Andy Holding looks ahead to the 2021 Champion Hurdle, with a 10/1 shot worth backing
As it seems increasingly likely given the reports in the media, we’ve probably seen the back of the National Hunt season for 2019/2020 (Punchestown the only real hope), now is probably as good a time as any – with Cheltenham still fresh in our memories – to cast an eye over next year’s big meeting with a view to obtaining some early value. Without the usual concluding pieces in the formbook jigsaw puzzles at Spring festivals such as Aintree, Fairyhouse and Punchestown, not to mention events at Ayr and Sandown’s final hurrah on bet365 day, the relevance to what happened at Cheltenham only a few weeks ago has even more bearing than normal. During the next few weeks I’ll be taking a look back at all the action at Prestbury Park and trying to highlight where bookmakers may have underestimated certain horses, beginning with the Champion Hurdle.
The obvious starting point is to deal with this year’s renewal and focus on comfortable winner, Epatante, to establish whether she justifies being a genuine 4-1 shot at this stage to repeat the dose twelve months on. First and foremost, it was universally excepted beforehand that the class of 2019/20 probably weren’t the greatest bunch as they lined-up to face the starter, so it probably didn’t come as a massive surprise to see her land the prize in the manner she did given her two impressive previous victories. Always travelling kindly in behind what turned out to be a well-run affair thanks to the exploits of Petit Mouchoir, Nicky Henderson’s mare stalked her prey going strongly on the approach to the last and then with a fast, accurate jump she was away and gone to the tune of three lengths up the run-in. The most pleasing aspect about her performance was the turn of foot she’d displayed in her previous two starts at Newbury and Kempton was also in evidence when it mattered most, and it also finally laid to rest the theory she was just a flat-track bully. Indeed, many had previously suggested that her defeat at last year’s Festival could be put down to the possibility she might not like the undulations of the track and the excuses that connections’ made of her suffering from the flu-jab post-race were invalid. Now we know the real truth, it’s safe to say she has pretty much all bases covered regarding ground conditions and track outlay and at a time when most of the established members of this division are seemingly on the wane, and those coming through the ranks aren’t queuing up in huge numbers to take her crown, she has an obvious opportunity to dominate again and provide her handler with his ninth winner of the two-mile championship event.
Of those in behind her at the Festival, runner-up Sharjah finally laid the ghost to rest that Cheltenham isn’t his track and considering the ground wasn’t to his likely either, his performance has to carry even more credence. Well-beaten in the Irish Champion at Leopardstown after previously being very impressive over the same C&D, there is obviously two sides to Willie Mullins’ gelding, and that is what makes him a tricky betting proposition on a race-to-race basis – let alone from a term-long ante-post stance. That said, at least we know that on a good day he can be fully affective in a strongly-run championship environment and at 33-1, he probably isn’t the world’s worst bet to go one place better.
Darver Star was one of the success stories of the entire jumps season, jumping from a 119-rated handicapper to 159 after finishing a creditable third in his biggest test to date and who’s to say he couldn’t keep on improving. Even if he does, however, he still may not be quite good enough to cope with Epatante, especially as she’s not likely to go backwards either, and for that reason, he doesn’t make too much appeal at his current 33-1 quotes.
Looking further down the field, fifth-placed Petit Mouchoir ran with great credit, but that is probably as good as he’s going to get nowadays, Silver Streak has twice now shown that he’s not quite up to the very highest level, while the likes of Supasundae and Ballyandy shaped as though they want an extra half a mile and they make limited appeal too. The biggest disappointment of the race in many respects was Pentland Hills, who many were anticipating a big effort following genuine excuses on both his two previous outings earlier in the campaign. Too keen early when running out of steam after the last on his seasonal debut on the New Course back in December, a similar fate awaited him at Haydock a month later when he once again proved a victim of his own downfall. Very much expected to leave those two runs behind on account of a stronger pace in a bigger field environment more likely to play into his strengths, the son of Motivator could never land a meaningful blow after being positioned towards the back of the pack early and he could only make belated late headway from three out. Whether he was just another victim of the ‘five-year-old curse’ that seems to await most quality juveniles trying to make the grade the following year or he just wasn’t good enough, only time will tell, but either way, it’s difficult to get wildly enthusiastic over his chances even allowing for the fact a dryer winter next time around might see him in a better light.
As Honeysuckle beat the likes of Darver Star and Petit Mouchoir in The Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown previously, there’s strong evidence to suggest that Henry De Bromhead’s mare would have been involved in some way shape or form in the two-mile event if connections had not chosen to back up in trip at the Festival. As it turned out, the decision to stay in her lane and take on Benie Des Dieux proved to be an inspired one and she rates a worthy favourite around the 7-2 mark to retain her crown against her own sex. Whether connections opt to play it safe and keep the daughter of Sulamani in her own category remains to be seen, but should she be pitched back in against the boys over the shorter distance at any stage then she has to be granted the utmost respect.
So, if there is to be a serious challenger to knock Epatante off her throne, where is likely to come from? The main threat, according to the bookmakers is Goshen, and it’s easy to see why the layers are keen on not offering too many crazy prices about Gary Moore’s juvenile (top price 6-1). Unbeaten on his way to the Triumph Hurdle, the son of Authorized appeared to have his twelve opponents stone cold as he powered his way down to the last, but what happened next proved to one of the biggest talking points of the entire Festival. Ten lengths clear and still travelling strongly, he inexplicably got his wires mixed up with pilot Jamie Moore, dived at the final flight and then, in turn, got his near-fore and rear-fore shoes caught up in the tangle which ensued on the other side of the flight. All this added up to Moore being dumped unceremoniously on the hallowed turf with the race at his mercy and the whole episode ended up robbing us of what would have turned out to be one of the easiest winners of the race since its inception in 1939. Clearly a massive talent on the evidence of this display, just how good that performance would have been can be analysed by applying some sectional timings and comparing his numbers to Saint Roi who landed the County Hurdle over the same C&D half an hour later. From the point when Goshen touched down on landing after the second hurdle to the point when he fell at the last, the four-year-old was 2.8 seconds ahead of Willie Mullins’ impressive two-mile handicap winner, which strongly suggests he would have at the very least run to the mark 158 awarded to him in the post-race appraisal by the assessor. On the evidence of these numbers, it also suggests that Saint Roi will have to find plenty of improvement if he is to become a worth Champion Hurdle contender.
After the dust has settled and connections’ can now reflect on their loss with a good degree more calmness, and not through the prism of raw emotion, at least they can say with unequivocal doubt, that their pre-race bullishness was totally justified. The biggest issue now, however, derives from the temptation to run him on the Flat and try and land a big pot during the middle of Summer off what appears a very tempting current mark of 88. This does come with risks attached, though, as it’s not easy to predict what sort of weather this country might get during this period and, as up to now, Goshen appears to be at his best with the ground on the soft side, laying him out for any given target comes fraught with danger. The best policy might just be to scrap the whole idea and train him especially for next year’s Champion Hurdle, but that very much depends on the mindset of his owner. Either way, they are all nice problems to have and whatever decision is made, he will go into next season’s National Hunt campaign as one of the most eagerly-anticipated juveniles to make the step up into open Graded company for many decades.
The other obvious category to focus on is the older novice hurdlers and although we only have two championship events to interrogate, there are plenty of reasons to believe it’s a pretty smart bunch we are dealing with.
First, the two-mile crowd come under the microscope and if time comparisons are anything to go by, then Shishkin and ABACADABRAS (best price 10-1) have to be bracketed as top-class. The former ran out an extremely game winner of the curtain-raiser, and considering he didn’t jump that well or get the clearest of runs, the fact he still managed to post similar figures to those achieved by Epatante in the Champion Hurdle over the same C&D an hour later points towards a performance of the highest distinction for a novice. Despite the numbers lending themselves to suggest Nicky Henderson’s gelding would have gone close to landing the blue riband on the opening day of the Festival, all the post-race talk very much indicated that the son of Sholokhov is likely to follow a similar path to the stable’s 2016 winner Altior and be sent straight over fences next season and given his size and scope, you can see why that viewpoint is totally justified.
