Champion Hurdle 2016 Preview, Trends, Tips
REVISED 21ST JANUARY AFTER ORIGINAL SELECTION BECAME A NON-RUNNER (MONEY BACK IF YOU BET AS ADVISED - NEW CONTENT DISPLAYED IN BLUE)
There are now less than two months until the 2016 Champion Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival. As the main players conclude their rehearsals for the big stage in March, it's high time we cruised through the data in search of a value wager.
Champion Hurdle 2016 Trends
Last Time Out: I thought it might be helpful to add a few pictures to the words so, with that in mind, here is a chart showing the distribution of win and placed horses by last time out position.
Using horseracebase.com we can see that 14 of the last 18 Champion Hurdle winners also won their previous race. This, sadly, won't make you money - a £1 level stakes loss of £8.10 would have been incurred - but the 78% win rate outperforms the 38% numerical representation by more than double, so it's a solid start.
Age: It is often said that five-year-olds have a terrible record in the Champion Hurdle and, indeed, it is true that only Katchit (2008) has won for that age group since See You Then claimed the first of his hat-trick of triumphs in 1985. That's a fairly one dimensional interpretation of the data, and looking at win and place performance shows the younger guns in a slightly better light, as can be seen from the graph below.
The thick line is the percentage of runners in each age band (A=5, B=6, C=7 and so on), with the more volatile pastel line representing the win percentages by age group.
We can see (just about) that the place percentages follow the runner percentage quite closely, implying that there is little bias - at least between the ages of five and nine - in place performance terms.
Whilst five year olds marginally under-perform against numerical representation - 20% placed from 23% runners - and six-, seven-, and eight-year-olds marginally over-performed (68.5% placed from 61% runners), it would be reckless to infer anything too meaningful from the age of a Champion Hurdle runner.
Thus, if you like any of Peace And Co, Hargam or Top Notch, it is more likely to be a limitation of ability rather than maturity that prevents a bold showing in mid-March.
At the other end of the age spectrum, even the brilliant Hurricane Fly couldn't collect as a double digit aged runner, finishing a gallant third last year. He was one of just two placed runners since 1997, from 20 to line up, the other being the almost equally wonderful Rooster Booster (2nd as the 11/8 favourite in 2004). Not that any horse resembling veteran status is engaged this year.
Distance form: A weird one here, and I won't try to dress it up. The Champion Hurdle is an all-guns-blazing speed test over two miles and half a furlong. This is a searching circuit and pure flat track two milers are routinely unmasked. Adding statistical grist to the summary statement mill are these data:
Horses that have not won beyond a bare two miles are 1 from 54 since 1997; 6% winners from 22% runners.
Horses that have won at further than two miles but less than two and a half miles are 7 from 132 since 1997; 39% winners from 54% runners.
But horses that have won at two and a half miles or further are 10 from 60 since 1997; 56% winners from 24% runners.
That last group is mainly comprised of winners of the Hattons Grace Hurdle, a Grade 1 over two and a half miles in Ireland, and the Neptune Novices' Hurdle, a Grade 1 over two mile five furlongs at the Cheltenham Festival. Faugheen won the 2014 Neptune prior to claiming Champion glory last year, and Windsor Park, the 2015 Neptune victor, may yet emerge as a live outsider after a limp effort over Christmas.
2016 Champion Hurdle Form Preview
The favourite, or joint-favourite, has scored on eight occasions from 19 qualifying horses since 1997, and that 42% strike rate was worth a modest profit of £3.40 to £1 level stakes.
Faugheen brought an unbeaten record to the race last year, and carried it out with him as the triumphant favourite. Sent off 4/5 on the day, he's currently a top priced 8/13, though I suspect he may be closer to last year's SP come the hour (depending on how trainer Willie Mullins' runners perform in the opening two races, the Supreme and the Arkle).
Since holding off the late challenge of Arctic Fire, who might have gone very close to winning given a more positive ride, Faugheen went on to extend his margin of victory over the same horse at the Punchestown Festival last May. However, his crown slipped a touch in the Morgiana Hurdle in November, when Nichols Canyon claimed his fifth Grade 1, David Mullins having caught the champ napping. Normal service was resumed on Boxing Day when Faugheen scored by an easy seven lengths from The New One in the Grade 1 Christmas Hurdle at Kempton.
Last year, Faugheen went straight to Cheltenham after winning the Kempton race but, with no Hurricane Fly to think about, there's much talk of him running in the Irish Champion Hurdle scheduled for this Sunday at Leopardstown. In what could be a mouth-watering dress rehearsal, Wullie is considering letting all three prongs of his ante-post-market-leading trident joust there.
Throw in the fast-improving Identity Thief, fourth market choice, and you have a mini-Champion Hurdle six weeks before the main event. Yum!
In terms of March, Faugheen is the one to have walked the walk. He won the Neptune, and then he won the Champion Hurdle. But he was just a length and a half ahead of Arctic Fire that day. As I've written, that one (best priced at 10/1 this time) could have gone very close had Danny Mullins not waited so patiently. Mullins Jr learned from that when lowering Faugheen's colours for the only time aboard Nichols Canyon (7/1 in a place) and, on those carefully selected form lines, there is nothing between the three.
Since then, things have become somewhat muddied - literally given the state of the turf - with Arctic Fire failing to stay when stepped up to three miles in heavy ground, and Nichols Canyon only just getting the better of Identity Thief, again on heavy ground but this time over two miles.
Remarkably, that was Nichols Canyon's sixth Grade 1 victory in nine hurdle starts, but it was the runner up who caught the eye, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, Nichols Canyon has shown on a number of occasions that he relishes heavy ground. He doesn't need it, but he acts better than most on it. Identity Thief looks as though a sounder surface will suit ideally, something he's likely to encounter on March 15th.
And secondly, Identity Thief may still be improving where others may not be. Rated 137 when winning in late October, he's elevated that mark to 158 now, and has a chance to further bridge the gap between himself and the Mullins triumvirate on Sunday, if they all go. Although Faugheen is still clear of his field on most ratings agency's figures, there is little to choose between the next trio with Identity Thief arcing on the clearest upward trajectory. Sadly, this perception is widely held and reflected in the market, where there is no longer more than a bit of 14/1 non-runner no bet.
Arctic Fire looks the most solid option against Faugheen, more so than Nichols Canyon in my view. The reason is that he's shown rock solid Cheltenham form twice - first when a very unlucky second in the County Hurdle of 2014, and then when a close second, maybe unlucky again, in last year's Champion Hurdle.
There's a fair chance he was overthe top when eight lengths behind Faugheen at Punchestown (had run, and looked set to win when falling at the last, at Aintree in between), and he's run with ground and trip against him this season. While he probably gets two and half miles on decent ground optimally, that trip and further on heavy is not his thing.
As such, it's a doddle to put a line through his last run, before which he was a 6/1 and 7/1 chance. He's now 10/1 Paddy and Betfair Sports, both non-runner money back. The conundrum, however, is this: the top three in the Champion Hurdle betting meet on Sunday in the Irish Champion Hurdle, and the market is likely to respond to the result there.
It looks as though there Nichols Canyon and Faugheen will contest front-running duties, though with both hailing from the same stable there's little question of a speed duel. Regardless, Arctic Fire will be waited with as is his style. The market expects Arctic Fire to finish third. So, if he does, his price is unlikely to change much if at all. However, if he runs better than third, he could truncate. As such, *I think* it's better to place the bet before Sunday than after.
(Of course, the brave/foolhardy can go in again if the odds drift!)
Further down the lists, the market doesn't have too much else to offer punters, and has been bled pretty dry of value already. There are others quoted, though. For instance, Peace And Co is a 14/1 chance, The New One and Camping Ground are 20/1, and My Tent Or Yours is 25/1.
Peace And Co is a bit of a nutjob. He won the Triumph Hurdle in the manner of a smart horse last March, and was sent off at odds on for his seasonal bow in the Grade 2 International Hurdle. Having tanked his way through the early part of the race, there was nothing left for the sharp end and he trailed in last of six, beaten 21 lengths by Old Guard. That one has since been trounced at Kempton by Faugheen, though it is possible he wasn't shown to best effect on that more speed-favouring strip. (More likely, he was found out by a classier rival).
Ultimately, Peace And Co needs to find about a stone to challenge a concert pitch Faugheen, and he needs to find it fast. 14/1 doesn't really reflect that.
The New One is not good enough, pure and simple. He's been a 'cliff horse' (as in 'follow him over a cliff') for plenty, but he has been consistently found out at the highest level, and a place is the best he can surely hope for. Still, a horse that's earned almost seven hundred grand for his owners is to be saluted.
Camping Ground is interesting, and almost a bet. He's more likely to go for the World Hurdle, via the Cleeve on 30th January, but if his stamina doesn't hold out in the prep he could be re-routed to the Champion Hurdle. If that sounds like a sentence caveated and provisoed to the hilt, then say hello to non-runner no bet.
Basically, there are three possibilities here: 1. He goes to the World Hurdle, 2. He skips Cheltenham to go chasing, or 3. He runs in the Champion Hurdle. If 1 or 2 come to pass, it's money back and move on. If he goes for the Champion, he ought to be shorter than 20/1 on the day (it will surely be option 2 if he runs very moderately in the Cleeve).
