Champion Hurdle 2014 Preview, Trends, Tips

2014 Champion Hurdle preview

2014 Champion Hurdle previewWho can beat the 'Fly this winter?

Champion Hurdle 2014 Preview, Trends, Tips

It's the fourth race of 27, and arguably the best. Yes, this year's Champion Hurdle is a chuffing howitzer of a speed scrap, featuring established class versus rising stars in a battle of the generations. It's also a fiendishly difficult punting puzzle, and in this post I'll attempt to piece together the key known elements.

Champion Hurdle 2014 Trends

Age: The only two double-digit aged winners since the Champion Hurdle was first run in 1927 were Hatton's Grace (won aged 9, 10 and 11 1949-51) and Sea Pigeon (aged 10 and 11 1980-81). Hurricane Fly bids for a third Champion Hurdle aged ten.

At the other end of the age spectrum, Katchit was the only five-year-old to win the Champion since the first of See You Then's hat-trick in the race in 1985. Katchit, like Our Conor - who bids to win as a five-year-old this time, was returning to Cheltenham as the winner of the previous year's Triumph Hurdle.

Six to nine year olds have won 28 of the last thirty Champion Hurdles.

Last time out: 41 of the 48 win and placed horses since 1997 finished first or second last time out. They also accounted for fifteen of the sixteen winners during that time. The other winner finished third the last day.

Cheltenham Form: Twelve of the fourteen winners since 1997 to have previously raced at Cheltenham had a place record of at last 75% at the track. Ten of them had a 100% place record at the track. The New One was 'only' sixth in the Champion Bumper.

Days since a run: Only Rock On Ruby, absent since Boxing Day, had failed to run earlier in the same year as when winning the Champion Hurdle since 1997. The New One has been absent since the same day as Rock On Ruby was.

Champion Hurdle 2014 Preview

In truth, there's very little to glean from the trends except that Hurricane Fly's age negative is mitigated by the feat of other serial winners. Likewise, Our Conor is bidding to emulate Katchit in following up a Triumph Hurdle win with victory in the Blue Riband. The New One has a couple of minor knocks, but it would be careless to omit him from consideration on those grounds alone. Jezki finished fourth last time out, which is worse than any winner this century, but again, context is needed there.

What about the form book then? Where does established form suggest we should cast our wagering net? Let's start with the veteran champ...

Hurricane Fly missed his first intended engagement at the Festival back in 2010 after a late injury ruled him out. He made up for that in 2011 by repelling the valiant Peddlers Cross in the Champion Hurdle.

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In 2012, some folks - including me - feel he should have won again. Given plenty to do at the top of the hill, it seemed that Ruby Walsh on the Fly was exclusively preoccupied with what Tony McCoy - aboard Binocular - was doing. Walsh was looking to cover McCoy's every move, and so he did. Unfortunately, the bird had flown in front of them, with Overturn setting the race up for Rock On Ruby. Hurricane Fly was a never nearer five length third, besting Binocular into fourth in the process.

Last year, there was no such error (if indeed you subscribe to the notion that jockeys - contrary to what some of them bleat - actually can, and do, make mistakes). Walsh shovelled on the coal at an appropriate juncture, and his willing mount reversed form with Rock On Ruby to claim Champion Hurdle number two.

The Hurricane is now unbeaten since that Ruby reversal in 2012, which was his only defeat since November 2009. True, he's often duffed up the same nags in short fields in Ireland. But if that's crabbing the champ, then it's hard to argue with his record when he's ferried over to Gloucestershire.

However. How. Ever... He is a ten year old now, and in the likes of The New One, Our Conor, My Tent Or Yours, and Jezki, he faces a brand new battalion of fleet-footed aspirants. Allied to that, his form this season - whilst undeniably progressive from race to race - has been at a lower level than last season.

Indeed, according to Racing Post Ratings, his best run this year (RPR 168) fails to measure up to his worst run last year (RPR 169). I love Hurricane Fly. I have a deep reverence for him too. But it would be disappointing for the near future of the Champion Hurdle if at least one of his young upstart rivals wasn't good enough to do him for toe.

But which one?

The New One has been a talking horse for a long time. And, in his defence, he's done plenty of talking on the track too, with a record that shows only one run - the 2012 Champion Bumper - outside the first two. But that's a sequence which does include three - granted, narrow - defeats in his last six races.

And, having failed to pierce the 170 Racing Post Rating barrier to date, as well as having a longer than ideal absence to overcome, I think he's terribly short atop the market at 11/4.

The next pair in the betting, at 9/2 or so, are Our Conor and My Tent Or Yours. Our Conor was a breathtaking fifteen length winner of the Triumph Hurdle last year. That race hasn't worked out brilliantly, and he's been beaten in three starts since.

