3.30 Cheltenham Tuesday 15 March 2016
The countdown to this year’s Cheltenham festival has started in earnest, and in a fortnights time the famous roar will go up as the youngsters set off in the opening Supreme Novice Hurdle. The main event on the first day is the Stan James Champion Hurdle, and after the late withdrawals of Faugheen and Arctic Fire it looks a wide open contest. Willie Mullins still looks to hold most of the aces though (according to the bookies anyway) and below we will take a closer look at some of the main contenders and discuss their strengths, weaknesses and what I think their chances are in what should be a thrilling race.
ANNIE POWER 2/1 PADDY POWER
A couple of weeks ago this race wasn’t even on Annie Power’s radar, but the injury to Faugheen has forced Willie Mullins to shuffle his pack and this classy 8yo mare has been supplemented for this race. She has been immediately installed as favourite and she is a best price of 2/1 with Bet365.
She was sent off at prohibitive odds for the Mares Hurdle here last season (20f good to soft), and she looked all over the winner before tipping up at the final fence. She made amends at Punchestown in the Irish equivalent, hacking up on heavy ground over 18f. That was one of the weaker Grade 1s you will see though, and she will be facing a different calibre of animal at Cheltenham.
To be honest there is no way I would consider backing her at 2/1 in such a hot race. She is undoubtedly a classy mare, but the fact remains that she has yet to win a Grade 1 race over 2m, and she hasn’t even run at the trip since back in January 2014 when she won a soft looking Grade 2 at Doncaster. She dotted up on her reappearance at Punchestown (20f heavy) in a weak three runner affair and no doubt she will have plenty of supporters at Cheltenham. At her likely odds I won’t be one of them.
NICHOLS CANYON 5/1 WILLIAM HILL
This looks like being Willie Mullins’ second string for the Champion Hurdle, and most trainers would give their right arm to have him as their stable star. He has been a prolific hurdler for Mullins and he has won 7 of his 10 starts over timber, including 6 Grade 1s.
He was third behind Windsor Park in the Neptune last season so we know he handles the track. The 21f trip and the hill may have stretched his stamina though, and he made amends at Aintree in the Grade 1 Novice (20f good). He hacked up on his last start of the season in another Grade 1 at Punchestown and he was put away until making his seasonal reappearance at Punchestown back in November.
He produced probably the best run of his career on that occasion (16f soft), lowering the colours of Faugheen, and he remains the only horse to have beaten the ‘Machine’. He followed that up with a gutsy win over Identity Thief over Xmas at Leopardstown before running no sort of race behind Faugheen on his last outing in December. His tough run on bad ground at Leopardstown when beating Identity Thief may have left a mark, and after a nice break and back on better ground he could be a different animal. If he turns up at his best he has the form in the book to go close at odds of 5/1.
IDENTITY THIEF 11/2 PADDY POWER
Gigginstown 6yo son of Kayf Tara who is 4 from 8 under rules, including a Grade 1 triumph in the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle (16.5f soft). He beat Top Notch by a neck that day and Wicklow Brave was left trailing in their wake 10 lengths behind. Identity Thief won despite putting in a couple of less than impressive jumps, and you don’t get away with mistakes like that in Championship races.
He was beaten on his last run at Leopardstown (16f soft/heavy) by Nichols Canyon and he again put in a couple of poor jumps. He has raced just once on ground quicker than soft, and that resulted in an 8L third place finish behind Walk To Freedom over 20f at Punchestown. Now the trip was probably to blame for that defeat, so it is perhaps unfair to say he doesn’t go on quick ground, but the worry is that Nichols Canyon is already a Grade 1 winner on good ground so you would have to fancy him to beat Identity Thief again if it was to come up good to soft or better on race day.
As has been outlined above there are too many ifs and buts regarding this horse for him to be considered a solid betting proposition. His jumping is a big negative and a couple of slow jumps would put paid to his chances in this race. Doubts remain about the ground, but if it were to come up soft or worse it would increase his chances. Still, he looks a bit skinny to me at odds of 11/2 and I won’t consider backing him unless it comes up soft.
