Sectional Spotlight: Unibet Champion Hurdle

Simon Rowlands delivers his verdict on the opening Championship contest at Cheltenham.

  • Wednesday 12 February
  • Blog
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Published 12/02

LEADING SECTIONAL RATINGS (as of 12/02/2020)

BENIE DES DIEUX 161 (+7 sex allowance)
VERDANA BLUE 161 (+7)
HONEYSUCKLE 158 (+7)
EPATANTE157 (+7)
ENVOI ALLEN 158
SHARJAH 158

In questionnaires, and Twitter polls, you are often given a choice of “None of The Above” or “Other”. I wish to opt for that in this preview!

The first four names in the above leaders on my sectional ratings are mares, helped by a sex allowance, but only one of them – EPATANTE – seems sure to run in the Unibet Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham on 10 March. And she is quite a short-priced favourite.

BENIE DES DIEUX has the Mares’ Hurdle and the Stayers’ Hurdle, either of which she could well win, as alternatives; HONEYSUCKLE is intended for the Mares’; and VERDANA BLUE, who would have a good chance on her Christmas Hurdle and Scottish Champion Hurdle wins of last season, needs good going or firmer and could even be running on the flat instead by then.

Epatante does set a fair standard judged on her defeat of 156-rated SILVER STREAK and 151-rated BALLYANDY in the latest Christmas Hurdle at Kempton, achieved in an overall time 3.0s quicker than the opening Novice Hurdle and with very similar late splits.

Before that, Epatante had shown searing late speed (under 52.0s for last half-mile) to win a strong handicap at Newbury. She is unlikely to be done for pace, but she could be found out by the hill, especially if conditions are testing and the pace is strong.

ENVOI ALLEN remains an intriguing prospect for the Champion, his stock having risen lately on account of the efforts of some of those he has beaten, but he is at least as likely to run in the Supreme or Ballymore Novices’.

His best form remains his defeat of ABACADABRAS (157, but likewise a Novice contender) and DARVER STAR (155) in a Royal Bond Novice at Fairyhouse which resulted in a good time and strong late splits.   

Darver Star is no longer qualified for novices and is the one who ultimately gave Honeysuckle the most to do in the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown. But that was a slightly odd race, in which Honeysuckle and third-placed PETIT MOUCHOIR (153) probably went too hard on the long home turn, and Darver Star might well have been seen to maximum effect.

Back in sixth that day wasSHARJAH, who is better judged on his three and three quarter lengths defeat of Petit Mouchoir at Leopardstown over Christmas, but who has an awful lot of miles on the clock – some of it on B roads rather than A roads – for a winner of hurdling’s blue riband.

Absent from the above ratings is PENTLAND HILLS, last year’s Triumph Hurdle winner but beaten in two this season. He looked all over the winner of Haydock’s Champion Hurdle Trial last time, only to curl up and let in Ballyandy at the death. Pentland Hills has plenty of talent, if possibly not an exemplary attitude, but cannot be rated higher than 154 at present.

What also seems to have been overlooked about the Haydock race is that third-placed CORNERSTONE LAD (156) gave the first two weight and was beaten less than a length. Sectionals show the race to have been close to truly-run.

Before that, Cornerstone Lad was fortunate to beat Buveur d’Air in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle, left alone in front, but this was not a complete throw-out. Once the sectionals displayed in the Results Section on ATR are factored in, Buveur d’Air was best in the race by about four lengths, with Cornerstone Lad and Silver Streak vying for second.

Silver Streak’s limitations at the top level are there to be seen, but his ability to turn up and deliver when others do not has taken him to a third in last year’s Champion Hurdle as well as places in those Fighting Fifth and Christmas Hurdles (he was not helped by a blunder three out in the latter). The only time he has been unplaced in his last 10 runs was when tackling an unsuitable trip.

It is worth noting that at least one horse starting at 10/1 or bigger has been placed in each of the last five Champion Hurdles, and last year’s race read: 16/1 beats 20/1 beats 80/1. That 80/1 was Silver Streak.

Effective on heavy going and good, and tough and consistent, Silver Streak could well be ridden to pick up the pieces again this year. That, and the generally confused picture of those ahead of him in the market at the time of writing, is the thinking behind putting him up each way now. Stranger things have happened.

VERDICT: SILVER STREAK each-way


Sectional Spotlight: Unibet Champion Hurdle

Cheltenham 15:30, 10 March 2020

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