First, he finished fourth in a big field flat handicap at Naas; then he ran third - beaten six lengths behind Hurricane Fly in the Grade 1 Ryanair Hurdle at Christmas; and last time, he was just a length and a half behind the fly in the Grade 1 Irish Champion Hurdle.

Dessie Hughes has brought him on slowly this year, as undoubtedly has Willie Mullins with the Fly, and I think it will be very close between the pair on the opening day of the Festival. Our Conor bounded up the hill last year, and it's not hard to see him doing the same again this term. He too has something to find on the numbers, though.

That hill would be the question mark with My Tent Or Yours who, a slight wilting behind Champagne Fever in last year's Supreme Novices' Hurdle aside, has a good looking profile for the race. He sneaked a prep race in a jumpers' bumper a month before the Festival and that should have him cherry ripe to give his best.

Whether that is quite good enough, against rivals who may finish their races better remains to be seen. He does have the beating of The New One on Christmas Hurdle form, though, and it's quite hard to see why he's a bigger price than that rival. [Note, as I write, there seems to be some unease in My Tent Or Yours' price, and an announcement from Henderson's yard should illuminate further].

Assuming Annie Power goes for the World Hurdle, Jezki is next at around 10/1. He was undeniably disappointing last time when fourth of four in a tactical scrap with the Fly, Our Conor, and pacemaker, Captain Cee Bee. If that run can be ignored - and I'd suggest it can, as it hardly compares to the full tilt of a Champion Hurdle - then he has little to find with both My Tent Or Yours and Hurricane Fly.

Little to find, yes; but he does have to find it, and that's a leap of faith I'm not really prepared to take.

Un De Sceaux is another expected absentee, which is a pity, because his heart-on-sleeve bamboozling front-running style would have been a fascinating sub-plot to the race.

Ignoring the outsiders Grumeti, Ptit Zig and Thousand Stars, the only remaining possible is Melodic Rendezvous. And, if it came up boggy on day one, he'd be a very interesting contender. Let's be clear, despite being a 20/1 shot, he's a Grade 1 and triple Grade 2 winner. Moreover, he's won six of his eight hurdles starts, and was plainly 'wrong' when down the field in the Fighting Fifth, a race in which recent Champion Hurdler Binocular was also turned over.

He's a very good horse, and managed second to Champagne Fever in the Punchestown Champion Bumper on just his second lifetime run. Coming here off the back of a workmanlike performance when seeing off Zarkandar in the Kingwell Hurdle - itself a strong trial for the Champion Hurdle - Melodic Rendezvous had plenty of 'tightening up' to do in the intervening four weeks, and trainer Jeremy Scott seemed quietly excited at his charge's prospects at a recent London Racing Club event.

Champion Hurdle 2014 Tips

The 2014 Champion Hurdle is a really trappy race. It's not clear from where the pace will come, and it's not clear what the ground conditions will be. The best guesses are that the supplemented Captain Cee Bee will lead, and that the ground will be good to soft.

If that comes to pass, then the value - such as it is in a race where the bookies have a strongarm grip on the form - might be with Melodic Rendezvous, who can go on good to soft, at 20/1. My Tent Or Yours has, I think, a better chance than The New One at twice the price IF he's untroubled by that injury scare.

It's a race in which I'll be waiting until the day to back up my Melodic Rendezvous ante post ticket. But, when the day comes, I'll most certainly be using Ladbrokes' 'Money Back as a free bet if Hurricane Fly finishes first or second' offer. That is a cracking concession as the old boy looks nailed on to run his race, and we'd need two to get by him in order not to at least get a second bite of the Cheltenham cherry.

Champion Hurdle Preview 2012

Can anyone swat the Fly in the 2012 Champion Hurdle?

Who can swat the Fly in the '12 Champion Hurdle?

It may seem far into the future, but there are now only 33 days til Christmas, which means we'll soon be into 2012 proper and dreaming of Cheltenham Festival glory.

With that in mind, it's time to look at one of the (usually) more predictable ante-post races, the Champion Hurdle 2012. By predictable, I mean there are plenty of patterns that assist in the generation of a shortlist, and many of them are already available to us. So let's look at the profile, and then look at the horses, and see if we can't figure out a Champion Hurdle bet or two...

Back in August 2010, I wrote the following:

The most significant factor in identifying the Champion Hurdle shortlist is course form. And not just course form, but Festival course form. In the last nine years, since the foot and mouth epidemic in 2001, the winners had all either won at the previous year’s Cheltenham Festival (four Champion Hurdle winners); or, placed in the previous year’s Champion Hurdle (four); or, finished in the top four in a Festival Grade 1 race the year before (one).

