The Champion Hurdle picture is set for a shake-up this weekend with major events at Haydock and Leopardstown.
On Sunday Ireland’s leading two mile hurdlers are set to clash in the Irish Champion Hurdle. It’s a race dominated in recent times by the wonderful Hurricane Fly. Unbeatable at Leopardstown, ‘The Fly’ was an incredible racehorse.
Willie Mullins has the three leading protagonists for this much anticipated renewal, and they just happen to be the top three in the market for the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham. For all that Faugheen is the reigning Champion hurdler and a short priced favourite to follow up in March; this weekend’s race is far from being a formality.
He faces two exciting opponents in Arctic Fire and Nichols Canyon. The former chased him home at Cheltenham last March; whilst the latter caused a major shock when beating him on their seasonal bow in the Morgiana Hurdle. Nichols Canyon followed up with a hard fought win over Identity Thief at Leopardstown. Faugheen travelled over to Kempton and proved completely dominant in the Christmas Hurdle.
As for Arctic Fire, it appears that Mullins was keen to test him out in the staying hurdles division. After victories at two and a half miles over Monksland and then Alpha Des Obeaux, he was stepped up to three miles for the Christmas Hurdle at Leopardstown. However, the experiment backfired when he trailed home in fourth place, a dozen lengths behind the impressive Prince Of Scars.
He has a little to find with Faugheen on all known form, and dropping back from three miles is hardly the ideal prep for this. Whatever he does here, I’d expect him to perform better at Cheltenham, when the stiff finish off a strong pace is sure to suit.
The tactics should prove intriguing, as numerous experts now believe the ‘Champ’ needs an uncontested lead in order to prevail. I’m not sure I buy into that theory, and am of the opinion that Faugheen will have improved sufficiently from his seasonal debut to reverse placing’s with Nichols Canyon. Chances are that he has the extra gears needed to win on this track, in this deep winter ground, over this minimum trip.
A day prior to that ding-dong battle in Ireland, the best that Britain has to offer is set to clash at Haydock in the StanJames.com Champion Hurdle Trial. The New One and Peace And Co appear the only two from this side of the Irish Sea capable of challenging the might of Ireland. It’s fair to say that both are on something of a recovery mission.
The New One was well beaten in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton though that was his seasonal opener and trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies was at odds to point out that his fella would improve plenty for the run. Earlier this week he said: “He's been really good so far. He'll be much fitter than on Boxing Day, so he should be a lot better. He's been to Haydock twice and won twice, so conditions should be all right for him, and all being well he's going to the Champion Hurdle.”
A spinal issue curtailed last season’s campaign and Twiston-Davies will be hopeful that his stable star can get back to the form he showed in 2014, when many thought him unfortunate not to win the Champion Hurdle.
Oozing class and travelling like a dream through his races, Nicky Henderson’s Peace And Co looked a future star when winning the Triumph Hurdle last March. The wheels came off quite dramatically at Cheltenham in December, when he refused to relax during his seasonal opener and went out like a light from the second last. It was a pretty disastrous return, though Henderson refused to be overly downbeat.
He is to be fitted with a different bridle in an attempt to settle him in the race, and has been showing all the right signs at home. He is clearly a hugely talented horse, but needs to run well on Saturday if he is to be considered a contender for the Champion Hurdle in March.
We have an exciting and intriguing weekend ahead. Two British trainers will certainly have fingers crossed that their Festival dreams remain intact.