Jump racing’s elite assemble at Prestbury Park each year and the leading jockeys are often left with head-scratching decisions as to which talented horse to ride.
Last year Tony McCoy had agonising choices to make in two of the most prestigious races, the Champion Hurdle and the World Hurdle. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. This year Ruby Walsh will have tough calls to make with Willie Mullins sending his most powerful team ever to Cheltenham. One decision in particular will engage heart and head like no other.
Many believe that Ruby will take the ride on Faugheen in the Champion Hurdle rather than staying loyal to Hurricane Fly. It’s hard to imagine that he will allow sentiment to affect his decision. Hatton’s Grace and Sea Pigeon are the only 11-year-olds to have won the race, and that’s the size of the task facing Mullins’ equine superstar.
The trainer clearly retains faith in his warrior: “It can be done at 11. People say he doesn’t run well at Cheltenham but I’m not so sure. He’s run there four times; won twice and I think I had two good excuses for the other times. I felt on his last two runs last season that he wasn’t sparking the way he can spark. So far this year he hasn’t shown any of those signs, and he will tell you all right. He’s very clear in what he’s telling us and so far it’s very good. If he can do it, it would be my dream result of the Festival.”
Of his short priced favourite, Mullins says: “He’s doing everything right. I can’t find a reason why he won’t run well. I asked Ruby if he needed another race after Kempton and he said ‘No’ and I was guided by that.
Faugheen’s run in the Christmas Hurdle was mighty impressive. Some have questioned the opposition and that is fair. But the clock suggested it was a terrific performance and Ruby hardly moved a muscle on the horse. His winning time for last season’s Neptune also holds-up against previous years, some five seconds quicker than Simonsig in 2012. He appears to have the perfect mix of speed and stamina and though he’s yet to run against the elite two milers, signs are that he is a special talent.
Of course Ruby is best placed to know. He has ridden both horses and will have a feel for which is likely to go best in just under two weeks. The course; the ground; along with how both are working, will all be crucial factors.
‘The Fly’ has had exactly the same build-up as last year, and in fairness the Irish timetable allows for pretty clear targets during the winter. Three more Grade 1s have been bagged, with the reigning champion hurdler Jezki beaten on each occasion. A change of ground condition and track are expected to aid Jess Harrington’s horse.
Those defeats have done little to dent her confidence in a huge performance when it matters: “He's probably had a better year this year than last. He seems to like good ground in the spring. He doesn't really appreciate heavy going. A bit of sun on his back and a bit of warmer weather suits. Wearing a hood definitely does help him. Faugheen is the one I fear. He's the unknown quantity. Hurricane Fly is hard to beat in Ireland but you always fear the younger ones more than the older ones. You could argue he hasn't beaten anything but he looks the part.”
Last year’s end to end gallop on livelier ground certainly suited Jezki to the detriment of Hurricane Fly. It cannot be coincidence that his two Champion Hurdle defeats have come in the two fastest races. Rock On Ruby got away from him in 2012 and last year’s race saw a similar outcome.
The New One appears to be the final piece in the Champion Hurdle puzzle. Was he unlucky to lose last year? Or was he outpaced coming down the hill before staying on strongly towards the finish? Views differ, though Ruby’s opinion when a guest on the Morning Line was very interesting. He was adamant that the interference suffered, greatly affected The New One’s finishing position.
We will never know for sure, though one thing most appear to agree on is that he is a much better horse on decent ground. Like Faugheen he has gears as well as plenty of stamina. Both were impressive winners of the Neptune; The New One, a more compact horse with a ‘choppier’ action; whereas Faugheen is scopier, moving effortlessly and stylishly across the turf.
Nigel Twiston-Davies’ horse is a real powerhouse and one would envisage Sam Twiston-Davies holding on to him for as long as possible before using his ‘burst’ of speed to count late on. Unbeaten in four runs this winter, his best performance came at Cheltenham when using that finishing kick to give 8lbs and a beating to Vanituex.
This year’s Champion Hurdle more than any in recent times is a truly fascinating one. Ruby’s decision; ground conditions on the day; tactics and in-race incidents will all play a crucial role in the races outcome. When will Faugheen press for home? Will Hurricane Fly be able to ‘lay-up’ close enough to strike late on? Will the relentless gallop take the finishing sting out of The New One? And will Jezki have his desired conditions, as he did last year, enabling him to run to his very best?
It has the look of an absolute thriller.