If the Irish don’t win it, then recent history suggests that Nicky Henderson will be victorious in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton.
Since 2000, Irish trainers have seven victories to their name, whilst the master of Seven Barrows has half a dozen. My Tent Or Yours made it four-in-a-row for Henderson in 2013, when edging out The New One in a thrilling finish. Willie Mullins has won the last two, thanks to the mighty Faugheen. Sadly he misses out on the chance of making it three on the bounce, though the Closutton team still have an outstanding contender.
Vroum Vroum Mag suffered her first defeat in two years when pipped at the post by Apple’s Jade last time on her seasonal bow. She ought to strip much fitter this time, and if taking her chance would take some beating. She finished five lengths clear of My Tent Or Yours when they last met in the Punchestown Champion Hurdle. She’s a high-class mare.
“She'll have to work again tomorrow. I think declarations are Friday,” said Walsh. “She seems well. She came out of her race nicely when Apple's Jade beat her, but there's obviously Yanworth and The New One. It's going to be a small field, but she looks to be in good order. I suppose when a horse gets beaten it takes the shine off them a little, but we still think she's a very good mare and she'll give a good account of herself getting 7lb from the geldings.”
JP McManus also has an outstanding record in the race, and has two chances of lifting the prize. My Tent Or Yours is yet to shine this season, though better ground at Kempton will certainly help the powerful traveller. However, the main hope for the Irish owner appears to be the Alan King trained Yanworth. He was one of last winter’s leading novice hurdlers, though looked sure to be stepped-up in trip for this campaign. Plans changed due to the exceptional form of Unowhatimeanharry, also JP owned.
King said in his Weekender column: “Obviously it's going to be a big test for him, but we need to find out if he's a Champion Hurdle contender and I think this will give us some idea. There will probably be a few big guns in opposition, but Yanworth is well. We've not really trained him any differently since switching targets from the World Hurdle and he breezed on Saturday, which we were very happy with.
“The big question is whether he'll be effective over two miles at Kempton, but the one thing I can say is he's never been beaten over that trip over hurdles. I genuinely don't know how he'll fare, but we've got nothing to lose by trying so let's see what happens.”
He defeated Lil Rockerfeller on his seasonal debut, though had to dig deep to do so. This will certainly be tougher, but he’s unexposed compared to several of these.
Another for whom plans have changed dramatically, is The New One, trained by Nigel Twiston-Davies. With 14 victories from 22 starts over hurdles, this fella is considered a hero by his handler, and by many National Hunt followers. He looked set to be switched to fences, but stormed to victory in the International Hurdle at Cheltenham, when dominant from the front.
The Naunton trainer said of his favourite horse: “He was only beaten a whisker by My Tent Or Yours three years ago. He made a mistake at the last otherwise he probably would have won. He's in very good form as you've seen. We want to apply the same tactics as at Cheltenham, more forcing tactics. Sam (Twiston-Davies) will ride him this time, I'm sure. It was lovely to see him back at his best last time, although really he has never been away from his best.”
The Christmas Hurdle field is set to be completed by massive outsider Gray Wolf River and Dan Skelton’s progressive youngster Ch’tibello. The former will be hunting for prize money, and hopefully won’t cause a delay to the start of the King George, just half an hour later.
Skelton’s contender is of far more interest. He was impressive at Haydock last time in a small field on heavy ground. He had My Tent Or Yours and Old Guard behind him on that occasion. He clearly has plenty of speed, and is a big strong individual. Connections were worried about the ground at Haydock, and he’ll likely be more effective on a sounder surface at Kempton. He gave Altior a run for his money a year ago at Ascot, and may well prove competitive again.