It's little more than a week until one of the greatest racing spectacles begins and I'm going to take a look some of the Championship races, see if there's any value to be eeked out and ramble on about the runners for a while! Those races are the Champion Hurdle, Champion Chase, Gold Cup & Stayers' Hurdle. All interesting contests as expected, although two of them contain odds-on favourites and wouldn't be the most appealing betting propositions for me, but what can one do! We kick off with the Champion Hurdle.
Champion Hurdle Preview:
The obvious starting point is Buveur D'Air, last year's brilliant winner who is still only a 7-year-old and boasts a perfect 3-3 record this season. 4/6 is the best price currently available about Nicky Henderson's star hurdler and if he runs to his official rating of 169, it's hard to see any of the likely opposition getting within a few lengths of him in their current guise (a peak Faugheen would be a serious threat, obviously!). The only potential saving grace for them might be the fact that Buveur D'Air has barely had a proper race this season, cosily defeating Irving, The New One & John Constable in his three outings. Using the lack of opposition against the horse is clutching at straws somewhat but I would have preferred to see him challenged by better performers than the circa 155-rated horses he has come up against. He's always going to make light work of those sorts in small fields and will have a harder battle this time around, although whether any of the others can beat him is extremely doubtful, hence the 4/6 quotes!
Faugheen is next up in the market at 6/1 and the 2015 winner of this race would be a huge threat to the favourite were he operating near his peak level. However, he's a 10-year-old who has had well-documented problems and how much remains in the tank is questionable. He did at least show that Ryanair Hurdle flop at Christmas to be all wrong when runner-up in the Irish Champion Hurdle last month but getting turned over by Supersundae, as talented as that rival is, suggests that Willie Mullins' charge has lost a step. To my eye, he didn't look to have the same engine and when the old Faugheen would have been grinding the field to submission, the current version couldn't get away. Don't get me wrong, there were definite positives to emerge from that performance and he could come on again physically, but I just can't get behind the attempt to regain his former crown. Stranger things have happened, although I don't see him winning.
It's 10/1 or bigger for the remainder and My Tent Or Yours, runner-up in this race on all three occasions when he has lined up, is sure to appeal to many as an each-way bet. He's a rock-solid 160-ish performer and won his first race in nearly four years when defeating The New One & Melon in the International in December. Being in receipt of 6lbs was a massive help there but soft ground isn't really his thing so that was a leveler if you're looking for a reason to uplift the form. Spring ground is what he wants but therein lies the problem for this year's renewal of the Champion, as it's likely we'll be looking at more testing conditions than you'd hope for. He'll handle it to a certain extent, no doubt about that, but I'd be inclined to think Melon will turn the form around and if there was a gun to my head, I'd prefer to be with the Mullins horse at the prices and given the possible going. Last year's Supreme Novices' second didn't cover himself in glory behind Faugheen in the Irish Champion but had a hood on for the first time and may not have faced up to it.
Yorkhill, were he to actually turn up in this, would be a fascinating proposition and there's nobody who can question the immense talent he possesses at his best. That has been on show at two festivals already, firstly when he got the better of Yanworth in the Neptune (2016) and then again in the JLT (2017) on his third start over fences. Sadly, things haven't panned out for the son of Presenting this season as he bombed out when upped to three-miles for the first time in the Leopardstown Christmas Chase and repeated that same trick back at two-miles on his sole start since. It hasn't been an ideal campaign for him thus far and you would wonder whether he has soured, but Mullins says he's 60-40 in favour of running him in this race and I can definitely see the reason why he's leaning for it instead of the Ryanair. He'd be an exciting ride if connections decide to revert to hurdles but there are too many questions over his current well-being to be confident in anything, for all that recent reports over his homework have been more positive.
Others worthy of a mention include Elgin, who could (and should) be supplemented following his Kingwell success at Wincanton a couple of weeks ago. The 6-year-old gave 4lbs and a 2.5-length beating to Ch'Tibello, who himself was around the same distance behind My Tent Or Yours in the International (off level weights), and that performance was indicative of a horse who is on an upward curve again. Quite whether he has enough in reserve to trouble the best of these is up for debate and the likelihood is that time will show he doesn't, but he will no doubt have each-way supporters at 20/1. The fact that he's a relative youngster leaves further improvement on the cards and I can see him running on late in the piece, albeit most likely into a respectable fifth or sixth. Some of the others will need to disappoint for a place to be achieved.
Wicklow Brave is the final horse I'm going to mention and that's with good reason; he's my main fancy to trouble Buveur D'Air. The reality is that he, too, is an outside bet to worry Henderson's charge and we haven't got to see the horse since he finished tenth in the Melbourne Cup in November, but there's immense ability that sometimes comes out on the track when his mind doesn't get in the way. He can be reluctant to jump off on occasion, as seen in this race twelve months ago, but coming down to two from home - and for a short while afterwards - he was a major place player (traded as low as 3/1 in-running from a BSP of 40/1!). The fact that he flattened out coming down to the final flight was understandable - the effort required to even get into contention from his original starting position was huge and he simply wasted an ocean of energy that you're not going to do without when taking on the fastest two-mile hurdlers in the land.
With that spin under his belt, also a first outing after a trip down under, Mullins gave him a shot at the Punchestown Champion Hurdle six weeks later and he was in receipt of what can only be described as a fantastic ride. Watching the video replay will sum things up much better than I can but having been slowly away as usual, and then keen in rear, Patrick Mullins let him stride on and by the time they reached the far side of the fifth hurdle, Wicklow Brave had jumped his way into the lead. In terms of efficient energy distribution, things appeared, visually at least, as if they weren't exactly going to plan. The horse, however, was full of himself and despite understandably tiring after a fine jump at the last, he got the better of My Tent Or Yours by a length-and-a-half to make it sixth time lucky in Grade 1 hurdles company. End of season form is often questionable but a replication of that run should see him hitting the frame at least next week.
To get the better of Buveur D'Air, barring any incidents, improvement is undoubtedly needed but only 5lbs separate them on official ratings and if he can consent to being ridden with more restraint than at Punchestown, things might get interesting late in the day. Presumably, the blinkers worn for the first time on that occasion will return (not worn since the Belmont Gold Cup in June) and with a proper gallop to sit off, he's a nice each-way bet at 14/1 if you're looking for one to take the hot favourite on with. The even more appealing bet might be in the without Buveur D'Air market where Wicklow Brave is priced at 6/1 and I really like the look of that. Of course, we have to take certain aspects on trust, mainly the horse's fitness after such a long break from the track and that he'll actually start the race in a normal fashion, but they're the only bets I can see in an otherwise unappealing heat (from a punting point of view). Hopefully all will go to plan.
Champion Hurdle Selection:
Wicklow Brave - EW @ 14/1 & 6/1 in the betting w/o Buveur D'Air market.
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