Declan Rix

Declan Rix takes a closer look at this season's Champion Hurdle through the prism of his own ratings.

  • Sunday 16 February
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OPEN CHAMPION HURDLE TO GET EVEN MORE COMPETITIVE WITH EMERY EMERGENCE

The glory years of the Champion Hurdle may well be over; with so many Flat horses now either staying on the level to compete for lucrative prizes or being sold out foreign with the same aim. While we are highly unlikely to see a 170-odd performance from this year’s Champion Hurdler, the races open nature makes it a fascinating and puzzling contest.

An aborted chase career, although novice chasing, made Buveur D'Air a two-time Champion Hurdler, a brilliant and brave decision from Nicky Henderson to revert to the smaller obstacles at the time, eventually paying off handsomely. The 2020 renewal looks likely to have a similar candidate in Cilaos Emery, who successfully switched back to hurdling at Gowran Park on Saturday, when winning the Grade 3 Red Mills Trial Hurdle by 9½ lengths from Darasso (151), who gave the winner 7lb.

Willie Mullins’s inmate is now likely to be supplemented for the Champion Hurdle at a cost of £22,500 and it looks a good move, based solely on ability. There can be no doubt Cilaos Emery is good enough to win this season’s Tuesday Cheltenham highlight, in what looks a poor renewal in terms of ratings. It’s safe to say there is no Istabraq, Hurricane Fly, Faugheen or even Buveur D’Air this campaign.

The eight-year-old will need to brush up on his hurdling if Saturday is anything to go by. He dived at the fourth and wasn’t great at three out, but the Mullins team have a little bit of time to hone his jumping.

Whereas Cilaos Emery probably has about 7-8lb to find with the likes of Altior, Chacun Pour Soi and Defi Du Seuil in the Champion Chase, in the Champion Hurdle, my rating of 155+ puts him right in the mix and makes him a leading contender.

Epatante (152P) is the current favourite, JP McManus’s mare currently a best-price of 100/30 with ante-post firms. In terms of her form, and ability shown in what has been a progressive two-run season, the Grade 1 Christmas Hurdle winner chould be shorter in the market, especially with a 7lb mares’ allowance.

There are a couple of question marks however, which is why her price is maybe a touch bigger than it should be on form, which essentially means I have no issues with her current trading odds. The main worry would be why she disappointed at last season’s Cheltenham Festival, when a nicely held ninth, beaten just under 10 lengths at a price of 15/8?

Did the occasion get to her? Did the first-time hood she wore play a factor? Did the flu-jab she got during her preparation affect her? Is she simply better on flatter tracks? These are all questions we may well get to answer to on March 10th. Thankfully, Barry Geraghty nursed her home in last season’s Dawn Run Novices’ Hurdle run when beaten and that has maybe played a part in her progress this campaign, which has come at Newbury and Kempton, two flat tracks.

Another worry would be the combination of the atmosphere and not running in 75 days could light up this already strong-travelling and quick-jumping mare. In terms of form, however, the daughter of No Risk At All is just the one to beat in this year’s Champion Hurdle, but whether she can show the same level in Grade 1 company on the undulating hills of Cheltenham remains to be seen.

Epatante wins the Christmas Hurdle
Is Epatante the correct Champion Hurdle favourite?

Second favourite at 5/1 is Epatante’s stablemate and last season’s Triumph Hurdle winner Pentland Hills. He has progressed this season, even in two defeats, but only by 4lb on my figures. His heartbreaking second in the Grade 2 Champion Hurdle Trial Hurdle at Haydock was a career best (151p), but the free-running son of Motivator is the only one who can explain that loss.

Having jumped the last in front and shot clear, he was somehow mowed down by the brave Ballyandy, finishing just in front of Cornerstone Lad (153). To be fair, he still shaped like much the best, despite having once again travelled strongly, but he looked to get tired late. Did he maybe slightly need the run again, or was there something more sinister in the defeat?

A big-field, strong-run Champion Hurdle will no doubt suit him even better come March, but it has to be said, managing to somehow lose at Haydock is hard to get out of one’s head.

Unbeaten-in-eight mare Honeysuckle (151+) is well within her rights to contest this year’s Champion Hurdle on form, especially with that valuable mares’ allowance. She surprised me with the pace she showed in winning the Irish Champion Hurdle on decent ground, but she doesn’t jump well enough for a Champion Hurdle, on what we saw in parts at Leopardstown and you can see why connections are leaning towards running her in the Mares’ Hurdle.

Benie Des Dieux, another horse from the Mullins yard that would need supplementing, and for me, looks much better suited to the Mares’ Hurdle or even the Stayers’ Hurdle. Since her heartbreaking fall at last year’s Cheltenham Festival, Rich Ricci’s mare has done well over staying trips, thrived in fact.

