With the opening day of the 2016 Cheltenham Festival comes one of the most anticipated races of the entire meeting – the Champion Hurdle.
The sport’s premier two-mile hurdle race has crowned some unforgettable champions over years. There have also been heartbreaking dethronings and equally-as-spectacular attempts to re-gain past glory.
Take Champion Hurdle legend Hurricane Fly, for example. The Willie Mullins-trained fan-favourite took his first ever CH win in 2011, the then seven-year-old justifying favouritism to beat Peddlers Cross by more than a length. His gallant attempt at defending his crown a year later – and the pain of seeing the odds-on shot struggle to power up the Cheltenham hill and losing his title to the talented Rock on Ruby – remains etched in punters’ memories for all the wrong reasons.
But Fly’s winning return in the 2013 Champion Hurdle patched the wounds of 12 months prior and it was hard not to find a dry eye in the house when Ruby Walsh and his big-hearted companion soaked up the applause in the winners’ enclosure at the Gloucestershire course. Revenge against Rock on Ruby signed, sealed and delivered.
Ruby and Fly could only finish fourth in 2014 – the race marred by the death of talented five-year-old Our Conor – but a final hurrah last year saw 8/1 shot Fly return a respectable third-place. The winner that day was Willie Mullins’ replacement for grand boy Fly – Faugheen – and many believed it would be the start of an era of dominance in the race for the smart French import. But injury has ruled ‘The Machine’ out of this year’s renewal and his crown will be heading to a new pretender.
So where should your money be heading this year? Marathonbet has taken a look at some important Champion Hurdle trends to help narrow down the potential winner.
25 of the last 26 International Hurdle winners have been beaten in the Champion Hurdle
A damning statistic that doesn’t bode well for OLD GUARD backers. Paul Nicholls’ charge was a 7/1 winner of the International Hurdle at Cheltenham in December after finally getting the measure of Sempre Medici and Hargham on the run-in – but stats show just one of the last 26 winners of race have gone on to win the Champion Hurdle.
Since 1985, 93 of the 94 five-year-olds that have run were beaten
Another reason for OLD GUARD backers to worry. Five-year-olds don’t fare well in the Champion Hurdle – the fast and frantic pace of the Grade One showstopper evidently proving too much too soon for young horses on their way up. Other five-year-olds supplemented for this year’s Champion Hurdle include the Nicky Henderson trio of TOP NOTCH, PEACE AND CO and HARGAM. Avoid at all costs? The Alan King-trained Katchit was the last five-year-old to win this race in 2008 at 10/1.
No unplaced horse from the previous year’s renewal has won for 22 years
This immediately rules out Nigel Twiston-Davies runner THE NEW ONE from contention. The eight-year-old starred in the hard-luck story of the festival in 2014 when Our Conor’s fatal fall severely hampered his progress six from home, but the rocket-hoofed champion-elect finished strongest of all to claim third place. Would he have won if for not being hampered? Probably. But the history books don’t document circumstances – just the winners. TNO could only manage a fifth-placed finish last year and will have to defy more than two decades’ worth of statistics to claim his first Champion Hurdle crown.
19 of the last 21 winners had a prep race that calendar year
It seems a run to blow the cobwebs away is vital to Champion Hurdle success. With that in mind, IDENTITY THIEF backers might be concerned their selection last ran in 2015 – albeit just shy of the New Year on December 29. HAGRAM, OLD GUARD, PURPLE BAY and SIGN OF A VICTORY are all also without a run in 2016 – not to mention MY TENT OR YOURS, who has been off the track since 2014. On the flipside, market favourite ANNIE POWER enjoyed a 1/20 success in the Mares Hurdle at Punchestown in February.
26 of the last 32 winners won last time out
By all means not a totally vindictive statistic but the majority of winners from the last 32 years all enjoyed racecourse success in the race before their Champion Hurdle challenge. Willie Mullins’ entry NICHOLS CANYON, who beat an out-of-shape Faugheen at Leopardstown last year, was subsequently beaten by Faugheen and Arctic Fire in the Irish Champion Hurdle in January. He hasn’t run since, so if this trend is anything to go by he’ll be hard pushed to claim victory on March 15.