Matt Tombs / Tuesday 15th January 2013 / 13:30
1pt Grandouet to win the Champion Hurdle @ 7/1
1pt Cotton Mill to win the Champion Hurdle @ 50/1
In 3 of the 4 championship divisions, the top British race during the season is a good guide to the Festival championship. 5 of the last 10 winners of the King George won the Gold Cup. The only Grade 1 3m hurdle during the main season, the Long Walk, has produced the World Hurdle winner 4 times in the last 10 years. The winner of the Tingle Creek has won the Champion Chase twice in the last 10 years.
By contrast, no winner of the traditional Grade 1 in the main season, the Christmas Hurdle, has won the Champion Hurdle in the last decade. Of the other two main trials, (the Bula and Fighting Fifth), each have only produced one winner. That’s partly because 5 of the last 10 Champion Hurdle winners have been Irish and the best Irish 2m hurdlers don’t often contest the British trials. However, it’s also due to the fact that, unlike the other 3 championship divisions, the Champion Hurdle trials tend to be run very differently from the race itself. Year in, year out, they crawl round in most of these top 2m hurdles and race in the last 6 furlongs or so.
The bad ground this winter has just made the crawl longer and the sprint shorter. Sprinting off a crawl is a very different skill to quickening off an end-to-end gallop and it’s a horse’s ability to do the latter that we’re assessing when having a Champion Hurdle bet. Some will be able to do both, but the market tends to be priced up on the basis of these trials, so we need to interpret the form in the context of a likely fast run race on good ground.
The only horse that has shown brilliant form previously is Hurricane Fly (7/2). He’s won 10 of 11 over the last 3 years, including this 2 years ago. His only defeat was in this last year when looking to boil over, (Ruby had his feet out of the irons at the start unlike the year he won.) He’s got by far the best form and, if you can excuse last year’s run then he’s been bombproof otherwise, so there’ll be plenty saying how obvious it was if he wins. He’s really fragile though and there’s a significantly higher risk of him not getting to the race than the average ante-post bet. I’d want to see how he takes the preliminaries before backing him.
Darlan (4/1) loves a flat track and after they crawled in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton, (2m, heavy), he sprinted right away from a good field. As well as that being crawl-sprint form, the other big concern is his liking for Cheltenham. He didn’t look to like the undulations when scrambling home in a poor novice hurdle, (by far his worst performance of last season,) and then never seemed able to get in a rhythm in the Supreme. He might have learnt from his previous experience, he might be good enough to win despite the track not being ideal – but given how important an aptitude for the course is, I can’t back him at a short price.
In the Bula, Zarkandar beat Grandouet by 2l, (2m1f, heavy). Zarkandar (15/2) had the advantage of a run and received 4lb but you have to imagine the crawl-sprint suited him less than the strong-travelling Grandouet. Paul Nicholls is adamant that he wasn’t right all last season and with so many of his horses improving this time round, a case can be made for Zarkandar confirming the form. The worry about him is whether he has the tactical speed for the race and it’ll be fascinating to see whether Ruby chooses him or Hurricane Fly.
Grandouet (7/1) was very keen early on and it looked as if Barry Geraghty had been told to ride him out only after the last so he didn’t have a hard race. Given that he’d probably had the kid glove treatment from Nicky Henderson, he might easily improve past Zarkandar now, (technically he comes out the best horse in the Bula anyway.)
Rock On Ruby (10/1) was only 3rd in the Bula, beaten 8l by Zarkandar, (though would’ve been closer but for getting the last all wrong.) He was a clear winner of this last year and whilst it was arguable he got the run of the race with Hurricane Fly and Binocular not seen to best advantage, the fact remains he won well. He has continually been underrated.
Oscar Whisky (16/1) is top class at 2½m. He ran in the Champion Hurdle 2 seasons ago, (6¼l 3rd to Hurricane Fly) and the World Hurdle last season (13½l 5th to Big Buck’s.) He runs in the Cleeve Hurdle next and is odds against to run in this so can’t be backed now, but if he lined up on soft ground he’d have a serious chance.
Cinders And Ashes (18/1) beat Darlan comfortably by 1¼l in the Supreme and on that form has every chance. He’s been bitterly disappointing when trounced by Countrywide Flame in the Fighting Fifth and when a well beaten 5th behind Darlan in the Christmas Hurdle. He should improve for better ground, but I can’t get out of my mind how mulish he was on the way down in the Supreme last season. I wonder if he’s the type not to train on and want to see a return to form before backing him.
Countrywide Flame (20/1) was a 33/1 winner of the Triumph but showed it was no fluke with a close 2nd to Grumeti at Aintree and after improving on the flat in the autumn, thrashed Cinders And Ashes in the Fighting Fifth, (the trial that’s been run at the least slow gallop so far, albeit on very heavy ground.) Denis O’Regan said after the Christmas Hurdle that he hated going right handed, so he may have had an excuse there. 5 year olds have a dire record and whilst he’s a fair price I can’t quite see him winning.
Of the outsiders, Raya Star (40/1) won a handicap at Ascot off 149 on his comeback, and finished 4½l 2nd to Darlan in the Christmas Hurdle. He needs a fast run race and was first off the bit there but still finished in front of Countrywide Flame and Cinders And Ashes. He was a slightly disappointing 13th in the County Hurdle off 143 at his only run at the track so has that as a question mark. He’s the type who always runs his race and might be one for each way backers.
Rebel Fitz (40/1) would have been an easier winner of the Galway Hurdle off an Irish mark of 145 but for Davy Russell prematurely easing up and 2nd Cause of Causes has since bolted up in the Ladbroke off 11lb higher. Whilst it was disappointing that he was beaten at 4/6 by veteran Captain Cee Bee in a Grade 2 at Tipperary, he’s been beaten in all 4 races where the ground has had heavy in the description and is 9 from 11 when it hasn’t. He was given a break afterwards and Mick Winters is deciding whether to keep him hurdling for a spring campaign or go chasing. It’s worth keeping an eye out for plans as he’d be an interesting dark horse.
Cotton Mill (50/1) has been entered in big 2m races since November, but hasn’t been risked on bad ground. Last season, he was running mainly at 2½m, and was going well upsides Simonsig (pair clear) when running out 2 from home in the Neptune. The Neptune has been an amazing trial for the Champion Hurdle considering it’s a 2m5f novice hurdle. Istabraq, Hardy Eustace and Rock On Ruby have all gone on to win the Champion Hurdle the following season in the last 15 years. He won a 10f maiden on fast ground at Newmarket in 2010 and has loads of toe, so the drop back in trip may see further improvement.
Having backed Grandouet in the Bula I was slightly disappointed he couldn’t get past Zarkandar, but watching it again, it really looks as if he was the classic Henderson horse who was being looked after and will improve much more than his rivals at the Festival. Simonsig, Finian’s Rainbow and Bobs Worth all had similar profiles coming into last year’s Festival and given the Henderson factor he rates the most likely winner at this stage so must be backed at 7/1. I can’t resist backing Cotton Mill as well though. I may be the only one, but I’m not certain Simonsig had him covered in the Neptune and whilst there’s a question mark over his temperament and he’s not run yet this season, he’s no 50/1 shot, so save on him.