Champion Hurdle division gets shaken up
At the outset of this season, the Champion Hurdle division looked to lack in depth. The two-time Champion Hurdle winner Buveur D’Air was at the top of it, but his crown looked to be open to challenge. The Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle very much changed the shape of the market with Buveur D’Air hammering the emerging challengers Samcro and Summerville Boy, but the division has again been shaken up after events of last week on either side of the Irish Sea.
The first race to discuss is the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton. Buveur D’Air was sent off at 1/4 to account for what looked overmatched rivals, but he ended up being pipped by his stable mate VERDANA BLUE in a dramatic finish. While Verdana Blue might well have produced a career-best effort in victory, Buveur D’Air underperforming seems more likely and speculating as to why he did makes for a fascinating discussion.
There were a number of potential reasons put forward for Buveur D’Air’s performance. The obvious starting point is the bad mistake he made at the third-last flight, though in truth it didn’t really seem to slow his momentum. His connections have suggested that Kempton isn’t ideal for him, but that doesn’t really appeal as being significant enough to explain this performance. That he was left in front at the second-last flight and made himself a target for Verdana Blue wasn’t ideal, but again that doesn’t seem to be reason enough to explain it.
Perhaps the reason behind his performance is something that cannot be so ready quantified as the other suggested factors, but could well be behind it. Prior to his return in the Fighting Fifth, he was seen to carry plenty of condition and his connections drew attention to that fact both before and after the race. With him having produced what seemed close to and quite possibly a career-best effort when not in peak physical condition, perhaps four weeks was not enough for him to recover from those exertions? In short, one wonders might he simply have “bounced” to an extent at Kempton?
Whatever the reason for his underperformance, Buveur D’Air remains the one to beat in the Champion Hurdle, though this defeat has somewhat diminished the air of invincibility he had earned at Newcastle. The Contenders Hurdle at Sandown is likely to be his next port of call. Given the dearth of Champion Hurdle contenders trained in Great Britain, he is likely to have an easy task to get back on track in anticipation of his bid for hurdling immortality as he seeks to win his third Champion Hurdle in March.
Over at Leopardstown on Saturday, the Ryanair Hurdle did produce an easy winner that could potentially be a contender for the Champion Hurdle, but it was a race that left more questions than answers. A steadily-run contest, it produced a comfortable winner in the shape of the Willie Mullins-trained SHARJAH. He hasn’t had much of a break since making a winning hurdling debut in late-September 2017, this having been his 12th start over hurdles.
His record in that time has been a patchy one, but he has brought his A-game to the table in three of his last four starts over obstacles, winning the Galway Hurdle, the Morgiana Hurdle and now the Ryanair Hurdle. His connections feel that a sounder surface is a big help to him, but his last two wins do not appeal as being solid pieces of form for the highest level. He may well now go straight to the Champion Hurdle from here, but it will remain to be seen whether he can be as effective in a more truly-run contest in deeper Grade 1 company.
Jessica Harrington made what appealed as being the right decision to divert Supasundae from the Christmas Hurdle over three miles to this race, but they got precious little luck for their trouble. While Robbie Power had him in a prime stalking position as the field turned for home, a slightly untidy jump at the second-last flight saw him put into a pocket behind the leaders that he was held in until just before the final flight.
He finished off quite well to grab second and his connections would undoubtedly have much preferred to get first run on Sharjah rather than vice versa. While Supasundae stays further, keeping him over two miles until the Aintree Hurdle appeals as being the right path for him rather than staying hurdles. The Irish Champion Hurdle is likely to be his next port of call.
The race also saw the belated reappearance of last season’s Champion Hurdle runner-up Melon. He had reportedly been slow to come to hand and hadn’t pleased his connections prior to his intended reappearance in the Morgiana Hurdle, thus the delay in getting him to the track until this race. Quite weak in the betting, he settled better than he has in the past on his seasonal return. His jumping wasn’t always slick, with him making a significant error at the fourth-last flight and a lesser one at the second-last. It appeared as though he might have had a blow approaching the final flight and Ruby Walsh didn’t knock him about to stick on again up the run-in. It was a run that very much suggested it would be improved on next time and that is something worth bearing in mind when he lines up for the Irish Champion Hurdle at the Dublin Racing Festival.
The run of Samcro back in fifth is one that perhaps prompted the most discussion. Sent off at 6/4 despite having been blown away by Buveur D’Air in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle, he jumped better than ever and travelled up menacingly to challenge in between the final two flights, but he finished very weakly to be beaten by 7¾ lengths. There have been many different opinions put forward about the run, but for me it was indicative of a horse that has something amiss with him.
While he looked to be well exposed in the Fighting Fifth and his novice hurdle form may not be as good as many viewed it at the time, for him to finish so weakly after jumping and travelling as well as he did was too bad to be true. While a switch to fences, softer ground and/or a longer trip may all prove suitable for him in the fullness of time, right now he just doesn’t look to be firing for whatever reason. It will be fascinating to see what his connections choose to do with him next.
The only Champion Hurdle contender yet to be seen this season is the Willie Mullins-trained Laurina. Having missed an array of potential options in recent months, it seems that she may run this weekend in a Listed mares’ hurdle over two-and-a-half miles at Sandown. Given that time is running out to get more experience into her, one suspects she will need to be impressive to maintain the Champion Hurdle rather than the Mares’ Hurdle as her primary target at the Cheltenham Festival. With many of Willie Mullins’ horses seeming to be needing their first run, it might be a tough ask for her to show her full worth at Sandown. It will certainly be a race that anyone with an interest in the Champion Hurdle will be watching closely.
Bookmakers have Christmas to remember
This Christmas period will perhaps be remembered best for the sheer volume of high-profile runners that were beaten. While it would be ill-advised to assume that an array of beaten favourites means all bookmakers did well, it probably isn’t too far off the mark. The list of beaten favourites at 6/4 or shorter at Irish racecourses throughout last week makes for particularly toe-curling reading for anyone inclined towards backing jollies.
Elite Charboniere 4/6
Stormy Ireland 4/6
Mt Leinster 4/6
Envious Editor 11/10
Minella Indo 5/4
Snugsborough Hall 11/8
Dorrells Pierji 6/4
Allaho 11/8 and Fury Road 6/4 in the bumper at Leopardstown on St Stephen’s Day
In contrast, the winners at 6/4 or shorter in Ireland last week were as follows: