There was no shortage of people wanting to put Willie Mullins’ hotpots in multiple bets at last year’s festival and although many were foiled by the dramatic last flight fall of Annie Power, punters will surely be falling over themselves to get all the Mullins’ shorties rolling up once again – beginning with Min in the festival’s curtain raiser, the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.
But we are focusing on the championship race for two-mile hurdlers, traditionally one of the great spectacles of the Cheltenham Festival.
The obvious place to start is last year’s race, in which Faugheen led home a Mullins 1-2-3 having made all of the running. Ruby Walsh dictated at what appeared a stop-start gallop but it was hard not to be impressed by the gears his mount showed to clear away from the pack once straightening up for home.
Although Stablemate Arctic Fire stayed on into second and would have appreciated a stronger gallop, it’s very difficult to see any of the horses behind Faugheen turning that form around. That rules out The New One, whose best of chance of winning this race came in 2014.
However, a chink in Faugheen’s armour came to light when he was turned over at long odds-on in the Morgiana at Punchestown in November and, even though something might have been amiss that day (nothing came to light), it is now apparent that he is not unbeatable.
Bet365 are NRNB on the Champion Hurdle - click here for their big race odds
Nichols Canyon, conqueror of Faugheen at Punchestown, is only a six-year-old yet has already won six Grade 1 contests, and he’s got to be a danger to his stablemate if he gets to Cheltenham in one piece.
The Graham Wylie-owned son of Authorized posted a career-best effort on the numbers when winning the Ryanair Hurdle at Leopardstown over Christmas (holds Identity Thief on that run) and we know he stays further than the minimum trip, which is often an attribute of Champion Hurdle winners.
However, he loves to dominate in his races and Ruby Walsh will surely not let him have his own way out in front. Another slight concern is that he was slightly below par (judging by Racing Post Ratings) on his only previous visit to Cheltenham, when beaten five lengths in last season’s Neptune Novices’ Hurdle (sent off favourite).
Everything went wrong for Peace And Co when he suffered his first defeat in the International Hurdle at Cheltenham in December but Nicky Henderson’s lightly-raced 5yo had been most progressive prior to that and the combination of a stronger gallop on better ground should enable him to leave that form a long way behind. His trainer has an excellent record in this race and he’s made no secret of how highly he rates this son of Falco.
Five-year-old’s have a notoriously bad record in the race but Katchit proved in 2008 that if you are good enough, you are old enough, and both Punjabi and Binocular were placed in this race as five-year-old’s before going on to win it the following season.
Stable companion My Tent Or Yours, runner-up in the race in 2014 and not seen since April of that year, would also be a major challenger if back on track, but the vibes about him aren’t great and it’s a big price that he will even make the gig.
The dark horse of the race could be Camping Ground who took some notable scalps in the Relkeel Hurdle on New Year’s Day and the prospect of testing ground on the opening day might tempt connections, but it’s rarely that soft and he’s got to prove he can live with the fastest hurdlers in training in any case.