The opening day of the 2022 Cheltenham Festival can boast four Grade 1 contests, with the undisputed highlight of that quartet being the Champion Hurdle.
Run over an extended two miles, the Champion Hurdle is the ultimate test of speed and agility and its roll of honour is a veritable who's who of the great and good of the winter sport: the likes of Persian War, Bula, Sea Pigeon, Comedy Of Errors, Night Nurse, Monksfield, See You Then, Hardy Eustace, Hurricane Fly, Buveur d'Air and, of course, Istabraq, are all multiple winners of the Champion Hurdle. And, this year, Honeysuckle will bid to add her name to that illustrious list.
An interesting fact is that, between the Champion Hurdle's inception in 1927 and Flakey Dove's win in 1994, there were just three triumphant mares; and, since 2016 - six seasons - there have also been three victorious mares! Annie Power won that year, followed by Epatante in 2020 and Honeysuckle last term. The last named is bidding to make it an incredible four from seven for girl power, and she is currently considered by those lovely bookie types to be more likely than not to do just that.
But is Honeysuckle unstoppable? And, if she is, is there another way to access this mouth-watering contest from a wagering perspective? Let us begin by taking instruction from the recent past.
Champion Hurdle Trends
Such is the fluid nature of training patterns and Anglo-Irish primacy that delving too far back can become counter-productive. So we'll keep that in mind while pondering results since 2008, the last fourteen years.
You can win a Champion Hurdle aged ten. Or eleven, or twelve. But it's now 41 years since Sea Pigeon recorded back-to-back victories as a double-digit aged veteran. No horse older than nine has won since, and only three nine-year-olds have scored in that time, too. So this is a young horse's game.
Indeed, as the table above demonstrates, 12 of the last 14 Champion Hurdlers were aged five, six or seven. Honeysuckle (and also Epatante, Appreciate It, and Abacadabras) are eight, Sharjah is nine, and good old (really quite old now) Buveur D'Air is eleven.
Looking deeper down the pecking orders reveals that in place terms, six is the sweet spot while seven-year-olds also hold their own against numerical representation at least. Those aged six managed to return a profit at starting price for both win and each way bets.
The average winning official rating (OR) of the last 14 Champion Hurdlers is a shade under 164. But the chart below shows that, after a period of relative strength in the division between 2008 and 2015, elite performances have since been hard to come by.
It might be that the seven pound gender allowance mares receive from colts and geldings impacts these trendlines but the fact is that low 160's horses have been very competitive in recent Champion Hurdles.
There are a few surprises in terms of the odds of Champion Hurdle winners but it is also true that the expected ones generally prevail.
Natural selection dictates that the shorter odds brackets equate to green blocks on the right hand side: so far, so what? Perhaps what this table really brings home is how often it proves to be folly taking on a strong fancy at the head of the market. It may well be the case in 2022.
Happily, even if that does come to pass, there are other ways to play the race as we'll get to.
UK vs Ireland
Irish eyes were smiling last year as Honeysuckle landed odds of 11/10 by an easy six-plus lengths. And Irish-trained horses filled out the next four positions, too, a lop-sided result that might have been even worse had Abacadabras, Grade 1 Aintree Hurdle scorer on his next start, not fallen early in the race.
In 2020, things were brighter for the home defence, with favourite Epatante winning. But the Irish were massed thereafter, filling out positions second to fifth and seventh. 2019 saw an Irish 1-2-4, but in 2018 Buveur D'Air restored a little pride for the British team. Of course, Ireland's squad claimed second, third and fourth.
Almost every year, the Irish raiders outperform their physical numbers; again, there is selection bias in that the expense of traveling must be vaguely vindicated by a horse's prospects in a race not typically infiltrated by the dreaded 'social runners'.
Since 2008, Irish-trained horses have won six of 14 renewals (43% of winners) and placed on 16 occasions (38% of placers), from 41 starters (24% of starters). Ireland is dominant in the Champion Hurdle just now and that trend is very likely to continue.
Who fits the bill?
History suggests we're looking for a young - seven or younger - Irish-trained hurdler with a rating at least in the lower 160's and priced up as having some sort of a chance. Given that the first four in the ante post betting lists fail on at least one of these criteria makes me nervous but, for what it's worth, here are those that seem to fit...
Incredibly, none of the 23 entries tick those boxes.
The five-year-olds are all rated below the requisite standard at this stage: when Katchit won aged five in 2008 he was officially rated 159 and when Espoir D'Allen scored in 2019 he was 162 OR. Zanahiyr is actually rated 159 by the Irish handicapper so might be the pick. Or maybe Aspire Tower, last seen trailing in as lanterne rouge in the Punchestown Champion Hurdle nine months ago, and a precarious wagering conveyance outside of the odds range. Or, more realistically, we're looking at an older than usual winner, one of Honeysuckle, Appreciate It, Sharjah or Epatante.
Frankly, the trend does not appear to be our friend on this occasion...
Champion Hurdle Pace Scenarios / Pace Map
As I demonstrated in this Cheltenham Gold Cup preview, the way a race is run can make a huge difference to the chance of its competitors, in either a positive or negative way. Here's how the 23 entries shape up run style wise, based on an average scoring of their early position in their most recent three UK/Irish starts.
The likelihood is of an even to strong gallop with each of the trio in the 'Led' column capable of sitting behind the speed if it's too frenetic.
Historically, only Ruby Walsh has managed to take his rivals tape to lolly, a feat he achieved in consecutive renewals in 2015/16. Since then, more patient tactics have been the order of the hour, all subsequent winners except Buveur D'Air (tracked leaders) and almost all placed horses (Darver Star, tracked leaders, Melon and Petit Mouchoir, both led, aside) coming from midfield or further back.
Appreciate It may try to dominate from the front but an even tempo ought to inconvenience very few. If they go a beat quicker, the finish will likely be played out by the more patiently ridden runners.
2022 Champion Hurdle Form Guide
After a sizable dollop of conjecturing, I feel we're largely back where we started with neither trends nor run styles/pace expected to be the kingmaking component: the best horse should win. And, though one or two have mildly ascendant profiles, the best horse can be judged from the pages of the form book.
The best horse in this field, in receipt of seven pounds anyway, is indubitably Honeysuckle. She is one of those mares about whom the feeling is that she doesn't really need the weight concession, and that if she didn't get it, she'd be a step closer to the pantheon of the sport. She's a winter game Enable.
Honeysuckle is a winner of all fourteen of her lifetime starts - a point to point and then, under Rules, thirteen hurdle races - the last eight straight of which have been in Grade 1 company, seven of them against the men. She sometimes doesn't win by far but she does always win; and, barring incident or accident, hint or allegation (to butcher Paul Simon), she will win again. Her record is incredible, from two miles to two and a half, good ground to heavy, big fields or small fields, geldings or mares; and, though I cannot back her at 4/6, I certainly don't want to lay her.
Even if you, like me, think Honeysuckle is comfortably the most likely winner and not necessarily the wrong price in the context, there are ways to bet the Champion Hurdle. Each way is probably not optimal given that there's a fair to good chance we'd be lobbing half the stake - the win half, for the avoidance of doubt - in the bin. No, I don't want to bet each way; I want to bet in the 'without Honeysuckle' market.
Take out this queen and we are left with a fascinating puzzle where they bet bigger than 3/1 the field and each way three places. Game on!
There may be a dearth of credible rivals to Honeysuckle, but within the ranks of the (presumed) minor podium contenders we have two groups: those which need to step forward and may be capable of so doing, and those for whom excuses must be proffered and accepted.
In the "progressive?" camp are those glam rockers, Appreciate It and the Five Year Olds. All sparkle and shouty 1's to their name and form profiles, and with fan boys and girls aplenty; but, like the lyrics of a Kiss song, how much substance can be found when you get past the eye liner and leotards? [Sorry, I genuinely have no idea where that analogy went, or why]
Appreciate It is a substantial creature, and he did blitz his opposition when barrelling clear in last year's Supreme. He was also second in the Champion Bumper of 2020, so no fears about track or trip or ground. But where has AI been hiding? We've not seen him since day one of Cheltenham last year, though he is entered in the Irish Champion Hurdle at the Dublin Racing Festival (DRF) early next month. Even if he ran very well there, perhaps getting close to Honeysuckle - assuming she runs, too - he can't shorten much from his current 7/1 quote unless beating the champ.
The five-year-olds in the CH picture are a bigger crew than normal this season, at this stage at least, and it seems likely that some will be shaken out of the reckoning 'twixt now and then. Zanahiyr, as mentioned already, is the most plausible on ratings. He's 159 on Irish official figures, and has mixed it with Sharjah on his last two starts, finishing second each time. He did get closer to the dual Champion Hurdle runner up on the more recent attempt, within a neck no less, and may have a third tilt in the Irish Champion.
