CHELTENHAM HURDLE PREVIEWS
I cannot remember the complexion of a championship race changing as completely in the weeks prior to its running as this one, writes David Dickinson’s.
The rating required to win a Stan James Champion Hurdle this century has varied from the 164 that Hors La Loi III achieved in 2002 to the 176 of Istabraq in his pomp.
The race card ratings for Faugheen and Arctic Fire would have been 176 and 169 respectively; so their absence changes this from a race that might have bettered Istabraq’s figure to one that might not achieve Hor La Loi III’s.
Annie Power (162 at her best and add the 7lb mares’ allowance) is not yet even entered but is already favourite. One facile win over a longer trip is hardly the normal preparation of a Champion Hurdle favourite.
Her last run over two miles was a very impressive win. But that was more than two years ago. Presumably, she is seen as a more likely winner than her stable companion Nichols Canyon (161), the only horse to beat Faugheen.
That form does look all wrong now although he did beat Identity Thief (159) at Leopardstown over Christmas. He won that through his stamina as the runner up looked to travel better for the majority of the race and then get outstayed.
Cheltenham will surely be more of a speed test and it may be that Nichols Canyon’s optimum trip in the top grade is beyond 2m.
Identity Thief is the one towards the front of the market who appears most capable of further improvement. His racecourse debut came in a bumper in November 2014 and he has already come a very long way in his eight race career.
Another candidate who leaves the impression that his optimum trip may be beyond two miles is the main British hope The New One (160). He was unlucky in the Champion Hurdle of 2014.
His recent Haydock win was more impressive than those he gained at the course last season. Supporters will point to the 167 he achieved in Jezki’s Champion Hurdle to suggest he can still win one.
That comment could also apply to My Tent Or Yours (161), a place ahead of him that day but off the track for almost two years subsequently. He was 168 at his highest.
He has always been tricky to get settled and surely, after all this time off, won’t he be fresher than ever?
Overall, five year olds have a poor record in this race but there is a quartet of them on the periphery. These are Peace And Co (157), Top Notch (158) and Hargam (157) - the Nicky Henderson 123 in last year’s Triumph Hurdle - plus the much improved Old Guard (157).
Peace And Co is probably the most talented of these and better ground would surely suit; but he looked anything but straightforward last time at Sandown.
It may be that Camping Ground (163) will take his chance despite his only two mile form in this country coming when fourth in a handicap off 150. His current rating, gained over two and a half miles on testing ground, makes him of interest even if the trip is an issue.
This year’s renewal looks to be one of the best Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle of recent years. The entries include half a dozen horses who are already rated in the 150s. These horses are, however, housed in just two yards.
The Willie Mullins-trained Min is not currently the highest rated but the talk all winter has been that he is the stable’s first choice. He raced with the choke out last time but still won well and the form received a boost with the subsequent success of third home Ball d’Arc.
That said, Min has not yet established himself as outstanding on the racecourse in the way that his predecessors Vautour and Douvan had; and the Mullins backup squad is talented in its own right.
Yorkhill’s Tolworth win is currently rated 156 and he saw off runaway Betfair Hurdle scorer Agrapart that day. The Mullins yard has further strings to its bow with Long Dog (154) and Bachasson (151) neither of whom will be inconvenienced by any drying of the ground.
Nicky Henderson has two major players in the contest. Altior (155) is another who takes a good hold but the form of his Kempton win looks stronger by the day; and Buveur d’Air (154) was very impressive in two novice wins.
He got the better of his stable companion when both were beaten by Barters Hill in a bumper at Newbury just over a year ago.
WHO WILL BE TRIUMPHANT?
The juvenile form appears unexceptional in Britain, Ireland and France. The only consistent factor is the inconsistency of the form at the top level.
In the warmest, wettest winter on record in Britain, it is no surprise that French-bred horses have dominated many of the juvenile trials. I currently have two of them, Footpad and Connetable, rated 150 as my top-rated entries.
Zubayr (not qualified for a rating yet) firmly threw his hat into the ring when winning last Saturday’s Adonis at Kempton and has to be a contender.
However, once adding in the 7lb sex allowance to fillies’ ratings, there are no less than fifteen other contenders at 140 or more in a very open year. All but six of these are French-bred.
The exceptions are Saturday’s runner up Azzuri (who is not yet qualified for a published mark), Ivanovich Gorbatov, Leoncavallo, Jer’s Girl and the Alan King-trained pair Who Dares Wins and Gibralfaro, who are the highest rated of this sextet on 146.
WHO’S GOT THE STAYING POWER?
With a fortnight to go before reputations are extinguished or enhanced it seems a good time to review the principal participants in Cheltenham’s four championship races over hurdles taking place over 2m 4f or more, writes Martin Greenwood.
The Ryanair World Hurdle is the obvious place to start this section. Anyone who read my blog after Thistlecrack had hosed up at Cheltenham’s late-January fixture will already be aware of some of what follows.
He has been a revelation since connections ramped him up to 3m last spring. He posted a solid looking 168 rating when comfortably accounting for course specialist Reve De Sivola at Ascot in December.
Thistlecrack did not need to repeat that performance when next seen at Cheltenham as all of the horses behind him had lower ratings.
