The showpiece on the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival is the Champion Hurdle.
Established in the late-1920s, it has possibly the most glittering roll of honour of all National Hunt races. The 1970s was a truly golden period for the race, with equine legends such as Comedy of Errors, Night Nurse, Monksfield and Sea Pigeon, battling for the coveted crown of Champion Hurdler.
The Nicky Henderson trained See You Then, won three-in-a-row during the 1980s, and the JP McManus owned Istabraq repeated the feat at the end of the 90s. In recent times, Henderson and Mullins have proved the dominant forces, often with horses carrying the famous green and gold silks of McManus, or the pink and green of Rich and Susannah Ricci.
It should come as little surprise then, to see those same connections and trainers prominent in this year’s betting for the race. Despite a particularly tough winter for Willie Mullins and the Ricci’s, with previous winners Faugheen and Annie Power both ruled out through injury, they still have a likely contender towards the head of the market, in Limini. JP McManus has the front two in the market with Henderson’s Buveur D’Air and the Alan King trained Yanworth.
I don’t wish to focus much on those that are missing from the line-up. That’s horse racing for you, and we must now look forward to an enthralling and ultra-competitive renewal, with a field that still contains horses with huge potential.
Last year’s Supreme Novices’ third and the Neptune runner-up are currently vying for top spot in the betting. Both carrying the famous green and gold, Buveur D’Air was switched from his short spell over fences, and proved a comfortable winner of the Contenders Hurdle at Sandown last month. That was his third run of the winter, and he’ll arrive at Cheltenham fit and ready to go. His Supreme Novices’ third, coupled with his victory over Petit Mouchoir at Aintree last April (a race that saw Limini nine lengths back in third), leaves Henderson’s six-year-old rightly in my books, at the head of the betting.
That Aintree success showed that he has the necessary battling qualities, along with the ability to travel powerfully though a race.
Yanworth proved no match for Yorkhill in last year’s Neptune, but at the minimum trip over hurdles is yet to be defeated. He’s a tough one to judge, and it’s understandable that some have been left underwhelmed by his performances this winter. He struggled to get the better of Lil Rockerfeller at Ascot in November, and then was the first under pressure ion the Christmas Hurdle, before staying on best to win. His run in the Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton hardly sent shockwaves through the division, yet he continues to win, and will undoubtedly be doing his best work late-on when it matters at Prestbury Park.
The worry for Yanworth, is whether he’ll have the basic speed to keep tabs on the leaders, enabling him to land a telling blow up the final hill. He resembles The New One, and like him could find himself having to make up too much ground at a crucial stage.
Petit Mouchoir is next in the betting, and has been impressive through the winter. He’s looked the best of the Irish, thanks to victories in the Ryanair Hurdle and the Irish Champion, both at Leopardstown. Ridden boldly from the front, it’s likely that the tactics will continue at Cheltenham, and it will take a good one to pass him. The Irish have a terrific record in the race, having won five of the last six. He’s without doubt a leading contender.
Limini is yet to be supplemented by Team Mullins, though it looks likely after her stunning success on seasonal debut at Punchestown. The stable did the same with Annie Power last year, though I’m pretty sure that Limini is some way shy of Annie P. She certainly has a turn of foot, but at Aintree in April was unable to go with Buveur D’Air and Petit Mouchoir, when the guys put in a sustained effort along the length of the straight.
Nicky Henderson has another contender for the crown in Brain Power. Though he’s been winning handicaps this winter, he announced himself as a horse of substance when third as a novice in the Grade 1 at Punchestown last April, when four lengths adrift of Don’t Touch It and Petit Mouchoir. A strong traveller, he now appears to have matured both physically and mentally, and looks capable of a big performance on the main stage. He needs decent ground to be at his best. If he gets it, he could go very close.
Of the older brigade, you’d have to believe that My Tent Or Yours and The New One have had their chance, and despite several stars being missing, they will still find a few of these a bit too hot to handle. This is a race where six and seven-year-olds have the upper hand, and both look held by Yanworth on the Christmas Hurdle run.
At a price, Ch’Tibello may be the one to take each-way. He’s been running consistently well throughout the winter, seemingly putting in his best effort in the Kingwell last time. I’d be stunned if he won, but Dan Skelton’s six-year-old is a progressive sort, and it’s surprising that he’s 40/1 in places.
Favourites have won four of the last six Champion Hurdles, and I fancy the betting has it about right. Petit Mouchoir is likely to have them stretched at some point, and he’ll take some passing. But I feel this will be Nicky Henderson’s year, and in Buveur D’Air and Brain Power he has two mighty contenders. I’m favouring the former to have both the class and the grit to prevail. Expect Yanworth and Ch’Tibello to be flying late-on as they battle for minor places. Best of luck to all those having a punt.