Kevin Blake

Leading racing writer Kevin Blake tackles the wide-open 2020 Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham, nominating a 16/1 value shot that may well pay dividends.

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The Champion Hurdle division had a windy look about it before any potential contenders had even run this season. There is no great need to repeat all the twists, turns and disappointments that have played out within it since then, but to nutshell it, Epatante has emerged as the market leader while most other contenders have fluffed their lines to one degree or another. 

What we are left with remains a very murky picture with just one week to go before the race. The final make-up of the field is still very much open to serious change, with the likes of Benie Des Dieux, Honeysuckle, Envoi Allen or even Solo having varying degrees of potential to be switched into the race.

Even Epatante, the only one of the confirmed contenders that hasn’t put a foot wrong on the racecourse this season, has been the subject of a scare in recent days with Nicky Henderson reporting that she had been coughing last week.

Thus, it is hard to be bullish about what represents a fair price in the market at the minute, as all it will take is for one of the aforementioned potential switchers to be confirmed for the race to turn that market for it on its head.

That said, there is one horse that has long been a confirmed runner and has been largely ignored by the pundits and the market alike, yet could well be a very big player on the day. The horse is the Gavin Cromwell-trained DARVER STAR.

The eight-year-old has anything but a typical Champion Hurdle profile, having gained his first win over hurdles in a handicap at Wexford off a mark of 106 last April. His rise up the ranks since then has been quite astounding, winning four more races and twice finishing in the frame in Grade 1 company. This has seen him improve from an initial rating of 104 over hurdles just under a year ago to his current mark of 152.   

It is Darver Star’s two most recent runs in Grade 1 company that should be focused on to assess his Champion Hurdle prospects. The first of those came in the Royal Bond Novice Hurdle at Fairyhouse in December. It is worth noting that this was always going to be his last start in a novice hurdle, as he was a beneficiary of the summer novice rule in Ireland that allows those that break their maiden over hurdles or fences between February 1st and the end of the season to retain their novice status until the Hatton’s Grace meeting at Fairyhouse the following December.

Despite winning five of his last six starts including a Listed novice hurdle at Limerick, the step up in task that Darver Star was perceived to be facing in the Royal Bond is shown by the fact that he was sent off at 20/1. As it turned out, he outran those odds to finish a four lengths third to Envoi Allen and Abacadabras, but the run was even more encouraging when one watches it back.

Wearing a first-time tongue tie, he was tucked in behind the leaders travelling quite well approaching the second-last flight only to run out of room and be squeezed out over that flight. Meanwhile, the two that beat him were in the clear and quickening up at what was a crucial stage of a race that had been run at a below-average pace.

As a result of the interference, Darver Star looked to lose in the region of five lengths relative to the front two, but once he rebalanced and hit full stride, he charged up the run-in to finish best of all under what was anything but an all-out drive from Jonathan Moore who clearly knew the front two had gone beyond recall.

Had a fancied horse shaped like that, one can be certain that much of the post-race analysis would have focused on how unfortunate they had been and whether they might have shaken up the front two with a clear run. As it was, not a whole lot was said about it and everyone moved on.

From there, Darver Star was thrown into the deepest waters available to him in the Irish Champion Hurdle at the Dublin Racing Festival. In light of another step up in class, he was again sent off at 20/1. Sat in behind Honeysuckle and Petit Mouchoir, Darver Star jumped with his usual solidity and was within striking distance at the second-last flight. Having jumped that flight, he just got a shade outpaced by the front two, but he really powered home from before the final flight to be beaten just ½-length by Honeysuckle.

For all the improvement that he had shown to that point, this run represented a big jump forward from Darver Star. Petit Mouchoir has been used as a yardstick of sorts to weigh up the Irish-based Champion Hurdle contenders all season and Darver Star beat him fair and square. Not only did he beat him, he also shaped as though a stronger test of stamina than two miles on good-to-soft ground around the inside track at Leopardstown would very much show him to even better effect.

The 2020 Irish Champion Hurdle
Darver Star (left in red cap) closing the gap on Honeysuckle in the Irish Champion Hurdle

That he has already won a Listed novice hurdle over two miles and five furlongs on heavy ground at Limerick demonstrates how much stamina he possesses, and the Irish Champion Hurdle was not a strong test of stamina at the trip. Thus, the likely greater demands of stamina of the Champion Hurdle next week very much promises to suit him and could well bring about even more improvement from him.

Yet, despite all his improvement and the quite clear merit of his latest run, his rags-to-riches profile has meant that he has struggled to be taken seriously as a potential Champion Hurdle winner. I have been as guilty as anyone of this, as I tried to use Darver Star as a stick to beat Envoi Allen with when initially reviewing the Royal Bond Novice Hurdle!

However, not only did he repeat that effort in the Irish Champion Hurdle, he took another big step forward from it. Thus, when one looks beyond his profile and delves more deeply into what he has been achieving in recent starts, it is difficult to draw any conclusion other than that this is a fast-improving hurdler that already has form in the book to be a contender and is open to further improvement.

While Darver Star had a busy time of it earlier this season having won four times in the space of two months from August to October, Cromwell has very much been minding him since then. His run in the Royal Bond was his first for seven weeks and it was another nine weeks until his run in the Irish Champion Hurdle.

This mitigates any thoughts that he may have been too busy this season to be at his very best next week. In terms of his jumping, while he isn’t a fast and low jumper that one would ideally like a top-class two-mile hurdler to be, he is a sound and solid jumper that rarely does anything wrong at his hurdles.

Human nature tends to lead us to underplay the significance of events that we didn’t expect to happen. Very few expected Darver Star to compete in the Royal Bond Novice Hurdle and even less expected him to do so in the Irish Champion Hurdle. That he very much competed and even shaped better than the bare results on both occasions has been almost completely ignored by a wider racing audience as they simply don’t want to believe it. This could well prove to be a serious mistake.

Darver Star doesn’t have the sexy profile that we like our Champion Hurdle contenders to have, but sexy or not, he is a very serious contender for the race. His price of 16/1 seems far too big in a market full of windiness and uncertainty.

Kevin Blake
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