Cheltenham Festival 2017 Day 1 Preview: Brain Power fits the bill

Champion Hurdle 2017 Preview: Trends, Pace, Form, Tips

The centre piece of day one of the Cheltenham Festival 2017, and one of the highlights of the week, is the Champion Hurdle. Despite being shorn of the last three winners - Annie Power and Faugheen sidelined with injury, Jezki very likely side-stepping to the Stayers' - it remains an intriguing contest, with no stand out performer.

From a betting perspective, then, it looks good even if we may be left hoping for an electric performance to dissipate the suspicion of it being a weak renewal.

Let's start with some trends...

Champion Hurdle 2017 Trends

Lies, damned lies and statistics. Caution is always advised when shortcutting the form reading process with a few casually selected historical groupings, but there is often underlying method to the apparently pseudo-scientific madness, as the below can attest. These data cover the last 20 years which, as the hardcore will know, means the last 19 renewals, a nasty outbreak of foot and mouth leading to the cancellation of the 2001 Festival.

Last time out

15 of the last 19 Champion Hurdle winners also won their prior start. If that seems obvious, then consider that those 79% of the 'available' winners (and 60% of the places) came from just 38% of the runners.

And 17 of the last 19 Champion Hurdle winners were first or second last time out. That's 89.5% of the winners, and 82.5% of the places, from 58.5% of the runners.

Let's put this another way: of the 52 horses (20% of the collective fields) to finish fifth or worse last time out, none won, and only three made the frame. Think very carefully before making an excuse for a horse well beaten (or failing to complete) last time.

Age

Let's deal with the oft-quoted "five year olds can't win the Champion Hurdle" line. They obviously can, because Katchit did in 2008 (as did See You Then in 1985, and Night Nurse in 1976, and Persian War in 1968). All of the bracketed horses were multiple Champion Hurdle winners and famed in the annals of the sport. So it is probably fair to say that it generally takes an exceptional five-year-old to win the race.

There are only three entered this year: Apple's Jade is a probably for the Mares' Hurdle 40 minutes later, while Sceau Royal and Footpad have yet to do anything to suggest they're exceptional - and they have had enough tries.

At the other end of the age spectrum, horses aged ten-plus have been absent from the winners' circle since Sea Pigeon's double-digit double triumph in 1980/81. He was echoing the previous veteran, Hatton's Grace, whose last two of three wins were achieved in 1950/51. That's bad news for fans of My Tent Or Yours.

Runners aged six to nine have run largely in line with numerical representation, with the possible exception of seven and eight years, who have won slightly more than might have been expected. That could be due to peak maturity, or merely statistical happenstance.

Layoff

Every winner in the last two decades had last raced between two weeks and three months ago. However, that group of recently raced, and rested, contenders comprises 90% of all runners. If they show up here, however, it would be a knock for Diakali, Wicklow Brave, Mister Miyagi and, most notably, the four months absent Moon Racer.

Previous Festival Form

The previous year's Champion Hurdle, and Neptune Novices' Hurdle, run over 2m5f, are the two pre-eminent Champion Hurdle form lines from prior Festivals.

Since Istabraq did the Neptune/Champion double in 1997/8, Hardy Eustace, Rock On Ruby (short head second in Neptune) and Faugheen have all followed suit. Yanworth represents this angle in 2017 and, though he was beaten most of two lengths by Yorkhill in the Neptune, he probably ran half a furlong further under what might have been called 'an enterprising ride' if it wasn't such an expensive failure.

And the strongest pointer to the Champion Hurdle may well be the previous year's renewal. Istabraq twice, Hardy Eustace, and Hurricane Fly (albeit failing to win in between victories) have all recorded multiple Blue Riband triumphs.

With Annie Power out, the veteran My Tent Or Yours and out-of-form Nichols Canyon will attempt to the fly the flag for this formline.

Champion Hurdle 2017 Pace Map

Champion Hurdle 2017 Form Preview

A pair of JP McManus-owned horses with very different profiles head the market. Buveur D'Air was an eight length third to Altior in the 2016 Supreme Novices' Hurdle, the absent Min having split the pair; while Yanworth was a decent second to Yorkhill in the Neptune. (It should be said that many observers consider it to have been an unorthodox but perfectly efficient steer. I, as you may have guessed, don't share that view).

This season, Buveur D'Air was started off over fences, but was redirected to timber after the defection of the recent champions - aided no doubt by the seemingly unassailable advantage stable mate Altior has over his Arkle field.

In order for a horse to go from the novice ranks to Champion Hurdle podium territory, one expects it to improve maybe a stone. It is worthy of comment then that on official ratings, Buveur D'Air is just 157, compared to a peak novice rating of 152. If RPR's are more your thing, he's done no better than 155 this term compared with 159 last, and his speed figures are lower as well.

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The beating of a 141-rated horse in a heavy ground four-runner race simply do not equate to Champion Hurdle favouritism and, while he can win - any horse can win any race after all - he's readily opposable.

Yanworth's form stacks up far better, though he is arguably anchored by his proximity to The New One in the Christmas Hurdle, a race which would have suited neither horse optimally. Alan King's charge has been largely winning despite race conditions rather than because of them, and he has a quietly likeable worth ethic.

