Arctic Fire is an improving sort who could hit the Champion Hurdle frame
Stan James Champion Hurdle, 2m110y Old Course (due off 3.20pm)
Faugheen didn’t look an obvious candidate for Champion Hurdle honours after impressively landing last year’s Neptune Novices over further (2m5f), but he showed he doesn’t lack for speed when hacking up over 2m at Punchestown and in the Christmas Hurdle when last seen out. That took his record to a perfect 7-7 over hurdles and he’s attempting to follow in the footsteps of Istabraq, Hardy Eustace and Rock On Ruby, who took the Neptune before dropping back in trip to land the first-day feature.
A worthy favourite then. However, this is his biggest test to date and, having not been asked a serious question so far, potential backers are taking it on trust that he will stick his head out and battle in a finish. He may not need to if he’s as good as connections seem to think (and they should know), but the likes of Jezki and The New One, last year’s winner and third, will ensure he doesn’t things all his own way. The other slight concern is his jumping as he’s inclined to take a liberty with the odd hurdle and he can’t afford too many mistakes at this level. Top price: 5/4 Sky Bet.
Who else is fancied?
Jezki has been beaten on all three starts since coming good under Barry Geraghty in this race 12 months ago, and he’s seen the backside of Hurricane Fly on each occasion. The score between the pair stands at 5-2 in Hurricane Fly’s favour but bookmakers and most punters are expecting Jezki to come out on top this time, for the reason he saves his best for this meeting. Better ground would also be in the favour as his old rival is undoubtedly best with plenty of cut in the ground, but will either of them be able to cope The New One?
Depending on how you see it, he was the unlucky horse in last year’s race, having been badly hampered by the fatal fall of Our Conor at a crucial stage, before flying up the hill to be beaten less than three lengths. His subsequent Aintree Hurdle success went some way to making up for that disappointment and he’s 4-4 this season, although he made hard work of beating Bertimont at Haydock last time. Like Jezki, his backers are banking on him coming alive at the Festival, where he has a commendable 613 record.
Any decent outsiders?
Just eight runners are likely to go to post and three of them – Kitten Rock, Vaniteux and Bertimont – are hard to fancy. Arctic Fire, on the other hand, could surprise as he’s clearly still on the up, judging by this season’s efforts, which include a three and a half length second to Hurricane Fly in the Grade 1 Irish Champion Hurdle at the end of January, with Jezki four lengths adrift in third. The latter will improve on that but a strongly-run race on faster ground at Cheltenham should also bring out more improvement from Arctic Fire, who gained valuable Cheltenham experience when second in last season’s County Hurdle.
Trainer quote: “He’s always shown me a lot at home and as a three-year-old I thought he could be the best of the lot. Since then he’s only won three races, but has some top form and is improving all the time. He will go for the Champion Hurdle and will run a big price.” – Willie Mullins on Arctic Fire.
Best bookie offer
A couple of firms – 888sport and Winner – have eye-catching sign-up offers revolving Faugheen, with both offering an enhanced 4/1 on the favourite, albeit to a maximum of £10. Those punters looking to take him on should consider Boylesports’ concession of money-back as a free bet (up to £25) if your horse is second to the SP favourite – almost certainly Faugheen.
If you’re on Faugheen at fancy odds then ‘good luck’ to you, but he’s no value now at just 5/4. A victory for either The New One or Jezki wouldn’t surprise in the slightest but Mullins’ enthusiasm for ARCTIC FIRE is infectious and he’s worth a small each-way play in the ‘w/o Faugheen’ market.
Arctic Fire each-way ‘w/o Faugheen’ @ 10/1 bet365 (1/4 odds, 1.2)