And so obviously along came a horse who had never run at the track before (Hurricane Fly), to upset what was a rock solid pattern. I've two comments to make on that, as follows:

1. Hurricane Fly is a phenomenal animal and could have probably won the Gold Cup, Grand National, and Wimbledon that Spring!

2. The trend is still extremely sound, with the runner up (Peddlers Cross) being a previous Festival winner, and the third horse (Oscar Whisky, tipped at 50/1) having been 4th in the Supreme Novices Hurdle.

Here's that full breakdown:

Year     Winner         Best Run Season Prior
2011     Hurricane Fly   No previous Festival form
2010    Binocular    3rd Champion Hurdle (G1)
2009     Punjabi       3rd Champion Hurdle (G1)
2008     Katchit       WON Triumph Hurdle (G1)
2007     Sublimity     4th Supreme Novices Hdle (G1)
2006     Brave Inca     3rd Champion Hurdle (G1)
2005     Hardy Eustace     WON Champion Hurdle (G1)
2004     Hardy Eustace     WON RSA Hurdle (G1)
2003     Rooster Booster WON County Hurdle (G3 Hcap)
2002     Hors La Loi III   2nd Champion Hurdle 2000 (G1)
2001     No Race     Foot and mouth
2000    Istabraq      WON Champion Hurdle (G1)
1999    Istabraq      WON Champion Hurdle (G1)
1998    Istabraq      WON Sun Alliance Hurdle (G1)

Hurricane Fly won four straight Grade 1's en route to Champion Hurdle glory, so we'll obviously keep an eye out for any other exceptional horse that doesn't fit the Festival test. Failing that, though, we will limit the search to the following lists of probables and possibles:

Champion Hurdle 2012 Probables

Champion Hurdle 2011 1-2-3

Hurricane Fly
Peddlers Cross - novice chasing
Oscar Whisky - may go further (World Hurdle)

Cheltenham Festival 2011 Graded winners

Al Ferof - novice chasing
Quevega - targeted at the Mares Hurdle
First Lieutenant - novice chasing
Carlito Brigante - likely to go further
What A Charm - unlikely to run in the race (not good enough)
Big Buck's - will go for World Hurdle
Final Approach - might need further
Bobs Worth - may go further (World Hurdle) or chasing

Champion Hurdle 2012 Possibles (placed in a Grade 1 Hurdle at the 2011 Festival)

Spirit Son, Sprinter Sacre, Rock On Ruby, So Young, Grands Crus, Mourad, Unaccompanied, Grandouet, Mossley, Court In Motion

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From that superset, we next need to identify the subset who have any chance of lining up for the Champion Hurdle. That leaves us with these, by my reckoning:

Probables - Hurricane Fly (9/4), Oscar Whisky (33/1, may go for World Hurdle), Zarkandar (12/1)

Possibles - Spirit Son (12/1), So Young (33/1, likely to go for World Hurdle), Unaccompanied (33/1), Grandouet (14/1)

Of the likely runners then, we have a shortlist of two probables and three possibles, making five in total. We'll leave the other two in sight for now, as they're 33/1 which might be worth a small interest...

The next point I want to consider is that of age. Katchit won the Champion Hurdle in 2008 as a five year old, and was the first since the multiple winners See You Then (1985), Night Nurse (1976) and Persian War (1968). In other words, it takes an exceptionally gifted five year old to win this generally.

At the other end of the scale, it's rare that a horse older than eight prevails. Sure, Rooster Booster did the biz in 2003. But prior to him, we go back to Royal Gait in 1992 and before that the remarkable Sea Pigeon in 1980 and 1981.

So the strong percentage call is six to eight year olds. Hurricane Fly will be eight next year, which is fine; Oscar Whisky will turn seven, also fine should he run. But Zarkandar will only be five on January 1st, and despite that precocity he's both inexperienced and very young.

When Katchit won the Champion as a five year old, he was having his 13th hurdle start. Thus far, Zarkandar has raced just three times over hurdles. His best Racing Post Rating is just 147, which compares unfavourably with the last placed horse in the Champion Hurdle last term, Mille Chief, who'd already recorded two 157+ ratings.

Obviously, Zarkandar can be expected to improve, but so can many others, and I'm more than happy to pass over a best price of 12/1 on that chap. Note also that the Champion Hurdle is a race that Paul Nicholls has never won...

Of the posssibles, Spirit Son will be six when the Champion Hurdle 2012 comes around, so no worries there; likewise, So Young; but both Unaccompanied and Grandouet will be only five years young.

