Champion Hurdle 2013 Preview, Trends and Tips
There are just 99 days to go until Cheltenham's 2013 Festival begins, and the big race of the opening day is the Stan James Champion Hurdle.
It's always a fantastic race and the roll of honour of past Champion Hurdlers is exceptional, as you'd expect.
But there is one key stat about the Champion Hurdle that is, for me, the number one statistic at the whole Cheltenham Festival meeting. And it's one which can help us to get an ante-post ticket nice and early, because all we need to know are the results from the previous year.
So, here it is: since Flakey Dove's win in 1994 (when she was only seventh the previous year), every single Champion Hurdler to have ran at the Festival in the previous year had finished in the first four.
Two finished fourth: Collier Bay in the Coral Cup, and Sublimity in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle.
Three didn't run at the Festival the previous year: two first season novices in Alderbrook and Make A Stand, and the injured Hurricane Fly.
The remaining twelve all finished in the first three at the previous Cheltenham Festival.
Looking at the top end of the betting, I'm immediately wary of Zarkandar, the current second favourite, despite his staying on fifth in the race in March 2012.
But rather than focus on who to be against, let's look at who fits the bill. And, to help with that, I'm going to incorporate another key statistic, related to age. It is this: quite simply, five year olds are almost always too immature to take on their stronger and fleeter elders; and nine year olds and up are generally past their best.
Specifically, in the last nineteen Champion Hurdles, only Katchit (five) and Rooster Booster (nine) have breached that statistic rule. The other seventeen were all aged six (six), seven (seven) or eight (four).
So who are the podium finishers to consider?
Let's start with the Champion Hurdle: Rock On Ruby beat Overturn and Hurricane Fly. Overturn has already made his chasing debut and looks set to be running in one of the novice steeplechase events in March. The other two will be headed to the Champion.
But Hurricane Fly will be nine come March and, while he could win (and I might even take a saver on the day), he looked lucky to beat the ill-fated Go Native on his seasonal bow this term, and I suspect he might not be as good as he was.
In the Supreme Novices' Hurdles, Cinders and Ashes beat Darlan, with Trifolium back in third. The first two are certain to go down the Champion Hurdle route, with the third perhaps taking to chasing after a couple of disappointing runs this term over the smaller obstacles.
The Neptune - a surprisingly good nursery for the blue riband, given that it is run over two miles five furlongs to the Champion's two miles and half a furlong - returned a 1-2-3 of Simonsig, Felix Yonger and Monksland. I believe Simonsig will be going chasing, leaving the Irish pair, the former of which I suspect will go chasing too.
The Triumph Hurdle winner was Countrywide Flame, and no horse beaten in the Triumph in recent times (if ever) has come back to win the Champion the next year, so we'll park our considerations there. But of course, as last year's Triumph Hurdle winner, Countrywide Flame will only be five by March and that, for me, precludes an ante-post bet. Again, if he goes there with a strong chance he would likely be saver material.
The big handicap hurdle winners - Alderwood and Son of Flicka - are going chasing and too old respectively.
All of which 'thinking aloud' leaves us with a likely shortlist of Rock On Ruby, Cinders And Ashes, Darlan, and Monksland. To that short enough shortlist, I may add Grandouet, who hasn't run for a year, if he shows he's as good as he was when he re-appears at Cheltenham in a couple of Saturday's time (as I write, 3rd December).
But for now, it's a quartet only.
Rock On Ruby was a good, if perhaps fortunate, winner last year, having been in the right place when a couple of others (Hurricane Fly, Binocular and Zarkandar) were caught napping. Since then, he was beaten in the Aintree over two and a half miles, which is too far for him. ROR's form at two miles or two miles and a furlong since his first ever run (4th) reads 1111121.
He's 'now' trained by Harry Fry, who is unquestionably THE trainer to follow this season from the new kids. I say 'now' because Fry trained ROR last term as well, albeit at a satellite yard of Paul Nicholls and under that trainer's name. Fry has started with six winners from his first 23 runners and a profit of 27 units to level stakes as of 3rd December (including a 20/1 winner today!)
Cinders And Ashes was impressive in winning the Supreme, seeing off a determined Darlan, and there was no fluke about it. Since then, Cinders ran in the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle in very heavy ground at the weekend and was beaten into second. He was also beaten on his first run last term, and as a punter, it's a blessing because it enhances this one's odds.
He looks to have a serious chance in the Champion Hurdle IF he can improve around ten pounds between now and Cheltenham in March. I think he has an excellent chance, and expect him to be around half his current 16/1 odds come the day.
Darlan has a closely related chance to that of Cinders And Ashes, but he's yet to run this season and he's six points shorter than his 2012 Cheltenham conqueror. Whilst it is possible for him to (have) improve(d) past Cinders, I wouldn't bet on it, and I certainly wouldn't take shorter on it. Saver only.
That leaves Monksland, who is an interesting fellow indeed. He was meant to go chasing this term, but has had two runs over hurdles already. The first was a Grade 2 at Down Royal, which he won easily over two miles; and the second was the Grade 1 Hatton's Grace at Fairyhouse over a soft two and a half miles, and he finished second.
That's pretty good form, and those dropping back in trip from the Neptune have won Champion Hurdles (Rock On Ruby, Hardy Eustance and Istabraq in the last fourteen years). If his trainer does run him in this race, he's got a better chance than Stan James' quote of 66/1 implies.
When it's nearer the time, it will be important for our fancy to have ideally won, but definitely finished in the frame in his last race; and for it to have run between 16 and 60 days.
But for now, fully three and a half months ahead of the Cheltenham Festival's opening day, I'm happy to side with those.
1 pt win: Rock On Ruby (9/1 Stan James, Sportingbet)
1 pt win: Cinders And Ashes (16/1 Boylesports, Stan James, Ladbrokes, Hills)
1/4 pt win: Darlan (10/1 Betvictor, non runner, free bet)
1/4 pt e/w: Monksland (66/1 Stan James)
p.s. here's some more stats...