THE NEW ONE 7/1 BETFAIR
The news broke early on Monday that Sam Twiston Davies has decided to stick with The New One rather than ride Paul Nicholls’ main hope Old Guard. That has to be viewed as a positive for a this 8yo son of Kings Theatre, who was desperately unlucky not to win this race back in 2014. He is a previous festival winner, taking the Neptune in impressive fashion in 2013.
However, he has shown nothing like his 2014 form in two seasons since, and while he has picked up a couple of Grade 2s it still feels like he has underachieved for the ability that he has. His tendency to hang, just as he did when beaten over 8L by Faugheen into fifth in this last year, is an obvious worry, but there is no doubt that the talent is there.
He is at his best on a relatively sound surface and good to soft or better will be ideal. His run behind Faugheen in the Xmas hurdle was a decent effort (16f good to soft) and he took the scalp of the progressive Rayvin Black on heavy ground at Haydock last time out. If he can put it all together on the day he could run a big race, and once the ground is decent he could be worth a couple of quid each way at his current odds of 7/1.
MY TENT OR YOURS 8/1 CORAL
The fact that this 9yo son of Desert Prince hasn’t been seen on the track since he was beaten in a Grade 2 at Ayr back in 2014 has to be seen as a major worry. Okay, he is with one of the finest trainers around in Nicky Henderson, but to get him back to his very best after such a long layoff, especially as a 9yo, would go down as one of the greatest training performances of all time.
He has serious form in the book and he was a neck second behind Jezki in this race on his penultimate run back in 2014. He had the New One over 2L behind that day, but if that rival had a clearer passage he probably would have beaten him. The fact he is as short as 8/1 for a race like this after 2 years out must mean he has been showing plenty at home, but there is too much to take on trust for me, and it is hard to see him being good enough as a 9yo to win a race he couldn’t win as a 7yo when fully fit. Best watched at his current odds of 8/1.
BEST OF THE REST
It is currently 16/1 bar those horses discussed above, but there are some very interesting contenders at bigger prices. Top Notch was only a neck behind Identity Thief at Newcastle and yet he is treble the price of that rival at 16/1 with BetVictor. He has proven festival form, finishing a close second behind Peace And Co in the Triumph last year (17f soft), and he showed his well being with a 12l romp in a weak 4 runner event at Kelso in his prep run. He is no forlorn hope, and given that his sire has an excellent strike rate on decent ground he could run a huge race at odds of 16/1 with BetVictor if it is good to soft or better on the day.
Given that Peace And Co beat Top Notch in the Triumph last year he must also have a chance if he turns up at his best. However, he hasn’t had an ideal preparation and he reportedly had respiratory issues on his last run at Sandown when he was beaten 2L into third (16f soft) in a listed heat. He was beaten out of sight on his previous run in a Grade 2 at Cheltenham, and though his best form last year would see him in the shake up, the doubts about his current well being tempers enthusiasm for his chances. His odds of 20/1 with Ladbrokes look justified and he is a risky betting proposition.
Hargam is another Nicky Henderson inmate and this 5yo son of Sinndaar is a potential fly in the ointment. He was a good 4th in the Triumph last year and he has run to a decent level of form this year. He was less than a length behind The New One last time in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton (16f good to soft) and if he had jumped the 3rd last more fluently he might have got second behind Faugheen. He could surprise a few people with a big run and he is of interest each way at odds of 20/1 with Skybet almost treble The New One’s price.
This is as open a Champion Hurdle as there has been for many a year after the withdrawal of both Faugheen and Arctic Fire, and there are doubts about quite a few of the fancied runners. Annie Power will be all rage with punters, but as an 8yo that has yet to win a Grade 1 over 2m I’m not sure her skinny odds are justified. Identity Thief has jumping issues and is unproven on decent ground, and of the market leaders Nichols Canyon probably has the least questions to answer.
The New One is a bit of an enigma and his run in this last year has to be a worry. He undoubtedly has the ability, as he showed when an unlucky loser back in 2014, but he hasn’t shown his trademark turn of foot for some time and you would have to wonder if he still has it. My two suggestions against the field are the Henderson pair of Hargam at 20/1 and Top Notch at 16/1. Both horses ran well at the festival last year, they have youth on their side, and they have form in the book with horses that are an awful lot shorter in the betting. They represent definite value in an open race.
TOP NOTCH E/W 16/1
HARGAM E/W 20/1