But Zanahiyr was only fourth in the Triumph Hurdle last term when sent off 11/8 favourite, that being his only overseas jaunt. It's hard to say whether it was the travel or the course constitution or both, or if he just had an off day; but what is easier to level is that he has looked a touch exposed against established open Grade 1 sorts this season for all that he's narrowing the gap and steadily elevating his rating at the same time.
Quilixios won the Triumph last year and is in the frame for the Champion this campaign, having been 'Pricewised'. But last year he arrived at Cheltenham unbeaten in three spins, while since then he's been beaten in three spins. I have huge respect from trainer Henry de Bromhead as a target trainer, and Quilixios is another who could advance his claims in the Irish Champion, but he's not improved since the Triumph, from which level of form a stone or so is normally needed to challenge on the biggest stage.
The horse to bash him the last twice is Teahupoo (no, me neither; actually, I just googled it and, apparently, it's a village on the southwestern coast of Tahiti - so now we both know). He's four from four for Gordon Elliott - was beaten into second when trained by Sneezy Foster, if you believe that was a different regime - and has looked a better horse than Quilixios this term for all that he made hard work of it on heavy at Limerick. He's also not raced on quicker than yielding and we're not seeing torrents of rain this year to date. The Irish 'capper has him on 149, Quilixios on 150, at time of writing: neither mark is good enough, but one or both may improve after DubFez (that's seriously not a cool amalgam).
For the Brits, the five-year-olds are headed up, I think, by Triumph runner-up Adagio, who ran a bold race that day, and again twice subsequently, at Aintree (G1) and Cheltenham (Greatwood Handicap). A three-time bridesmaid in his most recent efforts, then, but all of them admirable. The Festival run needs little explanation, the Aintree effort could have been better but for a howler at the last hurdle, and the Cheltenham silver, off top weight in a 19-runner skirmish on seasonal bow, was valiant. Still, he's only rated 152 by the British handicapper and that leaves him a good bit to find even allowing for the more lenient marks which are a feature of this season in Blighty.
Adagio's vanquisher at Aintree was the theretofore unbeaten Monmiral; but that chap blotted the notional copybook big time when miles off the pace in the G1 Fighting Fifth. That was his seasonal starter and first try against seasoned Grade 1'ers, but still, he has a fair bit to prove at this juncture and no immediate entries in which to prove it.
Tritonic has a mountain to climb to reverse form with Epatante on their Christmas Hurdle running; and the novices Saint Felicien and six-year-old My Mate Mozzie don't look good enough yet, though both will have a chance to further their claims before the Festival.
And then we have the Aging Rockers - the "talented but fallible" group - headed up by Sharjah and Epatante. Sharjah is nine now, something that couldn't prevent Hurricane Fly claiming a second Champion Hurdle or Rooster Booster a first; but it was at least a contributory factor in the defeats of Harchibald, Binocular, My Tent Or Yours and The New One, all of whom had podium 'previous' in the race. From that list, only My Tent Or Yours was able to finish higher than fifth, running up to Annie Power in 2016.
Sharjah is a strong travelling sort but occasionally a bit quirky at the serious end as his reluctant (to these peepers) score in the Matheson showed; there he tanked up to the girths of Zanahiyr before cocking his jaw somewhat and sticking his head in the air somewhat. Nevertheless, he did win that Grade 1, and for a record fourth time. Moreover, in his time he's amassed most of a million quids in prize money - around £838,800 to be fairly precise, which is only about forty grand shy of Honey's total pot - and must have given his owners untold joy. And, since his 2020 Matheson success, he's been beaten only by Honeysuckle (three times) and Abacadabras. It's hard not to be impressed with his overall record in spite of a few niggling doubts.
Epatante is a former Champion Hurdler, beating Sharjah into second two years ago. She was arguably a little below par last season but still ran third in the Champion, this time Sharjah winning their personal duel. Her usual Grade 1 Christmas romp went to plan this term, where last campaign it did not, and she goes to Cheltenham still only an eight-year-old: that may be knocking on a touch in the context of this race's profile but she's no old-timer. She's a little bit the forgotten horse in spite of winning two Grade 1's this season (one, in the Fighting Fifth where possibly under-cooked, a dead heat, and, granted, not really taking the eye out at Kempton with her finishing effort); and she has improved on her earlier season form in both of the last two seasons in the Champion Hurdle. I expect she will again bring her best to the Festival party.
