CHAMPION HURDLE PREVIEW. RACE OF THE DECADES IN STORE.
What is it with some [ me included], that when there is a champion walking amongst us that sometimes we fail to grasp the reality of it even though it is staring us smack on in the face ? In my defence I did tip Hurricane Fly to win last year’s race at our Cheltenham preview but I had been slow to acknowledge his true greatness. Look, we do have to call him ‘great’.It is a word used far too often in all sports but not with The Fly. How else would you describe him ?
Let’s just have a quick look at his history. It all began in France. The horse ran ten times on the flat in that country, 4 times at two without winning, and then six runs at three. He won on his seasonal reappearance at three years over seven furlongs before going on to win his Listed race over a mile. It is interesting to note that Willie waited until he finished last on both his final two starts before buying him. That is interesting in itself and a little known fact. The horse was beaten a long way in those Group races [ a combined total of 20 lengths ] Tha last of those runs was over ten furlongs which was the furthest he had ever gone. He certainly didn’t look as if he was going to be anything special and surely nobody could have predicted what was going to happen.
Hurricane Fly has gone on to win an incredible twenty one of his twenty four starts over hurdles since then and setting a breathtaking world record of nineteen Grade One’s into the bargain. It really does bear thinking about for a second or two. Central to all of his great victories of course has been his trainer. It is one thing to have a top class horse in your barn but to keep him sound in limb and mind and then have his blood right for all those battling victories is simply an astonishing achievement. I read bloods for some trainers and I can tell you it takes some doing to get a horse to his optimum levels for even one race. I feel this fact is sometimes overlooked. Mullins is a genius and his staff have obviously bought into everything he has asked them to do and as a result Willie is now in a totally dominant position in his profession. It has not happened by accident. He deserves all the accolades.
In Britain, Paul Nicholls deserves similar praise for his handling of Kauto Star and Big Bucks during their careers.
Having said all that I am now going to go against Hurricane Fly in my preview !!! Here it is.
HURRICANE FLY 3/1 : Bidding to become a triple winner of the Champion he faces his greatest ever test, make no mistake. To play the devils advocate a bit I am going to suggest reasons why he will come up short this time. I don’t like doing it but somebody has to. It can be argued that recently this championship division has lacked some of the household names of the past, no big names like Monksfield/Sea Pigeon/Night Nurse who were all top class horses battling against each other,instead we have had lesser names in the noughties winning like Katchit, Punjabi, Binocular, Hors La Loi and Rock On Ruby. This year there are new kids on the block, dangerous, talented new kids at that ,Annie Power, Un De Sceaux, The New One, Our Conor, My Tent Or Yours etc. In his two wins in the Champion, Hurricane Fly beat the likes of Peddler’s Cross, Rock On Ruby and Countrywide Flame into second and third and had to work very hard to do so. Sandwiched in between those wins was a loss behind Rock On Ruby and Overturn in the 2012 renewal. Ruby Walsh incorrectly blamed himself for that defeat. I didn’t see where he was at fault. I have a theory and it is that Hurricane Fly doesn’t travel well overseas – he also lost in France earlier in his career. The Hurricane would murder those horses here on home soil, I have no doubt about that, none. Last year he was off the bridle very early and didn’t look that happy but he showed some heart to pull himself back into contention and win. If a similar scenario unfolds this time it could prove to be a very different story. Willie has never been sweeter on his pride and joy though than this year and has nominated him as one of his bankers and I hope he does it but I just can’t see it, especially if all the others turn up. Handles all types of going.
THE NEW ONE : Has won nine out of ten when fresh [ Mordin’s Law- first 2 runs of season and a break of 42 days plus thereafter]. His sole loss was when he was sixth behind Champagne Fever here in the Bumper [he was outpaced]. There is nothing wrong with his other starts either but I feel he is best when rested. He will be fresh here coming off a 75 day rest. The big question marks hanging over this fellow is, will he have the speed to lie up and then quicken again up the hill ? Opinion is divided. Even if the answer is yes [ and I am in that camp] will he still be good enough in what I rate the best Champion hurdle for nearly 35 years ? I think this horse has strengthened a lot since last year and as a consequence he has got quicker. He fairly blasted away from Rock On Ruby on his reappearance and bar a bad mistake at the last he would have beaten My Tent Or Yours back at the London venue in the Christmas Hurdle even when not fresh. He had thrashed Zarkander in between at Cheltenham. His win in the Neptune here last year was striking and the ability to win over the longer trip is certainly no bar to success in the Champion itself. Big chance. Acts on all surfaces.