However he was visually imperious, never out of third gear and he stormed up the hill. His current price reflects the fact that he has the best form on offer.
Next in the ratings are Kilcooley, 2015 World Hurdle winner Cole Harden and 2015 Aintree winner Whisper, each of whom are rated 164. However, there appear to be questions about all three.
Kilcooley is a very game front runner and has largely progressed since a novice. However he has not been seen since winning a hard to assess contest at Wetherby in October and has reportedly had training troubles.
Neither Cole Harden nor Whisper have yet to run to their best this season, particularly the latter who has looked as if something is amiss. One imagines that connections of each are hoping that the better ground expected at the Festival will bring an upturn in fortunes.
It now looks that Annie Power will be running in the Champion Hurdle which would leave Vroum Vroum Mag (rated 161 including the 7lb sex allowance) to run in either the World Hurdle or the OLBG Mares. She would look a penalty kick to continue Mullins’ dominance in the latter in the absence of Annie Power.
If neither of the Mullins mares turn up in the World Hurdle and if Nichols Canyon (161) runs elsewhere, the fast improving Prince of Scars (159) would be next best in the ratings. He has been a revelation since joining Gordon Elliot after a break, though faster ground is an unknown.
The following afternoon over the same distance, fledging World Hurdle hopefuls of the future line up in the Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle.
This race is often a stamina sapping affair, usually run at a good clip and the wheat and chaff can get well sorted up the hill. Sometimes the best stayer rather than the best animal comes out on top, especially if the conditions are soft.
The favourite on most lists is Barters Hill (150) who has done very little wrong, though I felt that he was unimpressive in beating Ballydine at Doncaster last time. The one thing this fellow does seem to have in abundance is stamina.
I do have one novice stayer over the longer trips rated higher in Unowhatimeanharry (152) who has progressed massively since joining the ever more impressive Harry Fry.
I took a positive view of his demolition of a Pertemps qualifier field at Exeter last time; but the fact he is among the favourites for the Pertemps Final should be taken on board.
Trying to second guess running plans makes it difficult to pinpoint which horses will line up for this race, but Up For Review (148) will surely take part. He was disappointing in the same Doncaster race mentioned above but looked a decent prospect at Punchestown.
Another Mullins’ horse, Gangster (147), showed he has plenty of stamina when strolling home at Fairyhouse before Christmas.
Shantou Village and A Toi Phil (each 146) are next best but both appear in the betting for the three furlong shorter Neptune Investment Novices' Hurdle on the Wednesday.
Shantou Village is a smart prospect but could not hold a candle to Yanworth (158) over course and (near as damn it) distance in January.
Yanworth was very impressive that day, both visually and form wise, and remains the top novice at any distance. Next in the overall pecking order is Yorkhill (156), who’s Tolworth victory at Sandown has worked out extremely well.
In the same ownership, Bellshill (148), has done very well this season, mainly around the mid-distance hurdle trip, though was disappointing behind Bleu Et Rouge (149) and Tombstone (147) when dropped to 18f at Leopardstown last time.
ANNIE OR NOT?
The Grade 1 David Nicholson Mares' Hurdle has an unclear shape to it at the time of writing says Chris Nash.
There are currently thirty seven horses entered but there is a supplementary entry stage on March 9th.
Amongst the current entrants the top five on our ratings are: Annie Power (162), Vroum Vroum Mag (154), Polly Peachum (149), Smart Talk (149) and Bitofapuzzle (148).
Although the Willie Mullins-trained Annie Power sets a clear standard, it now seems that she will run elsewhere.
She has run just the once this season and that was in a Class 3 Mares hurdle at Punchestown in mid-February where she had just two opponents and started as the 1/20 fav.
She largely just had a school round and won as she pleased recording a figure of 149+. Her current rating of 162 is based on form of previous years including when looking the sure-fire winner of this race last year before falling at the last.
The horse with the second best BHA rating is Vroum Vroum Mag, given 154 by the British Handicappers. Her latest run was an impressive success in a Grade 2 hurdle at Ascot in January where she recorded that figure.
She holds an alternative entry in the World Hurdle and is also in the Ryanair Chase. The next three in the ratings are all British trained:
Polly Peachum (149) was last seen winning a Listed Mares hurdle at Sandown in February. She has a largely consistent profile and ran a similar figure to her current rating when second in this race last year.
Smart Talk (149) is a progressive novice who has won four of her six hurdle races from 2m to 2m4f. The latest was a Grade 2 Mares hurdle at Doncaster in January where she recorded her career best figure of 149.
She is very likely to receive an entry in the new Mares novice hurdle race at the Festival run over 2m 1f on the Thursday but entries for that haven’t yet closed.
Bitofapuzzle has a current hurdles rating of 148. She has been novice chasing last year but her last hurdles run in April saw her win a Grade 1 novice at Fairyhouse. She was also third in this race last year.
Finally if both Annie Power and Vroum Vroum Mag were to run elsewhere Willie Mullins would still have options towards the top of the ratings.
These would be led by Morning Run who is currently rated 144 and finished four and a half lengths behind Smart Talk at Doncaster last time out.