DISAPPOINTING INTERNATIONAL SHEDS LITTLE LIGHT ON MURKY CHAMPION HURDLE PICTURE
Heading into last Saturday’s Grade 2 Unibet International Hurdle at Cheltenham, I was hoping to see a horse stamp his class on the race and give the 2020 Champion Hurdle picture a badly needed shake up.
Call Me Lord’s neck defeat of the 151-rated Ballyandy simply didn’t do that, the 2m1f ‘Champion Hurdle Trial’ failing to get the pulse racing with the bigger picture of March in mind. To be fair to the race and horses competing, three of the participants in Ch'tibello, Elixir De Nutz and Pentland Hills were making their seasonal debuts, and on soft ground that is never easy.
Triumph Hurdle winner Pentland Hills and Elixir De Nutz are both horses with the kind of profiles you look to in the International each season – especially this campaign, with no standout Champion Hurdle horse – and those two in particular making their debuts has maybe held back the race.
But you can only judge a race on its merits on the day, and despite Call Me Lord showing fine versatility to drop back in trip and win left-handed for the first time in the UK, the level of the race is simply not up to standard Champion Hurdle class.
I’ve got Nicky Henderson’s horse running to 150 here, 7lb below his best for me, which could suggest a number of things. One; he’s not as good over two miles (2m1f here). Two; he’s not as good going left-handed, which should still be considered despite victory here, given his trainer’s past reluctance to run him anti-clockwise. Three; a tough race last time out maybe didn’t see him at his best. Of course, all these factors could be at play. Also, I could obviously be wrong in rating the race so low.
Given how strong the son of Slickly travelled, three is maybe one to doubt most of the above trio as Call Me Lord looked in good order, traveling and jumping well under James Bowen. On the back of that Ascot lung-buster behind If The Cap Fits two weeks previous, in terms of toughness, the Simon Munir & Isaac Souede-owned gelding deserves plenty plaudits. He also showed a good attitude late, but there was nothing in the performance to suggest he is a future Champion Hurdle winner.
The 23-time-raced eight-year-old Ballyandy finishing second does hold the form back, despite Nigel Twiston-Davies’s inmate probably just about running a career best. It was interesting to note he travelled widest of all on the proper soft Cheltenham ground, a tactic that can prove fruitful around Prestbury Park in winter conditions, and it’s quite possible he is maybe a touch flattered.
Either way, he has run well, especially given the terribly slow jump he put in three out. In a race that wasn’t run at a strong gallop, that really put him on the back foot, but after jumping two out under Sam Twiston-Davies, the son of Kayf Tara quickened up and picked up in impressive fashion. He couldn’t overhaul the winner, but it was another fine effort at a track he clearly likes.
Carrying a 4lb penalty, Ch'tibello probably just about comes out on top of the ratings with his close up third, beaten 1½ lengths. Off what were sedate-looking fractions, he was in a better position than most to win, if good enough, but his penalty anchored him, along with a momentum-losing jump at the last.
He did plenty right however, and having travelled and jumped well, he was probably in front too soon. He also had to switch off heels late which is never ideal. It was a nice start to the campaign for last season’s impressive County Hurdle winner and he is entitled to build on it.
While Ch'tibello was in a good tactical position throughout, the race couldn’t have panned out much worse for Monsieur Lecoq, who was held up last by Lizzie Kelly. To be fair to Kelly, I don’t think anyone expected the race to be run so slowly and with Monsieur Lecoq playing up and then running keen in the Greatwood Hurdle on his previous start, Kelly tried to make the adjustment needed to switch off her mount.
The five-year-old didn’t look in the same kind of form however, and with the race playing out poorly for the son of Diamond Boy, in the end, he has actually shaped pretty well. Off 150 (I have him rated 145), there is a nice race in him.
The big eyecatcher in the race, who I am sure many have already concluded, was clearly Pentland Hills, especially under his 3lb penalty. While he was well held in the end, beaten 5 lengths, visually, there was a lot to be positive about. Last season’s Triumph Hurdle winner jumped and travelled well, indeed, he travelled too well and actually looked to get keener as the race went on. On this evidence, the switch to the sharper Old Course for the Champion Hurdle should hold no fears for him.
The son of Motivator looked like he could win going to the last, but on his first run of the campaign with how he tanked through the race, a lack of fitness clearly told. You get the feeling he’ll improve significantly for it, but even on the back of this run, he will still need to improve a stone, maybe more, to win an average Champion Hurdle.
At least time is on his side however, and he’s obviously with the right man.
Similar comments apply to Elixir De Nutz. He was a pretty big drifter on the day, and ran like he needed the race badly. He had total run of the contest, but wasn’t fit enough to capitalise. Colin Tizzard’s lodger looked happy to be back however, having missed last season’s Cheltenham Festival through injury, and was good and bright.
He ran a little gassy as you might expect on his first run in 11 months, but he jumped well and moved nicely and the market really suggested he would come forward for the run. Looking at him already however, he has the makings of a top-class novice chaser next season.
Whether any of these horses can trouble the Champion Hurdle judge in March this season remains to be seen. In a normal year, on this evidence, I would say no, but this isn’t a normal year by the looks and I for one will remain respectable of plenty potential challenges.