OUR CONOR 9/2 : Was one of my winning naps last year and has a serious chance of improving the terrible statistics of 5 year olds in this race. Yes, the likes of Katchit pulled it off in the modern era but it is an almost impossible feat and what a year Our Conor is attempting to try and beat his elders. If it was any other year I would be advising him . However, he still has a major chance. Trained by another genius, Dessie Hughes, the five year old has strengthened and grown since last year to such an extent that he looks and is beginning to run like a chaser. I wouldn’t let this fact put me off as Hughes has trained him with only this day in mind. This might explain the absence of that brilliance and electrifying change of gear and exuberance that was so evident last season and which encouraged Barry Connell to break the bank to buy him. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a change of tactics from the camp either which would see him revert to the ones which saw him blast the Triumph hurdle field apart. Everything is in order for a massive run. Seems to prefer good ground and very soft would temper confidence.
MY TENT OR YOURS 5/1 : He has won seven of his eleven starts and finished second in the other four. Not bad for an animal that is perceived to be enigmatic and is by a sire that few like ,Desert Prince. This horse has serious ability but is wayward and there will be absolutely no hiding place in this so he will need to give it his full attention to be involved. I think his best ever run was his close second to Champagne Fever at this track last year where he pulled ferociously hard and it was some performance to get so close as he did. He had previously won the Betfair handicap and as pointed out in my earlier blogs the stats for horses trying to jump from a handicap back into a championship novice event are extremely poor. It is possible that the same Betfair win had taken the edge off him as it was just 31 days beforehand. Another point in his favour is that he routed the field in the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle this season which a has a stiff finish just like here. It looks as if he is best suited to a strong gallop on a stiff track on decent terrain so he comes right into this as well. I note now that he is due to run in a jumpers bumper at Kempton on Sunday. Definitely suited by good ground so soft or heavy will be detrimental to his chance.
ANNIE POWER 7/1 : There is a lot of hoo haa surrounding this fabulous mare. Will she run , will she not? In my opinion she must. I am sure Ruby wants to go for the Stayers but he would be missing the point. Sure he is correct for himself to want that, he will feel she is a big danger to the Hurricane in the Champion and that she would win the Stayers. However I feel that there is a sense of history bearing down on top of Willie and the weight of it over the next few weeks will be just too much, he will need a new hat !!! I am talking about Dawn Run of course. That brilliant ,once in a lifetime mare that clinched the Champion Hurdle/Gold Cup double. She was trained by his legendary father Paddy with Maureen at his side and all of the children played their part in her preparation, Tony, Willie ,Tom, George and Sandra. It was a huge family effort. Now Willie has the chance to do it all over again with Annie Power. He must surely give it a try to try and repeat the great feat. The mare’s credentials are impeccable , she won her bumper debut for Jim Bolger at the Galway Festival before the affable Rich Ricci stepped in and said she is mine. She remains undefeated in nine more since, including four Grade Two’s and a Grade One. She has never been fully extended along the way on all types of tracks and on ground from good to soft or worse. Nick Mordin has given her huge numbers as I have and it will take a mighty effort from some of the others to lower her colours. The seven pounds sex allowance makes her even more appealing. Rich Ricci wants to run her in it and so do most other people, deep down I think Ruby wants to ride her in it and basically Willie now faces one of the biggest decisions he has or will likely ever have to make in his lifetime. Annie Power acts on all surfaces.
