Declan Rix

Declan Rix is not quite ready to ditch jumps racing just yet, putting forward an early Champion Hurdle bet and also discussing RSA winner Champ.

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With Flat racing in Ireland halted after one meeting at Naas and the British Flat season failing to get off the ground as of yet, I still remain in a type of jumps mode. It’s a hard habit to break after the highs of Cheltenham.

The Grand National meeting at Aintree will not go ahead however, a significant low, especially in recruiting new race fans, but the Punchestown Festival potentially may get the green light. Limbo.

Proper Flat prep will be done sooner rather than later, but there is plenty of time yet, especially in Britain, where they won’t start their Flat season for at least another month.

With Coronavirus causing all of the above, I watched back Cheltenham Festival replays again during the week, as well as checking next year’s ante-post markets, and had the following thoughts and observations.

SHARJAH ALREADY A FORGOTTEN CHAMPION HURDLE CONTENDER?

While this year’s Champion Hurdle wasn’t the greatest renewal we’ve ever had in terms of ratings, we had a convincing winner in Epatante (156p). The way she glided through the field under a hold from mid-division into a tracking leaders position was eyecatching; all this before she quickened up and won in style, by three lengths.

She has progressed with every run this campaign, remains lightly raced (9 runs) and as a six-year-old, is open to more improvement. Generally a 4/1 shot for the 2021 Champion Hurdle, her strong position at the head of that market is warranted, although whether she should be that short is open to question.

Mares can go off the boil, get lost, and while the daughter of No Risk At All is in great hands with Nicky Henderson and owner JP McManus to stay on track, mother nature is something beyond their powers.

I am a huge Epatante fan though, and in the current Champion Hurdle picture she is top dog, but having looked at ante-post lists for next year’s race, this season’s Champion Hurdle runner-up Sharjah is criminally overpriced at 33/1. I really can’t get my head around Rich Ricci’s horse being such a huge price.

He was comfortably the second best horse in this year’s race, coming nearly 4 lengths clear of the third, despite conceding the likes of Epatante and Darver Star (third) quite a bit of early ground on going that would’ve been too soft for him to show his very best. Under the circumstances, the seven-year-old ran huge race.

Given his age, and his connections, there must be a chance of maybe a little bit more to come? As an eight-year-old next season, and with the normal luck you need in training horses, I don’t see why the son of Doctor Dino can’t at the very least remain at his current level of 160+.

Repeat offenders in terms of placed Champion Hurdle horses are not too scarce either; My Tent Or Yours and Melon (his second placing came in a freak race, to be fair) just two that spring to mind in more recent runnings. From this year’s renewal, Sharjah has little to fear, but a good crop of 2019/20 novice hurdllers must be respected.

Supreme Novices’ Hurdle winner Shishkin (157p) may go over fences, runner-up Abacadabras (155p) the same, although I feel he should stay over hurdles, partly as a strong bow in helping Gordon Elliott in a potential Trainers’ Championship assault. As Davy Russell said about Envoi Allen (157P), “the world is his oyster” and whether he stays over hurdles or goes novice chasing, he will likely head up most markets.  

Goshen is obviously a juvenile hurdler of immense potential, but prices of 6/1 overplay the ability he has shown. Yes, he was going to be a brilliant winner of the Triumph Hurdle, but to have him on the coattails of a Champion Hurdler at this stage; I can’t see it. Yet.

It all leads me to be believe that Sharjah, although at this incredibly early stage, is a forgotten horse with the Champion Hurdle in mind. At this juncture, I would make him a 12/1 or 14/1 shot and so, have backed him.

LIFE IS GOING TO GET A WHOLE LOT TOUGHER FOR CHAMP

Being prepared to take on Champ in his first season out of novice company as a currently priced 14/1 shot for next year’s Gold Cup is hardly a bold shout at this stage. I’ve had a bit of a love-hate relationship with the JP McManus-owned gelding; well, love is a bit too strong, as is hate, but my feelings about him are at this moment going to flip-flop again.

As a novice hurdler, I never particularly warmed to him although, his maiden handicap win at Newbury in 2018 more than hinted at the ability his name suggested he had. I always found him to be over-hyped and over-bet; and maybe I let my passion for gambling cloud my thoughts on him as a horse, a horse who was clearly a work in progress.

The son of King's Theatre always struck me as a stayer; from his closing sectionals to his stout-staying pedigree, but as a younger competitor he refused to settle and often raced with too much enthusiasm, making it hard for connections to try him over further.

At Aintree last season though, in the 3m Grade 1 Sefton Novices' Hurdle, his first crack at the trip, I finally came around to Champ and started to believe in him. And this season as a novice chaser stuck with him, knowing the engine and ability is there. With him settling better this campaign, we finally saw the locomotive-like galloping prowess the Seven Barrows inmate possessed; no better example than this of his astonishing RSA success.

Even his biggest detractors can now see the engine, the ability he has to gallop, and in the closing stages of the RSA, just like at Newbury when he nearly ran out, the eight-year-old looked like he could’ve maybe gone around again.

His jumping has always concerned many however, and it is this element of his game that may well be his downfall next season. I defended his jumping on many occasions on here this campaign, but it was always knowing he was a novice, taking on other novices, often being of the opinion he was running against horses of inferior ability.

Those days are now gone however, Champ enters the dragon’s den of open class chasing next season, where he must improve, both in terms of raw ability and jumping. He has the potential to reach the same heights as Al Boum Photo and stablemate Santini in terms of ability/ratings, but to do so, his jumping must improve.

Nicky Henderson clearly feels the same, as he has suggested Champ finishing his holiday at Martinstown a bit earlier this year to go to Henrietta Knight’s for some intense schooling. It will be interesting to see if Knight can improve his jumping skill; it will be the first aspect of his seasonal debut next season I take in.

Will it be in the Ladbrokes Trophy at Newbury where Champ starts? Or will Henderson feel that assignment would be too much to ask off 161? One things for sure, well possibly, placing Champ next season might be a tad difficult given his habit of jumping left. It may well rule out the intermediate chase at Sandown won by Might Bite and Santini, and it also may rule out the King George at Kempton.

Declan Rix
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