So if Shishkin doesn’t end up flying the flag for this above-average crop next season, could the latter end up as the one who puts his head over the parapet and force himself into the big league? One of the best-backed horses pre-race of the entire Festival (7-1 in to 11-4), it looked for all the world as if Gordon Elliott’s six-year-old was going to land the gamble - and in some style - as he was the only horse still on the bridle going down to the last, but unfortunately he just got worried out of the argument on the long climb up the hill to the line. The mere fact he was able to cruise through the contest run at a strong pace is testimony to his ability and when you consider he also lost a few valuable lengths courtesy of one of a number of standing starts that plagued the meeting, it’s not hard to come to the conclusion he was best horse in the race. Indeed, if you start the stopwatch on the Davidoff gelding after he touched down over the first and stop the timer on the line, it reveals he not only beat Shishkin, he would also have run out a comfortable winner of the Champion Hurdle. Now I know this could be seen as a tenuous practice by some, but at the same time, it does give you some guide to how the two races stacked up and the rough abilities of the participants. On this evidence alone, it’s not unreasonably to draw to the conclusion that ABACADABRAS is the one to take out of the two races in question and, as it was only his fifth race over hurdles, there is a fair possibility he’ll keep on improving. Additionally, all the post-race chat from his connections’ strongly indicated he’s likely to stay over hurdles - and at the two-mile trip - for next season and if that does turn out to be the case, he has the all the makings of a very interesting contender for the Champion Hurdle. Although he handled the testing ground in the Supreme well enough, he’d be extremely unfortunate if he were to encounter similar conditions should he make the gig a year on and that bodes well for a horse whose main weapon is his sharp turn of foot. Likely to stay on home soil until March, the Grade 2 WKD Hurdle at Down Royal is likely to be his first port of call (same race as stable mate Coeur Sublime won this season) and providing he comes through that race with flying colours, the two big Grade 1’s at Leopardstown are then a strong possibility. As there doesn’t appear to be too many strong candidates in this department in his own back yard at present, these sort of races should be well within his grasp and then it should be all systems go in his bid to provide The Gigginstown Stud operation with their first Champion Hurdle winner.
Of the refugees from the Supreme, well-beaten third, Chantry House, appeared to have no obvious excuses and he just plain and simply lacked the pace of the front pair. With that in mind, a step up in trip seems likely next season and, as he’s owned by the favourite, Epatante, he’ll probably switch disciplines to embark a career over fences. Fourth-placed Asterion Forlonges is also likely to head down a similar path, although given his tendency to jump out to his right, his second season under rules will probably end up at either Fairyhouse or Punchestown.
Unlike the Supreme, the Ballymore over an extra five furlongs, conversely, has a better record of producing future Champion Hurdle winners, so the wisest policy is to take a look at this year’s leading players to see whether there’s a likely candidate for future glory hiding among the participants.
Envoi Allen ran out an impressive winner of the opener on Day Two and his victory cemented him as the undisputed king over the intermediate trip. However, he had exhibited the necessary pace to score over two miles when landing the Royal Bond over the likes of Abacadabras and Darver Star at Fairyhouse earlier in the season, so it’s clear he has all the tools in the bag regarding distance. An Irish point winner at four, no firm decisions have been made as to where he’ll go next, but it was interesting to hear connections mention after the race that Gordon Elliott’s gelding will likely “kick on to chasing next season” and it’s that early insight into how the Cheveley Park group are thinking which makes him an improbable Champion Hurdle contender at this stage.
As is always the case when we are dealing with a race so far in advance, most of the assumptions are laced with a degree of guesswork, but at the same time, a little more delving into data available courtesy the relevant races at Cheltenham and the immediate post-race thoughts of some of the connections do provide punters with the opportunity to cut through some of the conjecture.
Without wishing to knock this year’s Champion Hurdle winner Epatante, because she could only beat what was put in front of her after all, it’s also crystal clear based on the figures that the Supreme, fought out by Shishkin and Abacadabras, was of her equal. With that in mind and the likelihood that the former will embark on a campaign over fences, the latter looks the one to side with at this stage. Although Gordon Elliott has yet to train the winner of the Champion Hurdle, he probably hasn’t had a runner with the profile and pure ability over the trip than Abacadabras before and at his current 10-1 quotes, the talented six-year-old is worth a decent ante-post interest even at this early stage.