There are many great races in the racing calendar, yet it’s the Champion Hurdle on the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival I look forwards to the most each year.
The very best two-mile hurdlers from Britain and Ireland – or at least those who have avoided sick leave – go head-to-head at break-neck pace for their annual championship race on drying spring ground.
Unfortunately, last year’s winner Annie Power and 2015-winner Faugheen both miss the race through injury, whilst Mullins’s quirky Neptune-winner Yorkhill has gone chasing and none of Mullins’s super-sub mares have stepped in to fill the void.
Incredibly, Ruby Walsh, a jockey that has dominated this race in recent years, sits on a 20/1 shot in Footpad – and he’s probably not even his owner’s first string with retained rider Darly Jacob sticking with our ante-post selection for the race, Sceau Royal.
At 33/1, Sceau Royal remains the same price he was when we put him up months ago, but with Cheltenham’s track currently bathing in sunshine he should get his ideal conditions and is not without a chance.
He’s been stuck in soft ground since a couple of dominant early-season performances and loves Cheltenham, so he’s got absolutely no reason not to show his very best form.
Whether or not that’s good enough I don’t know, but I wasn’t too discouraged by his run in third behind Yanworth and Ch’tibello at Wincanton last month as he travelled like a dream all through the race before once again finding his turn of foot wanting in the soft ground.
That he was only a couple of lengths behind the Champion Hurdle favourite Yanworth does make a bit of a mockery of his price – and Ch’tibello’s for that matter, who is a favourite of these pages.
I want to have another bet in the race, though, and it’s a very tight call between the majority of the remainder in a wide-open renewal.
I like the chances of Brain Power a lot given he will get his ground, but the price isn’t so nice at 15/2 given he’s graduated from handicaps and got little experience of Grade 1 races, and I’ve got a nagging doubt about his stamina in a race that’s going to be a real test.
Henderson has been keen to talk up his chances all season and pointed to the ground as the deciding factor between him and his other runner BUVEUR D’AIR, who placed third in last season’s Supreme Novices’.
That was a vintage renewal with a brilliant winner in Altior – and the second-placed Min was looking something special this season before a badly-timed injury ruled him out of their Arkle rematch.
I must admit to being fairly cold on Buveur D’Air’s chances for most of the season, but the more I look at him, the more he looks like a potential Champion Hurdler.
Like Sceau Royal, Buveur D’Air is a slick and quick jumper in the image of past winners, however the media have labelled him a soft-ground horse thanks to Henderson’s comments.
He experienced plenty of traffic behind Altior in the Supreme last year and was closing Min all the way to the line, so arguably could have finished second if ridden more prominently.
The run certainly proved he handles Cheltenham – and proved him a thorough stayer of two miles too.
Petit Mouchoir is likely to set a strong pace and, despite the minimum trip, it’ll likely be a real test of stamina so the winner will require that asset.
Petit Mouchoir (7/1) has won two small-field Grade 1 races at Leopardstown this season, including the Irish Champion Hurdle, but was well behind Buveur D’Air in the Supreme last year and found Henderson’s hurdler again too good in a narrow defeat next time out in the Grade 1 novice hurdle at Aintree.
That race’s form looks red-hot now with hot Mares’ Hurdle-favourite Limini well beaten and Petit Mouchoir going on to do what he’s done, and I can see little reason why the now Henry de Bromhead-trained runner would reverse the form.
It’s very, very hard to pick holes in Buveur D’Air’s claims, and I’m not buying into the ground angle as there will definitely be some soft in the going description tomorrow, while last year’s Supreme was on near-identical ground.
The burning question is whether he’s capable of beating Yanworth.
Yanworth hasn’t been overly impressive in three starts this season, only just getting up to beat Lil Rockerfeller over two-miles-three at Ascot, then staying on past The New One in the Grade 1 Christmas Hurdle before scrapping to that Wincanton success over Ch’tibello and Sceau Royal.
You’d be hard pushed to say he was impressive in any of them, and he hardly screams Champion Hurdler.
The Kempton run when beating The New One three or so lengths warrants the closest scrutiny as, lest we forget, The New One is a standing dish in the Champion Hurdle having contested the last three renewals, and has each year proven to be not good enough when brushed aside by recent winners Faugheen and Annie Power.
I’m also doubting the strength of Yanworth’s Neptune second to Yorkhill last season, given very little that finished behind him has made any mark at this level either over hurdles or fences this season.
There’s a weak argument for a collateral form-line through his Neptune-conqueror Yorkhill and Petit Mouchoir in the Grade 1 novices’ hurdle at Punchestown last year, when Yorkhill finished tailed off and Petit Mouchoir went down narrowly to Don’t Touch It, with Brain Power third at 33/1.
Yorkhill was of course at the end of a long, hard season at that point so the form shouldn’t be read too literally, but such was the brilliance of Altior’s Supreme run that there’s a decent argument the Neptune was a significantly weaker race, therefore boosting Buveur D’Air’s form claims.
He’s certainly a better jumper than Yanworth – in a full-speed Champion Hurdle you want a bombproof jumper approaching the last – and, as mentioned, I don’t think he’s short of the stamina that is no doubt Yanworth’s primary asset.
Yanworth looks more a stayer to me and has been redirected to this race because of his owner’s Unowhatimeanharry dominating the betting in the three-mile Stayers’ Hurdle, but Buveur D’Air sees two miles out so well it’s quite difficult to see him getting outstayed by Yanworth.
If Yanworth is to beat him, it’ll come down to who jumps best and copes with the strong pace, which for me swings the balance in Buveur D’Air’s favour.
Predictably, the drying ground is pushing out Buveur D’Air’s price to something very backable at 5/1 – nearly twice the price of Yanworth – which looks a solid each-way bet to me with SkyBet offering a generous four places.
Of the rest, I do really like David Pipe’s Moon Racer, a Champion Bumper winner from 2015 who has been a rare sighting on the racecourse since that win.
Still a novice hurdler with two winning runs before Christmas, he lost a year to injury and has been ambitiously targeted at this race due to his age and the open look to the betting.
I like the decision; it just further reinforces the sporting nature of National Hunt racing.
Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to get a hold on his form and back him with any confidence.
Though he beat Yanworth soundly in that bumper win two years back and has twice had recent Betfair Hurdle winner Ballyandy beaten this season, official ratings give him a mountain to climb.
He loves Cheltenham and his best-ever performance came on good ground, so there’s a lot to like.
I’m puzzled by some pundits suggesting he might not be quick enough for a Champion Hurdle – have they not watched his bumper win? – as he clearly possesses tactical speed and has done next to nothing to suggest his injury has slowed him down since his return.
I like him a lot at 10/1, but it does represent a real punt with some far more solid options available.
And all that doesn’t leave much to consider as Footpad is unlikely to be good enough without more cut in the ground, and My Tent Or Yours, despite finishing second last year, has been a shadow of his former self this season.
We’ve effectively written of The New One, and Ch’tibello is returning quite quickly from a wind op so hasn’t had the smoothest of preps, leaving just the ‘rags’ in Group One winning dual-coder Wicklow Brave and Cyrus Darius.
It’s impossible to be confident, but Buveur D’Air each-way looks the most solid bet on offer.
1pt each-way Buveur D’Air @5/1, 15:30 Cheltenham, Tuesday (SkyBet, 1,2,3,4, 1/5 odds)
0.5pt each-way Sceau Royal @33/1, 15:30 Cheltenham, Tuesday (advised ante-post)