Champion Hurdle crown up for grabs

Champion Hurdle crown up for grabs

With Faugheen now unable to defend his crown, a new Champion Hurdler will emerge from the shadows on March 15.
The absence of 'The Machine' certainly casts a shadow on the day one feature event but the misfortune of one is the opportunity for others and a terrific and unpredictable contest now looks to be firmly on the cards.
Within minutes of news breaking that Faugheen was going to miss out, another Rich Ricci-owned runner was thrust into the picture.
Annie Power won her reappearance at Punchestown as she was expected to and is hotly tipped to be supplemented into the Champion Hurdle by her powerful connections.
Remarkably, given that he has been denied the chance to aim Faugheen at this race, festival record-breaker Mullins still dominates the Champion Hurdle picture.
Indeed, the reigning champion's absence has not even removed the possibility that Mullins could emulate last season's unprecedented one-two-three in the two-mile Championship contest.
Together, Mullins and Ricci must now decide whether or not Annie Power has the speed required for this test.
She is of course a veteran of seven wins at the minimum distance but those successes came almost exclusively on testing ground. The calibre of opposition she dismissed in doing so would also pale in comparison to what awaits her in the Champion Hurdle.
Interestingly, Mullins is on record stating that he sees Annie Power as a two-and-a-half-miler while Ricci makes no secret of the fact that his heart's desire is simply to see this hugely talented mare win at the Cheltenham Festival after her well documented near-misses in the World Hurdle and the Mares' Hurdle in past years.
For certain, the Annie Power question adds a fascinating dimension to the 2016 Champion Hurdle. Last year's runner-up Arctic Fire will find the scale of his task greatly reduced by Faugheen's absence this time around and he was the closest to that rival again in the Irish Champion Hurdle in January.
Third home that day was Nichols Canyon, apparently suffering from the exertions of his hard-fought win at Leopardstown over Christmas where he won out in a sustained duel with Identity Thief.
As the only horse to have claimed the scalp of Faugheen, Nichols Canyon is certain to appeal to plenty in this race, while Henry de Bromhead's Identity Thief adds some variety to the challenge coming across from Ireland.
Despite the drastic change in landscape of this race, the British challengers still have question marks hanging over them.
Nigel Twiston-Davies remains loyal and convinced by the credentials of The New One to emerge best in the two-mile division but he has scuppered his chances twice before in the white heat of the Champion Hurdle.
His best was third in 2014 and the gallant runner-up that afternoon, My Tent Or Yours, looks set to return for another tilt now.
Nicky Henderson's ability to train a Champion Hurdle horse is unquestionable and if My Tent Or Yours retains the ability that saw him denied behind Jezki two years ago, he could have the winning of this race at nine-years-old.
His Seven Barrows stablemates Peace And Co and Top Notch are yet to prove that they have the talent to succeed in the senior ranks after impressing in the Triumph Hurdle last year. With Faugheen cast aside, the stage appears wide open for a new hero to emerge on March 15 and, from nowhere, the Champion Hurdle is right up for grabs.

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Cheltenham Countdown

The countdown to the 2016 Cheltenham Festival is on and we’ll be posting big-race previews every week as we build up to the biggest four days in the National Hunt calendar.

Ante-post markets for the Cheltenham Festival are dominated by Willie Mullins-trained runners and the first of the four-day bonanza looks set to be dominated by the Closutton handler, who saddles no less than four red-hot favourites.

Min, Douvan, Faugheen and Annie Power (or Vroum Vroum Mag) could all have the bookies running for cover and the Mullins’ machine can inflict further damage on the layers when Un De Sceaux lines up for the Queen Mother Champion Chase the following day.

Mullins looks likely to launch a three-pronged attack on Friday’s Gold Cup with Djakadam, Don Poli and Vautour all major players for the showpiece event.