining his sixth Champion Hurdle win. He is unbeaten this season and opened it by taking the Grade 1 Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle at the end of November, comfortably beating John Quinn’s Cockney Sparrow by three lengths. Since his victory on Boxing Day he has only been seen gaining a facile win on the all-weather at Kempton in February. Henderson chose to avoid exerting him in a bog so close to Cheltenham.

A minor training setback cast some doubt over his participation but Henderson said on Saturday that, after two bad days, he appeared to be back on form.  My Tent Or Yours shares an official rating of 167 with The New One and seems to provide decent value if the handicapper’s views are correct.  Good ground should favour them both.

Rated 173, Willie Mullins’ Hurricane Fly (3/1) must be respected. He has not been beaten since he finished third in this race two years ago. He looked like a shaggy pony in the paddock on the day and totally missed the break. Despite being physically wrong and being given a poor ride he still placed. There have been nine consecutive Grade 1 wins since.

His jockey, Ruby Walsh, claimed that he got the tactics all wrong again here last year and that the horse got him out of trouble.  He beat Rock On Ruby by two and a half lengths.

He was last seen winning the Irish Champion Hurdle in workmanlike rather than spectacular fashion. He had suffered from a bruised foot shortly before the race but was sent off the 4/7 favourite and duly rewarded his followers.

We don’t know if he retains the speed that carried him to victory in this race on good ground in 2011 but Walsh thinks he can win if he gets the tactics right.

The statistics suggest that he is too long in the tooth to win. No ten-year-old has won this race since Peter Easterby’s exceptional Sea Pigeon in 1980. But very few horses have regained a lost Champion Hurdle crown either. The previous one to do so was Fred Rimell’s Comedy of Errors in 1975. Hurricane Fly has already defied the statistics.

With five serious contenders it is difficult to see the other runners achieving a placing. Jeremy Scott’s eight-year-old Melodic Rendezvous (20/1) has two Grade 2 wins on very testing surfaces to his name this year. He could be one for the shortlist on heavy ground but he’s not going to get it.

Ignoring Paul Nicholls’ horses can prove expensive but his five-year-old Ptit Zig (50/1) is another runner who would benefit from testing conditions. Nicholls felt he was not at his best when finishing second to Melodic Rendezvous last time out at Haydock in January in the Champion Hurdle Trial. If Nicholls had said anything remotely optimistic about his chances here he would not be available at this price.

Alan King’s Grumeti (100/1) starts off a mark of 149 and appears to be outclassed.  He finished 43 lengths behind My Tent Or Yours on Boxing Day.

Champion Hurdle Betting Tips Conclusion

As the betting market suggests, there is little to choose between the four market leaders. The New One has a very decent chance but is unappealing at his current price of 5/2 in this company.

My Tent Or Yours is a much more attractively priced proposition at 4/1 but we have to go for the horse with the form in the book and pick HURRICANE FLY, best priced at 3/1 with Bet365 or Unibet.

Check the Latest Champion Hurdle Betting Odds Here