In terms of pure ability, Sharjah (160?) looks well overpriced (14/1) on my ratings, but does come to the Champion Hurdle on the back of a below par effort behind Honeysuckle in the Irish Champion Hurdle. The seven-year-old ran the bones of a stone below his Grade 1 Matheson Hurdle victory at Christmas, form that should have seen him beat Honeysuckle, if he was on his ‘A’ game.

He clearly wasn’t right, something the pre-race market hinted at ahead of the Irish Champion, but if Willie Mullins can get him back to his best, the son of Doctor Dino is well capable of winning the Tuesday showpiece, especially if he gets his favoured nice ground. Remember, Melon disappointed in the same race two years ago, before being punted off the boards ahead of the 2018 Champion Hurdle, where he gave Buveur D’Air a huge fright.

In a race where it would be naïve to suggest anything can’t win, even the now ten-year-old Supasundae (157) still looks overpriced, on the back of sustained support over the last week, and is worth a positive mention. He is a proven Grade 1 performer and while his age may put some people off, he made a highly pleasing return to action in the Irish Champion Hurdle when fourth, beaten under five lengths.

He was clearly given a big-day preparation ride; out wide for much of the journey on the home turn and not given a hard time in the straight. He jumped well and hit the line well enough, considering he is a notoriously hard horse to get fit and with this run under his belt, he is entitled to strip sharper and fitter in the Champion Hurdle.

Whether he will enjoy the sharp nature of the Old Course over the minimum trip remains to be seen, but soft ground would be a big help in that regard. Despite his advancing years, Jessica Harrington’s inmate will have my respect.

On the back of his recent Ascot victory, Thomas Darby (152) is another would might struggle with the speed test a Champion Hurdle brings. He looked to need every yard of the 2m3½f trip last time out, something that is not just borne out by the visual impression he left, but also his staying pedigree.

At a similar price of 16/1, Fusil Raffles (145?) hasn’t gone on yet this season. He supposedly badly needed his first run of the campaign when still winning but then pulled-up in the Christmas Hurdle and hasn’t been seen since. Coeur Sublime (149p) threatened to break into the Champion Hurdle picture proper on seasonal debut when winning the Grade 2 WKD Hurdle but didn’t progress when well-held by Sharjah over Christmas.

Ballyandy (150) has been in fine form of late and deserves great credit for overhauling Pentland Hills at Haydock, but a Champion Hurdle on the New Course would favour him significantly more. The same is maybe also true of Darver Star (156?) who had two or three lengths taken out of him by Honeysuckle and Petit Mouchoir (157) off the final bend in the Irish Champion when swinging wide.

To his credit, he stayed on strongly and got past Petit Mouchoir before pushing Honeysuckle all the way. The big problem for me, is does his rating of 156 show a true reflection of his ability? Coming into the race, the Irish Champion, I had him on 143, but did he really improve 13lb in his 62-day break? If you think he did, 20/1 non-runner no bet is a bit generous, even allowing for the course concerns.

The 2020 Irish Champion Hurdle
Could the Irish Champion Hurdle be a key form race this year?

Last season’s Champion Hurdle third, Silver Streak is a good, consistent 150 horse for me. A bad mistake three out in the Christmas Hurdle behind Epatante didn’t do him any good, but it’s hard to see him turning that form around, although his Cheltenham course form could be an equalizer of sorts.

It feels like Petit Mouchoir (157) has been around for years, but at nine, he is not old. Despite being in the doldrums a touch last season, he is getting back to his best and the 33/1 on offer about a strong-travelling, quick-jumping inform horse who will be suited by the track is big.

He’s the type of runner that will have plenty off the bridle coming to two out in the Champion Hurdle, but as we saw against Sharjah over Christmas, he is maybe a touch vulnerable late in the race.

Verdana Blue (151) is beatable on soft ground, as we know by now, but she is a bit of a forgotten horse. She, like Epatante won the Christmas Hurdle last season and is with the right man in Nicky Henderson to prep her, if indeed this is her aim.

Finally, and please forgive my brief discharge from the asylum, but is Samcro (155) worth switching back to hurdling, granted he is physically – and mentally - fit to do himself justice? Getting back on some nicer ground will be a big positive for him compared to the Limerick quagmire he last run on, and connections had this aim last year, in a season that was interrupted by poor health.

Even in poor health, he manged to run to 155 and running to a similar mark will see him bang in the shake-up in this year’s renewal.

In summation, we have a truly bonkers Champion Hurdle to contend with this year. The race is so open, it’s hard to have a strong view. I suspect, whatever turns up on the day in good form, having had a clean prep, with the race falling tactically well for, will win it. I realise that doesn’t help much, but maybe good, old Petit Mouchoir will give his fans a big run for their each-way money at 33/1 and I remain convinced, that granted nice ground and a good prep, Sharjah (14/1) can win.

It’s somewhat a worry Willie Mullins is happy to switch Cilaos Emery back here with regards Sharjah, but the Red Mills winner should probably be second favourite ahead of Pentland Hills, based on ability, for all he lacks the mostly swift jumping of last season’s Triumph Hurdle winner.

Declan Rix
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