His win in the two and a half mile Relkeel Hurdle at Cheltenham on New Year's Day was decisive and had very good horses like Cole Harden and Top Notch well back. True, it was heavy ground, and he may just want soft to show his best. But he's clearly smart and progressive, and an official rating of 160 puts him ahead of Identity Thief and within hailing distance of Arctic Fire and Nichols Canyon.
My Tent Or Yours could be aimed at the Kingwell, but even if he won that convincingly he's seriously lacking in match practice, having been off for most of two years. And anyway, he's been chinned up that hill twice before (without suggesting he in any way lacks resolution).
I can't have the remote claims of Hargam (finished close up but beaten in his last five starts), or Wicklow Brave (ditto except for the close up bit, and it's eight runs since he won), so that leaves just one windmill tilter in the shape of Windsor Park (now a non-runner).
Prior to his last run he was a 25/1 shot for Champion Hurdle glory. But he bombed in that Grade 1 behind Nichols Canyon and Identity Thief (and Plinth), lobbing home 22 lengths behind the winner. That patently wasn't his A game, and looking at his form going into last year's Neptune, he ran 2nd and 4th before proving five lengths too good for Nichols Canyon on the big day. The ground was good for the Neptune, it was heavy for the Ryanair Hurdle trouncing he received. That's not the same thing, and if he retains all his ability he will surely finish closer to the Canyon next time. A lot closer. Whether he's quite good enough to make the frame I don't know. Indeed, whether he'll even run in the Champion Hurdle I don't know. But at 50/1 NRNB, it's worth buying a ticket to find out. There can't be too many Festival hurdle winners who run badly once over hurdles subsequently and are quoted at 50/1. Put it like this: if the going is good, or even good to soft, would you make Windsor Park eight or nine times the price of a horse he beat on similar two hurdling starts back? I hope you'll be answering no to that. One last thing: owner Dr Ronan Lambe has had a few Festival winners in recent years - Lord Windermere twice, Silver Concorde and this lad - and a quick squint at the form reveals defeat after defeat in the lead up to the only day that matters. Lord Windermere slogged through mud he hated before sprouting wings on terra firmer; Silver Concorde - rarely for a Cheltenham Bumper winner - was beaten twice before Festival glory; and Windsor Park rolled over twice on yielding turf before rocking up ready for a war on good ground last March. There will be plenty worse 50/1 shots than this chap, non-runner cash back.
2016 Champion Hurdle Tips
It's a very tricky race in which to bet because the market look to have the top order absolutely spot on. Faugheen has comfortably the best chance, and he's odds on. Nichols Canyon looks too short to me, as his best form is on softer and/or over further; and Arctic Fire may just have seen his chance come and go last year, though he retains solid place prospects. Identity Thief is a horse I really like, and have backed already. But 14/1 is about right, and lacks juice.
Of those runners at the current prices, Arctic Fire looks a really solid each way play. He's not had his ground yet this season, and he'll be running over two miles for the first on Sunday (24th January) for the first time this season. I expect him to finish respectably close to Faugheen and, possibly, in front of Nichols Canyon.
On better ground at Cheltenham, I expect him to finish in front of Nichols Canyon.
This is probably a race where you can get bigger for whatever you fancy at the top of the market in the days leading up to tape rise, as Festival fever grips the bookies and they prepare the concession catapult elastic for day one, but Arctic Fire is one I think could shorten between now and then.
So let's have a small dabble in the cheap seats. Let's take a tiny tickle on something at a big price, and we'll insure the position as well. I'm tempted by Camping Ground - such a strong traveller last time - but he may just need it wet wet wet. So it's Windsor Park for me, each way at 50/1, non-runner no bet. He's a lot better than he showed last time, and there are reasons to believe he will be a totally different proposition if/when lining up at Chelters, not least of which is his Neptune win. If he fails to show, money back. If he turns up, he can't be bigger than 20/1 when everyone else cottons on how lop-sided his price is. If he fails to fire, no biggie at 50's. Yup, for pennies, I'll top up my 25/1 pre-Ryanair Hurdle tickle with another at twice the price NRNB. [For the brave souls among you, consider this: in the 'without Faugheen' market, Nichols Canyon is 15/8 favourite, while Windsor Park is 25/1. Eh? If that was NRNB, I'd be after a bit of that as well, so you might like to keep your eye on the market]
2016 Champion Hurdle Value Tip
0.25 pts each way Windsor Park 50/1 Paddy Power (Non-Runner Money Back)
Stakes returned on the above bet, declared a non-runner
Advised 21st January:
1 pt e/w Arctic Fire 10/1 Paddy Power (Non-Runner Money Back)
Other Cheltenham Festival 2016 Ante-Post Previews
All of our in-depth previews, trends and tips can be found here: