Matt Tombs / Sunday 4th January 2015 / 15:04
The consensus seems to be that only 3 horses can win the Champion Hurdle – Faugheen, The New One and Jezki – and all are top class horses. Faugheen (5/4) is known as the monster at Closutton and he could easily become one of the greats. A fast run 2m on good ground would look to suit ideally and he’s so quick that it’ll take a huge performance to beat him.
If he has a weakness it’s that he’s not a natural hurdler. He generally jumps well enough though and when he is a bit scrappy, it doesn’t seem to affect his momentum. The only issue is his price – he’s 5/4 against two other proven top notchers. He’ll surely be a bigger price on the morning of the race if all 3 get there, so if you’re not already on, I couldn’t recommend backing him now.
The New One (3/1) divided opinion after last season’s Champion Hurdle – between those who thought he’d have won had he not been hampered by Our Conor’s fall at the 3rd, and those who felt he had every chance and got done for toe coming down the hill, before staying on all too late. A lot of it was pocket talking, but it might not be that relevant for this season’s renewal as he looks a quicker horse this season.
I’ve been taken by the style of his wins at Haydock and especially in the Bula (International) last month, (though Vaniteux didn’t do much for the form when beaten on the same terms by Rock On Ruby next time.) Like Faugheen, there are plenty who like to crab his jumping, but I think his technique is improving all the time and I’m less concerned about his jumping that I was before last season’s renewal.
The placed horses from the previous season’s renewal have a good record, (in contrast to the other 3 championship events,) with this century Hors La Loi, Brave Inca, Punjabi, Binocular & Hurricane Fly all having been placed in the renewal before winning. He has a leading chance, but if Faugheen lines up with his unbeaten record in tact, he’s also likely to be a bigger price on the day.
Jezki (6/1) reminds me of Hardy Eustace in that a lot of people have labeled him a lucky winner. The consensus after 33/1 shot Hardy Eustace beat the 11/8 defending champion Rooster Booster was that Conor O’Dwyer had stolen the race by dictating a stop-start pace, knowing Rooster Booster liked a breakneck gallop. Hardy Eustace silenced the doubters by winning again the following year.
Jezki has been beaten twice by Hurricane Fly on testing ground this season, but he got a lot closer to him last time at Leopardstown than he did in those races last season, which suggests he’s continuing to improve. Jezki needs a fast run race and good ground – assuming he gets that in the Champion he looks an each-way bet to nothing as it’d be a big surprise if he wasn’t in the first 3. He might be slightly shorter by raceday but, (assuming they all get there,) I’m expecting at least 5/1 to be available so there’s not much point backing him now either.
The 3 of them are currently taking up 84% of the over-round and it’s shaping up as the sort of race where there ought to be some each-way value at fancy prices, because of the lack of depth in the race.
The Champion Hurdle is the one championship race where you tend to get surprises – 8 of the 14 winners this century have gone off at 9/1 or bigger, including Sublimity (16/1), Punjabi, (22/1) and Hardy Eustace (33/1). The average SP during that period of nearly 10/1 is more than double that of the other 3 championship races. Whilst at this stage it looks as if one of the 3 market leaders must win, a shock shouldn’t be ruled out. I’m therefore not looking for an each-way long shot to run into a place – I’m looking for one that can win.
There aren’t many to choose from as Hurricane Fly (14/1) is 11 now and, whilst he is still a great horse, its hard to see him winning unless the ground is genuinely testing. We saw again last season that it doesn’t matter how wet the winter is – if the ten days in the run up to the Festival are dry and mild, there’ll be a sound surface. Patrick Mullins has said that he felt Hurricane Fly’s head carriage suggested, when beaten at Cheltenham and Punchestown in the spring, that he didn’t like good ground now. You couldn’t back him at this stage, but if the forecast in the run up to the Festival is for a lot of rain in the couple of days before the race – he’d have a chance, (in particular as Faugheen and especially Jezki wouldn’t want a lot of cut.)
Of the others at shorter than 50/1 in the market, they virtually all have other targets - Un De Sceaux (Arkle), Annie Power (Mares Hurdle), Josses Hill (Arkle) & Rock On Ruby (World Hurdle).
Therefore there only looks to be one strategy at this stage – to back Arctic Fire (33/1) each-way. He’s a headstrong type, (always raced in a hood for Willie Mullins,) and can be keen in his races. He’s just the type to not show his form in steadily run trials, (too keen when a disappointing 5¾l 3rd to Irving in the Fighting Fifth on unsuitably soft ground,) before improving for a faster run race and better ground in the Champion.
The Ryanair Hurdle was run at a quicker pace than most of the conditions races as JP McManus ran a couple of outsiders to ensure Jezki got some sort of decent pace. Arctic Fire settled better there and ran a blinder to be beaten just 1¾l on soft ground he hates. Willie Mullins said afterwards “We’ve always thought he was a Champion Hurdle horse and he’s showing that now.” Good ground and a strongly run Champion Hurdle look his ideal conditions.
Last season he ran in the County rather than the Supreme as Mullins expected the ground to be quicker later in the week. In fact the opposite happened as the new course was watered and a fair bit slower than the old course – which possibly cost Arctic Fire victory, (½l 2nd off 141.)
He’s a really talented second season hurdler who’s improving all the time, and if there is genuinely good ground I think he could cause an upset. Even if he doesn’t – with such a gulf between Faugheen, The New One, Jezki, Hurricane Fly and his other opponents – he must have a great chance of being placed. With Sky Bet being 33/1 non runner, no bet, there’s no reason not to get stuck in now.
1pt e/w Arctic Fire for the Champion Hurdle @ 33/1 (NRNB)