With his only hurdling defeat in eight starts being that one and three quarter length second to Yorkhill in the Neptune, he looks a very credible place player.

This year's Champion Hurdle may be noteworthy more for the absentees, though, than the attendees. As well as the sick-noted Annie Power and Faugheen, we also have the double blow of both 2016 novice event winners, Altior and Yorkhill, embarking upon chasing careers. While Buveur D'Air wasn't even especially close - one and a half lengths - to second-placed Min, Yanworth could be argued to have been worth marking up for his Neptune run. The fact remains, however, that both were convincingly outpointed.

So, too, were Nichols Canyon and My Tent Or Yours in the 2016 Champion Hurdle, the former beaten a head by the latter, four and a half behind Annie P, and with four more back to fourth-placed The New One.

My Tent Or Yours has given the impression this season that age is catching up with him - no win from four small field starts - but it could just be he needs a fast pace to show his true colours. Even if that is true, he has a habit of gallantly not winning: outside of a jumpers' bumper three years ago, his last hurdles triumph was the 2013 Christmas Hurdle.

Nichols Canyon may not even make the show, so moderate has his form been this winter, but he will be one of the main beneficiaries should the ground come up softer than normal on the opening day. His last seven victories have all come in Grade 1 company, and that's almost as many as his rivals can muster between them (exaggeration klaxon!).

I'm uncomfortable with the level of form at which two defeats by Petit Mouchoir peg him, even allowing for the fact that a true run race on soft ground will be a home fixture for Willie Mullins' charge. Still, 25/1 NRNB would not be a crazy ticket should he get his conditions.

Favourite for most of the winter was Petit Mouchoir. But a thumping in last year's Supreme, allied to defeat in seven of his ten hurdle races, mean he's surely over-rated. He's won weak Grade 1's the last twice where, as mentioned, he was suited to the shape of the races. He's on my 'readily opposable' list.

At last, we come to a pair of unexposed contenders, the first of whom is yet to be supplemented for the Champion Hurdle. Limini is her name, and she brings with her both excellent recent form and very good Festival form. Specifically, she won the inaugural running of the Mares' Novices Hurdle and, on her most recent start, she readily accounted for Apple's Jade. Moreover, if buying her invitation to this party, she'll receive a seven pound concession from the lads taking her into the 160's on RPR's and making her a player.

But that last day win was over two and a half miles, and on heavy ground. Even if it comes up soft on Festival Tuesday, and even though it takes a thorough stayer to win a Champion Hurdle, she has to prove that run was no fluke under what will be a notably different setup. More materially, perhaps, the price has long gone. She's now no better than a 6/1 chance.

Brain Power, available at 33% better, 8/1 if you prefer, is a very interesting player. His win in the Wessex Health Trust Handicap Hurdle (formerly Ladbroke) has probably been under-rated. He fairly hacked up in a field of 19 that day, carrying 11-10. That was another step forward on a big performance at Sandown the time before, where he again travelled brilliantly before repelling the late challenge of Consul De Thaix. He extended his margin over the second horse considerably further at Ascot and jumps extremely quickly.

So, he's currently rated 162, progressive, jumps very well, travels beautifully, and brings top class handicap form to the race. What are the negatives?

I have two reservations. The first is the ground. His form on soft is not as good as on quicker, though the evidence is restricted to one race, his first of this season.

The second is whether he's as good going left-handed as he is the other way. At right-handed Ascot and Sandown, he looked Champion Hurdle material; but at Cheltenham in that seasonal pipe opener, and at Aintree on his second career start, he was thumped. His only other left-handed run was on debut at Newcastle, where he rewarded jolly backers by a small margin.

In truth, there's not enough evidence to be swayed either way on either point, but both remain as irritants in an otherwise very solid case for the defense.

It has been mooted that smart novice, Moon Racer, might take in the Champion rather than Supreme Novices' Hurdle, testament to how much connections think of him and, perhaps, to how little they think of most of the opposition. I suspect the decision relates more to the fragility of the horse - an eight year old with just six career runs to his name - than anything else, and I'd be happy that his form is not good enough. In fact, on RPR's, it's two stone not good enough.

I love The New One - what's not to love? - and I think he has a fine chance to make the first four again. While, even in a poor renewal, his form probably isn't good enough to win, he looks more attractive as an each way bet than a number of those higher up the bookie lists. I have to declare having had a small interest, win only, at 16's, but I've neither notably outdone the market nor played the more sensible win/place option. Not too smart.

The rest are unlikely to matter.

Champion Hurdle 2017 Tips

This does not look a strong Champion Hurdle, with recent winners and last year's novice champions all absent. From a punting perspective, that makes the top of the market vulnerable to a progressive sort that may have taken a different route to the top table.

Step forward BRAIN POWER, who has looked highly progressive in two classy handicap wins, most recently against a big field of more lightly-weighted rivals. He may not want it too soft, and I still need to scratch that itch about going left-handed, but 8/1 is plenty for me to accept those possible twin impostors.

It would surely bring the house down if The New One could lift the trophy at the fourth time of asking and, emotion aside, he's a reasonable each way play on a line through Yanworth. The last named has solid credentials - more so than Buveur D'Air in my book - but there is little juice left in quotes of 7/2.