It's mid-February and high time for the very first ante post preview, of the Champion Hurdle, ahead of the 2020 Cheltenham Festival. The Festival is confirmed alive and kicking as runners head to the start for the first of the week's open championship races and, while this year's renewal looks lacking in star quality, it may be bulging with quantity... and that makes for a cracking betting race.
2020 Champion Hurdle Betting
From an ante post wagering perspective, significant further spice is added by the "will they / won't they" nature of a number of runners towards the pointy end of the market. Any/all of Honeysuckle, Envoi Allen, Benie Des Dieux, and Cilaos Emery could rock up here and go off a single figure price; but only the first two named are actually entered at this stage. We'll know more after the supplementary stage on 4th March, but so will everyone else so now is the time to take a view.
With 2017/18 champ Buveur D'Air out injured, Willie talking horse Klassical Dream out missing in action, and 2019 victor Espoir D'Allen sorely missed, the path is clear for a hitherto largely unheralded player to add their name to the illustrious roll of honour. Here's where the fun starts...
The above is a betting snapshot as at 8am on 14th February, with the starting prices for the race sure to be quite different. Before looking at the form, let's think about the shape of the market.
First up, if the four uncertain runners all turn up, Epatante is more likely to be nearer 5/1 than 5/2. Pentland Hills might be - arguably should be - nearer 10/1 than 5/1.
What is more likely to happen, I think - and don't quote me on this, is that Benie and Honey will swerve each other, with one going to the Mares' Hurdle (Honeysuckle?) and one to either the Champion (or Stayers') Hurdle (BdD?).
Benie Des Dieux has raced exclusively over two and a half to three miles and her trainer, Willie Mullins, has a number of other options for the Tuesday showpiece. In my view she's unlikely to run here, but would be the chief antagonist to Paisley Park if going to the longer Grade 1, a race in which she's actually entered.
Novice Envoi Allen has looked a Champion Hurdler in the making, his plan all season being the Ballymore Novices' Hurdle, a kingmaker for the following year's Champion, for which he is not far north of even money. It wouldn't be the biggest surprise if he was re-routed to an ostensibly hollow renewal of the hurdling Blue Riband, but his non-runner no bet (NRNB) price is about right, so save nearer the time if required.
And then there's Cilaos Emery. I'm in for a few quid on this lad for the Champion Chase, so a first fence fall in his dress rehearsal at the Dublin Racing Festival - and subsequent plan revision from the Closutton schemers to potentially head this way - has been a disappointing dispatch to digest. We'll come back to his form chance shortly.
2020 Champion Hurdle Preview
All of the above means that my inclination is to clear out the noise and focus primarily on those believed likely to run at this stage. Primus inter punting pares currently is Epatante. The Nicky Henderson-trained / JP McManus-owned six-year-old mare has done little wrong albeit in lesser company. Since winning a French AQPS G1 bumper in November 2017 - her switch to Seven Barrows ensuing - she has run five times, winning four of them.
That quartet comprises a brace of novice hurdles where her closest pursuers are now rated 127 and 117; a Listed handicap hurdle where the next two home were stable mates at Chez Nicky, rated in the mid-130's; and the Grade 1 (in name at least) Christmas Hurdle, where she was five lengths too good for Silver Streak, himself third in last year's Champion Hurdle.
But last year's Champion Hurdle completely fell apart due to fallers and a pace collapse. Silver Streak, a 25/1 chance this year, was 80/1 last year. Moreover, he was beaten 15 lengths last year and subsequently duffed up royally at Aintree though over an extra half mile or so.
The sole blemish on Epatante's UK CV is a sizeable one. It came in last year's Mares' Novices' Hurdle where she was 15/8 favourite in a big field of interesting though not necessarily exciting aspirants. Eight of them finished in front of her at the line for all that she was only beaten around ten lengths.
Whether it was the track, or the volume of rivals, or the occasion, it is hard to know. What I do know is that she'll be racing at the same track (old/new course notwithstanding), with quite possibly a similar number of rivals, and an even bigger occasion. That's a big question to remain unanswered for a 5/2 (10/3 in a place) chance, even taking into account her seven pound mares' allowance.
If Epatante has questions to answer, what about Pentland Hills? Last season was fairytale stuff for his four billion owners in the Owners Group 031 club. A fairly exposed flat turfer for Chris Wall, rated 73 on the level, the journey from Newmarket to Lambourn clearly suited - as did, of course, the increase in racing distance and the presence of an octet of obstacles.
For where was this middling summer handicapper? After waltzing away from The Flying Sofa on his debut over timber as late as the end of February, he rocked up in the Triumph just 18 days later and bashed his 13 rivals up in style; though of course it should be remembered that rock solid favourite, Sir Erec, met a most untimely demise in the first half of the race.
However, Pentland was keen to show his Chelto success was no fluke and did just that in the Aintree equivalent where he took down another notable scalp in the form of Fakir D'Oudairies. A fearsome four-year-old was he last season, but this term has been less straightforward. Kicking off his campaign in the International Hurdle at Cheltenham in December, he was no better than fifth as a 5/2 chance in a bunch finish.
He has since run in the Haydock Champion Hurdle Trial, a Grade 2, where he was beaten a nose by Ballyandy, that one finishing second in the International and, therefore, having two verdicts over Pentland Hills this season yet still being offered at five times his price. To be clear, I don't like the form lines especially but the price disparity has to be wrong for all that the Hills has far more 'back class'.
A feature of Pentland Hills' races this term has been a propensity to over-race. His advocates will argue that in a bigger, and better, field they'll go quicker which will play to the Triumph victor's strengths. They may be right about that, but I still don't see him winning. At least I don't see me betting him at anything like his current price.
And, of course, everybody knows five-year-olds don't win the Champion Hurdle. Except Katchit in 2008. And, erm, Espoir D'Allen last year 😉
Benie Des Dieux has much better options than this. She'll surely go for either the Mares' Hurdle over an extra half mile, or the Stayers' Hurdle over a full mile more. A flat out speed test is something against which she's completely unproven. Back her on the day if you like, but she's a red herring in this book from where I'm sitting.
The Henry de Bromhead-trained Honeysuckle has similar destination uncertainties. She is at least entered in the race, where Benie is not currently; but her target has reputedly been the Mares' Hurdle all along. The form book relates that, although she won the G1 Irish Champion Hurdle last time, it was by the smallest margin - half a length - in her seven race unbeaten career to date. Closer inspection reveals that the next narrowest margin of victory was on the only other occasion she contested a race over two miles, a Naas novice 15 months ago.
She wants two and a half miles at least, maybe three, and she did very well to prevail at the shorter range last time. I'd be surprised if she was invited to go short next month.
The eight-year-old Darver Star was knocking around the places in novice hurdles before a handicap debut win off 106 in April last year. A year later and he's now rated 152 having won four in a row prior to running a four length third to Envoi Allen in the G1 Royal Bond in December and a half length second to Honeysuckle in the aforementioned Irish Champion Hurdle. He's tough, he's hardy, he's progressive for his age (lightly raced, too) and he could outrun odds of 20/1.
The heart-breaker in the herd, for this scribe at least, is Cilaos Emery. I have him to win a nice four figure amount in the Champion Chase, but his jumping and his inexperience - intrinsically linked, no doubt - which led to a first fence fumble in the Dublin Chase have placed his participation in the Wednesday feature under a cloud of doubt.
Although he needs to be supplemented, he is a legit contender for the hurdles crown. Rated 165 over fences, that figure is higher than any in the current entries. Of course, he hasn't run over the smaller barriers since late 2017 when he was rated only 153; but even that level gives him a bit of a chance in this likely field. He's 8/1 NRNB and 12/1 all in run or not, and could easily end up being Mullins' first choice for a race where his expected contenders have evaporated as the season has worn on.
Of the Mullins horses actually entered, Sharjah is the most compelling. He has two ways of running, the better of them up to muster in this group. He evidenced that most recently when winning the Grade 1 Matheson (formerly Ryanair) Hurdle at New Year for the second year running. Last season, he also won the G1 Morgiana beating (an admittedly likely below peak) Faugheen, so he's capable of Grade 1 winning form.
Patrick Mullins is expected to keep the mount, and to ride a patient race. If he handles the ground - which will probably be on the soft side given the weather we've been having - he's a player.
So too is Envoi Allen if he is diverted to this gig. I don't think he will be and I don't think he should be, but clearly a horse unbeaten in seven Rules races and a point-to-point, including last season's Champion Bumper, cannot be completely dismissed. He's just not a betting proposition at this stage for all that he's a very exciting horse.
Then we step into the realm of the wannabe's - many of whom never will be, at this rarefied altitude at least - with the likes of Fusil Raffles, Thomas Darby, Coeur Sublime and Supasundae amongst others.