Clearly, it may seem cavalier to strike two of the three main market rivals to Hurricane Fly off the list on the basis of age, but I'm happy to do that (and also the lady, despite a stated affection for the mare Unaccompanied, winner of the Alleged Stakes last term), because so many have tried and failed when fancied as fledglings... with apologies for laboured alliteration there.

Taking that into account leaves us with Hurricane Fly, Spirit Son, and possibly Oscar Whisky and / or So Young.

Hurricane Fly is clearly the best two mile hurdler in training on the basis of what we've seen on a racetrack. But. But... he's made of glass. Always injured. Injured again now, and on the easy list. He is slated to run at Christmas, and he goes well fresh. He goes well whenever. But I'm not inclined to have a voucher saying 9/4 on a non-runner.

So, whilst the Fly has standout form claims, I'd sooner take shorter on the day, assuming he gets there fit and well. If he goes off 4/7 on the day, well something has to finish second and third.

Spirit Son was quite badly outpaced in the Supreme before staying on well, but not as well as the equally outpaced Al Ferof, to finish second behind that one. He proved that a longer trip was up his street when cantering home against Cue Card over two and a half miles.

Although he will be stronger this year, it's hard to see him being faster! So there we are. I've knocked another one of the main rivals off his perch.

Oscar Whisky had a nasty fall at Ascot on Saturday when in with a big chance against Overturn over two and a half miles. His jumping is a little less than hoof perfect, but I've never been convinced he wants further than two miles. I mean, sure, he won the Aintree Hurdle over a pan flat two and a half, and he might have got up at pan flat Ascot over the same trip but for falling.

But he's got plenty of toe, as a third in the Champion Hurdle proves. In any case, Cheltenham's two mile half a furlong trip rides more like two and a quarter as it's such a testing circuit. I'm pretty sure he wouldn't get as far as the three miles of the World Hurdle, which leaves him with either the Champion or waiting for Aintree.

At the prices, I'm tempted to risk a couple of quid on Oscar Whisky taking in the shorter race. Yes, I wouldn't take 9/4 on a horse that may not show up, but I'll happily risk a tenner each way at 33/1 on the same proposition.

Clearly, Nicky Henderson has other options, such as Spirit Son, Grandouet, and...

One horse I've yet to mention, Binocular, because he didn't run at the last Festival (still had drugs in his system... whisper it, but there's something of a pattern emerging from the Henderson yard in that regard. Nothing conclusive but he has 'previous').

Binocular obviously likes the track (2nd in the Supreme in 2008, 3rd in Champion Hurdle in 2009, winner of the 2010 Champion Hurdle), and will still only be eight next March. On his day, he's more than useful, and a truly run two miles is spot on for him. He's another who has suffered a bit too much injury proneness to be a ready pick, but 12/1 seems reasonable, and he'll halve if winning the Fighting Fifth on Saturday.

Saying that, he's been beaten in the last two renewals of the Fighting Fifth, so I'd be tempted to wait until after the race in the hope that the same thing happens again, and 16's or maybe even 20's becomes available. You can definitely expect a far fitter beast to line up at Cheltenham... if he is fit at that time! (if you see what I mean).

And that just leaves So Young. He might well go for the World Hurdle, and I have a soft spot for this horse, having backed him last year and also included him in my Geegeez ten to follow  this season. He duly slaughtered his two rivals at the weekend, winning hard held by eleven lengths from a horse rated 142. Connections do seem bent on running him over staying trips so on that basis I'll have to resist the ante-post temptation here, tough as it is. I'll back him for the World Hurdle instead, for which he's a standout 20/1 with Boylesports.

Willie Mullins (Hurricane Fly, Thousand Stars, So Young) and Nicky Henderson (Spirit Son, Binocular, Grandouet, Oscar Whisky) have something of a stranglehold on the ante-post market, ably supported by Paul Nicholls (Zarkandar, Brampour), of course.

With doubts about pretty much all of the contenders at this stage, because of either fitness, age or possible race target, it's a bit of a betting minefield, and far from the usual relatively predictable affair.

At the prices, then, I'm going to side tentatively with Binocular (after the weekend race) and Oscar Whisky (cognisant of the possibility that he won't run in the race).

I've also backed Brampour already for the Champion, and So Young each way at that juicy 20's for the World Hurdle.

Click here for the full Champion Hurdle 2012 betting menu.

Matt's Ante Post Wagers

Oscar Whisky Champion Hurdle 2012

Oscar Whisky Champion Hurdle 2012

So Young World Hurdle 2012

So Young World Hurdle 2012

Brampour Champion Hurdle 2012

Brampour Champion Hurdle 2012

Plus, I'll be backing Binocular IF he gets BEATEN on Saturday at, hopefully, around 16/1.