Another in this camp is Abacadabras, also eight, though one whose campaign hardly screams podium finish, ostensibly at least. Good enough to win the Grade 1 Aintree Hurdle after an uncharacteristic capsize in the Champion Hurdle twelve months ago, the Gordon Elliott-trained son of Davidoff has form of 435 since. But a closer inspection shows that the '4' was when very possibly over the top at Punchestown's Festival having already danced in the Cotswolds and in Liverpool that spring; the '3' was a creditable first run of term behind Honeysuckle, and the '5' last time was when appearing not to stay upped to three miles in the Leopardstown Christmas Hurdle.
Lest we forget, Abacadabras was only a neck behind Shishkin in the Supreme of 2020 and looked a proper G1 horse at Aintree a year later. His overall profile may be a tad patchy but on his day he's very good.
Finally, I think Aspire Tower deserves a mention. Last seen when apparently injuring himself in the Punchestown Festival Champion Hurdle in April 2021, he'd previously run fourth in the Cheltenham equivalent, as a five-year-old. As a four-year-old at Cheltenham, he'd run second to Burning Victory (would have been third, of course, but for Goshen's uber-misfortune). It's a long old absence to overcome but the fact he retains this entry means he must be close to peak fitness; that said, he doesn't feature in the entries for the DRF and presumably connections would want to get a run into him before the big March Tuesday.
2022 Champion Hurdle Tips
The win market is rightly dominated by Honeysuckle, whose race this is to lose on all known form and in what looks a relatively weak division currently. Because she has such an overwhelming hold on the probabilities, each way betting makes little appeal. Better, I think, to play in the 'without Honeysuckle' market. That makes it a 3/1 the field affair and, in truth, fiendishly difficult. It is also the case that the betting order and shape will likely take an almighty shakeup after the Irish Champion Hurdle, the entries for which are below.
An over- or under-performance by any of these will see their odds fluctuate and, while current wisdom implies a Honeysuckle-Sharjah-Appreciate It and/or the Five-Year-Olds 1-2-3, reality may paint a different outcome.
Meanwhile, back at Cheltenham, plenty of the Champion Hurdle entries are simply not rated at the level that suggests prospects in all but a black swan scenario. The ones who are, Honeysuckle aside, are Sharjah, Epatante, Appreciate It, Zanahiyr, Aspire Tower and perhaps Abacadabras.
The logical play, and favourite at 10/3 in this market, is Sharjah and I couldn't argue that his chance of winning with/without Honeysuckle is less than 23%. It might be a little more than that without screaming value, I just didn't really like the way he finished his race at Leopardstown last time.
Epatante's back class and effective if unspectacular Grade 1 form this term, allied to the seven pound mares' allowance, makes her interesting at 11/2. She's lacked a bit of sparkle so far but could be sitting on a better effort: she's already achieved more than many of her rivals.
Appreciate It is the unknown having not raced since the Supreme Novices' Hurdle ten months ago as I write. If he shows up at the DRF next month that will be highly instructive, and I'd rather take a shorter price after that race than speculate on him before it. Moreover, his usual bold front-running style won't necessarily lend itself to the projected race setup.
Zanahiyr's talent is fully priced into his quote of 6/1. It's about the same odds as are available for Epatante and she's won two Grade 1's this season and run 1-3 in Champion Hurdles. Aspire Tower is not really playable in anything but a non-runner no bet market (and might be the exception to the 'don't bet each way against Honeysuckle' mantra at 40/1 NRNB, Betfred).
Abacadabras keeps drawing my eye, daftly perhaps, but he's a price to legitimise a bob or two each way in the without's. He's a strong stayer at the trip and will introduce himself quite late in the drama if he's good enough. 20/1 each way without the favourite isn't the worst approach to a borderline inscrutable puzzle, though it is possible he might skip Cheltenham and head to Aintree. As such, I'm waiting for the non-runner no bet proviso (and potentially a shorter price) to play.
Things will be a lot clearer after the Irish Champion Hurdle on 6th February, and wagering any Irish runner prior to that risks devaluing the position several weeks before Cheltenham. The one horse whose price will not move much, if at all, is Epatante and she looks a most logical and reasonable each way 'bet to nothing' (if only such a thing existed).
2022 Champion Hurdle Suggestion
1pt e/w Epatante without Honeysuckle at 11/2 (1/5 1-2-3) Hills