Fusil Raffles was a good four-year-old, beating Fakir D'Oudairies by two and a half lengths in a Punchestown Festival Grade 1 last May. A literal interpretation of that gives him the beating of second favourite, Pentland Hills; but since then, the Henderson inmate has had mixed fortunes, first scrambling home in a Grade 2 then pulling up as if something was amiss in the Christmas Hurdle. The news that he goes straight to Cheltenham offers no prior chance to redeem the reservation of that Kempton flunk.
Olly Murphy recently celebrated his maiden Grade 1 success, in the Scilly Isles Novices' Chase at Sandown. The winner there, Itchy Feet, finished a place behind stable companion Thomas Darby in last year's Supreme Novices' Hurdle, the latter taking his chance in the Champion Hurdle now. Since last March, however, Thomas has charted an uncertain passage, looking far from fluent over fences and reverting to hurdles last time where he did well to beat a field of Grade 3 handicappers off top weight. That was two and a half miles on heavy ground, a different test - in distance terms if not ground - to what he'll encounter here; but current evidence suggests he's a better hurdler than chaser.
Coeur Sublime simply doesn't look good enough, having finished a respectful distance behind a number of more credible Champion Hurdle candidates; but Supasundae is not without hope. Jessica Harrington would be one of the less feted of the top table of Irish trainers, and her Cheltenham Festival record is impressive: most notably she recorded a treble in 2017 which included Sizing John in the Gold Cup, and Supasundae himself.
In the intervening three years, Supasundae, now ten, has finished 23212212227124. His problems in the win market are well couched in that form string; but every single one of those runs was in Grade 1 company. He was disappointing in the Stayers' Hurdle last term - the sore thumb '7' in the sequence - and I have a suspicion that a fast run two, rather than a steadily run three, is what he wants.
He won the Grade 1 Aintree Hurdle last April, where he beat Buveur D'Air, who would be no bigger than 5/1 in this field all other things being equal. Of course, that was two and a half miles, but he is a legitimate Grade 1 animal. His last day fourth in the Irish Champion Hurdle, where he was beaten less than five lengths on his first run for nine months, will doubtless have delighted connections, and he must improve plenty from there to Cheltenham.
Ballyandy is also worth a name check. The form of his last three runs ties in closely with both Epatante and Pentland Hills so, if you think they are correctly priced, this guy has to represent a bit of value in the place markets at least. His Cheltenham Festival record is strong: he won the Champion Bumper in 2016, was fourth in Labaik's Supreme a year later, and was third in the Coral Cup last year.
2020 Champion Hurdle Tips
It's a fabulously fraught Festival market with no horse holding anything like outstanding claims. As such, it can pay to take a couple of chances at bigger prices. Cilaos Emery would be interesting if getting supplemented but at this stage he is overlooked. So too are the hokey cokey possibles Honeysuckle, Benie Des Dieux and Envoi Allen.
Epatante is a dreadful price even if the above named quartet all abstain; her Cheltenham blot and the general balance of her form mark her as vulnerable for all that she'd not be a shock winner. Pentland Hills actually impressed me in the Triumph, and again at Aintree, last year; but he doesn't look the same model this season, five-year-old hurdlers often struggling to recapture the fizz of their first forays.
Thereafter it's wide open. A 'going day' Sharjah would be a player, for sure, as would Supasundae; and Darver Star and Ballyandy are not without hope from the long grass either.
With Sharjah's Cheltenham record patchy (if probably excusable - heavy ground and a brought down, respectively), and Ballyandy inexorably tied to Pentland Hills in form terms - which for some will be a boon, granted - I'll take a punt on the other pair.
Darver Star will be having his first start outside Ireland, though that didn't stop his trainer winning last year's race with a similar type, and is an eight-year-old who has emerged from absolutely nowhere in the last year. He's not had a huge amount of racing, stays the trip and more, and has arguably achieved more in defeat the last twice than a number of his rivals have done in winning.
And Supasundae, if routing this way - we'll go NRNB just in case - has class and consistency in his corner. Yes he is ten years old; yes, he finishes second a lot; but he does it in Grade 1 company, including at the Cheltenham Festival where his record since switching to his current trainer is 127. That first run of the season earlier in the month must have pleased connections, and I'm happy to chance him each way non-runner no bet.
Champion Hurdle 2020 Suggestion
Back Supasundae each way NRNB at 16/1 Skybet
Consider any of Darver Star 20/1, Ballyandy 20/1, and/or Sharjah 12/1 all NRNB