What's the best bet for the Champion Hurdle?
15:30 Stan James Champion Hurdle Challenge Trophy, 2m1/2f
Last year’s 1-2-3: Faugheen (4/5f), Arctic Fire, Hurricane Fly – 8 ran.
Bookmakers dodged a massive bullet in terms of multiple liabilities with the news that last year’s winner Faugheen (as short as 1/3) would not be able to defend his crown due to injury, and that has effectively blown the race wide open. His stablemate Annie Power was quickly promoted to favouritism and it’s easy to see why as this doesn’t look a particularly strong renewal and, having been off the track since crumpling at the last in last year’s Mares’ Hurdle (surely would have won), she showed her current well-being when beating two rivals at Punchestown last month. She will have to be supplemented, though, and won’t be carrying the same weight of expectation as Faugheen – she’s a stone lower than him on the ratings and has something to prove dropping back in trip. Nonetheless, she’ll be cynosure of all eyes on the day with many punters undoubtedly combining her in thousands of multiples with other Mullins-trained horses expected to win at the festival. Top price: 2/1 Paddy Power NRNB.
Who else is fancied?
The fact Annie Power is favourite at around 2/1 tells you the rest are no world-beaters and if you ran the race ten times you might get ten different winners. With last year’s runner-up Arctic Fire also sidelined through injury, it’s another Mullins inmate, Nichols Canyon, who is disputing second favouritism with Henry de Bromhead’s Fighting Fifth winner Identity Thief at around the 11/2 mark. The pair clashed at Leopardstown in December (heavy) and Nichols Canyon proved two lengths too good on that occasion, taking his tally of Grade 1s to six in the process. Third in last season’s Neptune, he’ll be hard to kick out of the frame but that Leopardstown form could be turned on its head by the runner-up on better ground and with Bryan Cooper likely to ride a more patient race. At the age of six and with just seven starts over hurdles under his belt, there is surely better to come from him.
And the rest?
Nicky Henderson has won the race five times and he could five runners, headed by the 2014 runner-up My Tent Or Yours. The nine-year-old hasn’t raced for nearly two years and dodged his prep due to heavy ground, but he is reportedly working well at home and has never finished outside the first two in four Grade 1s. His stablemate Top Notch won his penalty kick prep at Kelso in good style and won’t be disgraced, but the remaining members of the stable quintet – Peace And Co, Hargam and Sign Of A Victory – are harder to fancy.
The New One runs his best races at Cheltenham and was arguably an unlucky third in the 2014 renewal having been badly hampered by the fatal fall of Our Conor. No match for Faugheen in the Christmas Hurdle, he has looked laboured in winning his other two starts this term and needs a career-best effort. That hasn’t stopped the each-way thieves snapping up double figure odds and he’s a skinny-looking 6/1 now. Relkeel Hurdle winner (2m4f heavy) Camping Ground would come into the equation if the heavens opened.
Trainer quote: “I don’t think the trip will be any problem. There are at least six horses here that if they were in another yard could be in the Champion Hurdle, and she’d be as fast as any of those. I think it could be easier to ride her over two miles, with the sort of pace they will be going. It’s lovely when you have mares’ races to aim for with nice prize money, but her ratings suggest she’s well able to take the geldings on.” – Willie Mullins on Annie Power.
Best bookie offer?
Paddy Power are refunding losing stakes on horses that finish second in all the Cheltenham Festival races as a free bet up to £25. All firms are going NRNB and a couple – bet365 and Sky Bet – are also Best Odds Guaranteed.
Who to back at this stage?
I’m excited over the prospect of Annie Power taking on male horses and must admit to snapping up a little of the 3/1 (NRNB) when she was first made favourite. However, after several sleeps I’m less keen on her chances as she’s yet to face a task like this in terms of pace and quality of opposition – she’s not slow by any means but connections were considering the World Hurdle (3m) back in February and, indeed, she chased home More Of That in the 2014 renewal of that race. She might even drift on the day but, if you’re not already on, the advice is don’t be tempted and back IDENTITY THIEF instead. I’m convinced he will reverse form with Nichols Canyon on better ground and unlike the favourite he looks a genuine two-miler who jumps great into the bargain. He may well prove good enough with no standout performer, though I wouldn’t rule out a big run from My Tent Or Yours – the market on the day could prove the best guide to his chances.
SELECTION: Identity Thief @ 11/2 Paddy Power NRNB & Money Back if 2nd