Is Saphir the new jewel in Nicholls’ Crown?

Saphir Du Rheu

Back to hurdles for Saphir

The staying hurdlers division is in a state of flux and that means the World Hurdle in March remains a real puzzler for punters.

Big Buck’s dominated for so many years and when his time had come to step-down it appeared that Jonjo had provided a new King.

But More Of That has only been sighted once so far this winter when running a miserable race in the Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury. He’ll return in February having had a wind operation, but doubts remain whether he can put in the type of display that saw him crush his opponents last March at Prestbury Park.

The next few days will provide plenty of clues as to his main rivals at The Festival, and there appears to be many looking to step forward.

Today at Gowran Park the Grade 2 John Mulhern Galmoy Hurdle is run over three miles with Monksland hoping to build on his promising return from injury at Leopardstown over Christmas. His trainer Noel Meade appeared optimistic when recently interviewed: “He ran well last time and we are hoping he can come on a bit from that and put up a good show. The ground won't be ideal, but it's the only place we can go and we have to run him between now and Cheltenham."

Mullins sends out joint top weights Briar Hill and Zaidpour, who both have to give Meade’s charge 7lbs. The latter has solid form and will relish ground conditions, but has always looked just short of top-class.

Ruby Walsh has chosen to ride Briar Hill. Owned by the Wylie’s he won the Champion Bumper at Cheltenham two years ago but took a heavy fall in the Albert Bartlett last March. It’s easy to forget that he was a short-priced favourite for that, and should he perform well here his odds for the World Hurdle are likely to plummet. His reappearance at Leopardstown was a lacklustre affair but he is fancied to have ‘come on’ a ton for that run.

Dedigout is also sure to improve for his seasonal debut in the Christmas Hurdle and will love the heavy ground conditions at Gowran. Gigginstown are having a terrific season and Bryan Cooper can be trusted to ensure that the opposition are given a thorough test. Whatever the outcome today, I’d be surprised if this fella gets a ticket to the party at Cheltenham, unless the ground came up unusually testing.

On Saturday the home of jump racing holds its Festival Trials Day. The weather is a concern though the course has its ‘Maximum Tog’ frost covers in place which usually does the trick. Should we get the go-ahead the Cleeve Hurdle will provide an opportunity for the British staying hurdlers to put their best hoof forward.

Staying legends Big Buck’s and Inglis Drever have won the race in previous years. Last year’s race went to Prestbury Park bridesmaid Knockara Beau, who battled his way once more up the infamous hill, but to the joy of many managed to get his head in front at the crucial stage.

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At Fishers Cross ran one of his better races on that occasion and connections will hope he returns to form once more on Saturday. He does seem to save his best for the course and will have his favoured soft ground. He is a horse with issues and a spell with the vets in Ireland will hopefully see him back running to form this weekend. He could still be a player in March and his odds of 25/1 look incredibly generous.

Saphir Du Rheu is the eye-catching entrant as he switches from fences back to hurdles. Connections will be hoping that lightning strikes twice and that he can emulate the mighty Big Buck’s. He certainly has the talent to take high order though the step up to three miles remains something of an unknown. He gave weight and a beating to Whisper in last season’s Welsh Champion Hurdle and that form appears strong.

Beat That is an intended runner for Nicky Henderson and should improve plenty for his seasonal return at Cheltenham behind Rock On Ruby. Three miles should be the perfect trip but the ground has to be a major concern. His impressive victories at Aintree and Punchestown both came on decent ground and his breeding, a son of Milan out of a Presenting mare, suggests he could struggle. Should he fail to spark on Saturday I would be more than happy to forgive him.

Un Temps Pour Tout is another fascinating runner who will certainly love the testing ground. He thrashed Cole Harden at Ascot last February and looks sure to appreciate the step-up in trip. Top class in France, the Pipe team will be hoping he can be competitive at the highest level. Usually you would expect a horse to improve for a run, but this stable more than any other have a knack of getting a horse prepared to the minute. Saturday will tell us plenty, but whether better ground in March will suit him is questionable.

Cole Harden has had a terrific season to date and ran a cracker over an insufficient trip last time behind Rock On Ruby. This looks set to be his toughest task so far and it will be interesting to see how he is ridden. Chances are that he will try and dominate from the front, but there will be plenty behind him waiting to pounce, and conditions are likely to make it one hell of a slog. He’s another that could find things more suitable in March.

Finally Holywell and Blaklion are both possible runners here but look sure to take different paths at The Festival. This looks an unorthodox Gold Cup prep for one and an Albert Bartlett prep for the other. Jonjo’s fella is another that will appreciate better ground, while the Twiston-Davies novice is likely to be out of his depth in this company.

Rock On Ruby, More Of That, Zarkandar and Lieutenant Colonel are all World Hurdle contenders who keep their powders dry for now. Should More Of That return to form in March, then I along with many others would expect him to win. Multiple winners of the World Hurdle are as common as a ‘big Saturday winner’ for Team Ditcheat. Jonjo’s stable star looked the ‘real deal’ last year and though a poor run followed by a wind operation is far from ideal, he remains the one to beat.

Rock On Ruby has had a wonderful winter and though many expect him to find three miles a little too far, Solwhit had the class to get home in 2013. It’s hard to imagine the roar that would greet such a win.

Zarkandar looks just shy of what is required to win a World Hurdle. His fourth in last year’s renewal was a terrific effort, but I fancy that’s as good as it gets for the Triumph Hurdle winner of 2011. And finally Lieutenant Colonel looks set to be Gigginstown’s main hope of lifting the staying hurdlers crown. There’s no doubting he’s a talented horse, but his best runs have come in testing ground and he’s a top-class chaser in waiting. He could run a mighty race in March, but I’d expect a few to be quicker up the hill.

In recent times the World Hurdle has brought us several wonderful Champions. Baracouda and Inglis Drever became Prestbury Park royalty, but the undoubted King was the mighty Big Buck’s. The next few days will certainly whet the appetite as we move ever closer to Jump Racings greatest Festival.

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