UN DE SCEAUX 12/1 : Just when you think you are starting to whittle the field down to three or four up pops several more dangers headed up by this crazy front runner but wow is he talented. He has never raced in Graded company but that is hardly his fault. Take a look at his winning distances, 20L, 7L, 6L, 13L, 29L and 53L. His first two wins were in French bumpers over a mile and a half. It is a scary fact that nearly every horse who has tried to properly mix it with him in his races has suffered as a consequence and gone downhill. How good might he be ? It is very hard to tell but thanks to that man again[Nick Mordin], we do have a clue. He has given Un De Sceaux huge speed figures and sectionals. Again, I agree with him. We concur on another fact also, that this is a horse who puts so much effort into his races he needs a lot of rest between them. He conforms to what Nick identified and christened ” the rest pattern” That is, he is one of many horses that can take their first two runs of the season but need a break of 42 days plus thereafter to reach their peak again. Un De Sceaux is all action on the track and I am guessing the same way way in the preliminaries and at home, burning up energy all the time. Lots of other form experts, commentators and well known publications now use Mordin’s thinking and apply it and of course it is correct. In this case then I hope the Gowran Red Mills race is abandoned on Saturday to give him the required break into the Champion itself. Un De Sceaux needs serious consideration as his giant speed figures suggest. A danger to all in his customary front running tearaway style. Revels on soft or heavy but no reason to suspect he will not handle better.
JEZKI 12/1 : Another contender that seems to have been forgotten but it might be dangerous to dismiss him out of hand. McCoy gave him two stinkers of rides in his last two showdowns with the Hurricane and Our Conor. The great man should not be immune from a little criticism either when he gets it so badly wrong. Danny Mullins kept him in the first day and he was restrained of a dawdling early gallop the last time pulling too hard and having no chance when they quickened up. This horse stays further and will do much better on nicer ground that might be available come the big day. The more one thinks about it how much shadow boxing was done by connections of the beaten horses on those two occasions ? I know they were Grade One’s but did the others rather submit to Hurricane Fly too easily with this day in mind ? All will be revealed on the big day. If the ground did ride good for some strange reason in this monsoon season he should not be overlooked as a no hoper.
MELODIC RENDEVOUZ 20/1 : Surely not another contender ? Again, dismiss him at your peril. I have been writing this horse up since his first bumper win at Chepstow and I can tell you that if the ground were to ride genuinely soft/heavy then get your each bet organised if he goes there fresh. He has won six of nine career starts, finishing second twice with only one blip when wrong for this year’s Fighting Fifth. His record on heavy ground is serious with only one defeat when second to Champagne Fever at the Punchestown Festival when he didn’t travel overseas that well. Lucky for him connections/weather have caused him to miss recent engagements and he should also avoid the Kingwell on Saturday to have the best possible chance in the big one as like others he is best fresh in my opinion. Should not be dismissed out of hand here if the going is suitable. Acts on most but very effective on heavy.
PTIT ZIG 50/1 : Average in his native France before Paul Nicholls bought him and he has improved in leaps and bounds this season. Won the big Grade One for four year olds at Auteuil on his reappearance very impressively before an absolute corker of an effort in finishing second in the Ladbroke handicap off top weight trying to give the season’s most progressive handicapper Willow’s Saviour a huge 21 pounds. He was feelings the effects of that when a well beaten second to Melodic Rendevouz in the Haydock Trial just 28 days later. A huge strike against him is the terrible record of five year olds in the Champion itself and this is going to be one the great races so I am passing him over but he could outrun his price as he is progressive.
GRUMETI 50/1 : Outclassed.
THOUSAND STARS : Was very smart in his day boasting very good course form which includes a runaway win in the County Hurdle and close enough fourths to Hurricane Fly in a Champion and Big Bucks in a Stayers but looking outclassed here now as he advances in years but funnily enough is only the same age as the Hurricane himself, which is ten.
Summary : The most competitive, classy renewal of this race in my opinion for decades. A host of high class horses on a mighty collision course and guaranteed to have us on the edge of our seats if they all turn up. The tactics seem pretty straightforward to me now after going through them all. Here is how I see it all unfolding. Un De Sceaux will take them along at a fierce clip. Our Conor will revert to last year’s game plan from the Triumph and race prominently ,probably in second with Annie Power and Jezki just behind. The rest will be ridden patiently and tried to be delivered late. I can’t see any potential hard luck stories as they will all get the race run to suit if Un De Sceaux runs. For this preview I am going to assume the ground will be on the soft side. In that case my prediction for the first four home are , 1. ANNIE POWER, 2.THE NEW ONE, 3,UN DE SCEAUX, 4. OUR CONOR. I suggest a two points win on ANNIE POWER at the 7/1 with a run with Paddy Power.