Matt Tombs / Monday 29th April 2013 / 17:00
1pt Jezki to win the Champion Hurdle at 12/1
I always like to have a look at the Cheltenham ante-post markets towards the end of the season. Most punters’ focus has switched to the forthcoming classics and there’s usually something that’s really mispriced to give an ante-post voucher to enjoy over the summer.
I’d thought the Gold Cup would have been the race as I’d been really keen to take on this year’s runners, as I expected a hard race to have taken its toll. The likes of Dynaste and Cue Card looked tempting, but Sir Des Champs and Long Run ran really well at Punchestown and maybe it was a better Gold Cup that I gave it credit for - I’m holding fire for now.
Fortunately the Champion Hurdle market has a great betting shape to it. Hurricane Fly and Our Conor are 5/1 joint favourites and both need taking on from an ante-post perspective. Hurricane Fly proved himself the best since Istabraq this season and in Ireland their records are comparable. However, of his 5 seasons with Willie Mullins, he’s failed to get to the Festival twice and got there off an interrupted preparation once. The other 2 times he’s won but you get the impression his class has got him home and Cheltenham doesn’t suit ideally. If any horse can win as a 10 year old it’s him but with all that I’m happy to oppose him at the prices.
Everyone knows that 5 year olds have a dire record in the Champion Hurdle so that’s a huge concern about Our Conor. He looked as good a Triumph winner as I can recall for a long time, but it may be that he beat some ordinary horses that got strung out by unusually soft ground. 4 of the next 5 home have run since with only Diakali winning - and he only scrambled home at levels from Blood Cotil who’d been well beaten off 144 in the Fred Winter, (though Sametegal ran a good race to be 2nd at Ayr off 143.)
Our Conor hasn’t run on a sound surface yet over hurdles (won on yielding on the flat but worst performance on good on debut). He looks to have plenty of toe but it’s hard to know what his trip will be next season – it’s possible he’ll be suited by further as many Triumph winners are. With all the question marks he is a realistic contender at this stage and no more. It’d be great for the Triumph if a winner could come back and dominate the hurdles scene the following season but given the division looks strong next season you can’t back him at 5/1.
My Tent Or Yours (6/1) produced a stunning performance to win the Betfair Hurdle off a stiff looking mark of 149. They crawled round though and this strong travelling type sprinted best. He never looked like getting past Champagne Fever in the Supreme and it may be he’ll be suited best by a flat track. He still takes a good hold and could easily improve again if he learns to settle, (which might help him get up the hill better too.) A concern with him is that he might go novice chasing – I reckon its 50:50, so you couldn’t back him until you knew he was staying hurdling and then his price is only fair.
The other at single figure odds is The New One (8/1) who was a good winner of the Neptune, and then ran a cracker in open company in the Aintree Hurdle over 2m4f. I’ve continually underestimated him but I still have reservations. He couldn’t beat Champion Hurdle also ran Zarkandar at Aintree and he hasn’t run at shorter than 2m3f over hurdles yet. The Neptune form hasn’t really been tested properly yet and I want to see him in a true run race over 2m in open company before I’m convinced. He’s another genuine contender at this stage but no more than that.
Of the other 9 quoted at shorter than 33/1, there are several that are easy to dismiss. Zarkandar (16/1) isn’t quick enough and is going the 3m route. Champagne Fever (20/1) probably isn’t quick enough either and is going chasing. Quevega (20/1) will run in the Mares’ race and it looks as if Countrywide Flame (28/1) will need further next season. None of those 4 look good enough to win a Champion Hurdle.
Rock On Ruby (20/1) was given the cotton wool treatment this season and it didn’t really work out. He was impressive on good ground in the 2012 Champion and given his conditions next season and a fast pace, it wouldn’t be the biggest surprise to see him regain the title. He might go chasing though now and his price is about right.
I backed Grandouet (20/1) for this year’s race. After an interrupted preparation he was too keen but was still tanking along when crashing out at the top of the hill. He was then oddly stepped up to 2m4f at Aintree where he looked a blatant non stayer. He’s another who might go chasing and given he’s pretty fragile, he’s not an ante-post proposition, for all he might well be good enough.
Simonsig (20/1) didn’t jump that well when scrambing home in a weak looking Arkle. He has a mighty engine and if he didn’t jump well on his first couple of chases next season it wouldn’t be out of the question for him to revert to hurdles. That’s all pretty unlikely though so he can’t be backed for this now either.
The unknown quantity is Annie Power (20/1) who has been really impressive in an unbeaten run of 7 races in bumpers and novice hurdles. The key bit of form is her beating of the classy Defy Logic at Naas. She could be anything but given she’s a stablemate of Hurricane Fly and Quevega it’s impossible to guess what race she’ll be aimed at, at the Festival. If Quevega doesn’t get to Cheltenham, she’ll presumably take the soft option in the Mares’ Hurdle. There are too many uncertainties to back her at this stage.
That all points to Jezki, who is a huge 12/1 with Hills. I backed him in December for what turned into a vintage Supreme and whilst he was only 2¾l 3rd to Champagne Fever and My Tent Or Yours there, I think there are several reasons for thinking he’s the most likely one of the three to win a Champion Hurdle.
The first is that he much prefers good ground, (as did his ill-fated brother Jenari and half brothers Jered and Jetson). He’s been running on soft all season and Jessica Harrington has continually said we’ll see a much better horse on a sound surface.
The second is that he made mistakes at the last 2 flights in the Supreme, (a bad error at the last,) which must have cost him a lot in terms of momentum. He jumped much better at the business end when thrashing Champagne Fever at Punchestown.
The third is that he’d deliberately been kept off the racecourse since Christmas, which may be why he ran very keenly in the Supreme. It’s fashionable to give horses light campaigns before Cheltenham these days, but whilst some experienced horses can benefit from being kept fresh in open company, it’s rare novice races are won at the Festival off long breaks. Novices are by definition inexperienced over the obstacles and National Hunt bred novice hurdlers are usually inexperienced all round. It’s not therefore surprising that he was too keen and his jumping let him down.
Jezki has the big advantage of definitely being aimed at the race next season and whilst I wouldn’t take his Punchestown win too literally, I suspect he improved a lot from Cheltenham. He is a pure 2 miler and, only 5, he looks to have huge scope for improvement on better ground as he settles and jumps better with more experience. I think Paddy Power have it right chalking him up at 6/1. Hills standout 12/1 is massive and needs taking.