Ante-Post Angle: Championship Hurdles

Having identified some possible value in the Gold Cup and Ryanair Chase last week, now the spotlight falls onto Cheltenham’s championship hurdle races. With the entries due to be released later this week, it’s the right time to take a market check to identify any juicy prices before they disappear with increased attention. All three divisions will take some serious unravelling, with knotted form-lines and a tangled series of comments on market principals’ targets, so settle down for a long read…

Stayers Hurdle

The Stayers Hurdle is possibly the most complex puzzle to solve, as almost every contender has at least one key question mark against them, and as such they don’t make attractive betting propositions at this stage. Let’s take a closer look at the reasons why:

Penhill 7/1 (5/1 NRNB)In a division without a superstar, or even a notable in-form horse, last season’s winner is deservedly the market favourite. He’s still only eight years old, and Willie Mullins says he’s “ahead of where he was [this time] last year” in his preparations. But those preparations have to be taken entirely on trust, because the first time we will see Penhill this season will be in the Stayers Hurdle itself, as per the method used last season. Mullins is undoubtedly a genius, but with his string running below-par in general at the moment, this year that lack of racecourse fitness is enough of a concern to make me want to wait until nearer March for a wager.

Apples Jade 10/1 (9/2 NRNB) – The super-talented mare is the joker in the pack, hence the large difference in NRNB prices. Despite the fact she’d probably go off favourite for this race, everyone connected with Gigginstown repeats the same mantra with her again and again, that she’s headed to the race where she has “the biggest chance of winning”, the Mares Hurdle. As such her chances will be discussed in that section.

Supasundae 10/1 (6/1 NRNB) – Now nine years old, which is a big negative: only 6/45 winners of this race have been nine or older, and five of those were returning winners. He’s a classy horse, but he’s had his chances to win this, and three miles at Cheltenham isn’t his best discipline anyway.

Faugheen 12/1 (8/1 NRNB) – At his peak, he would be the best horse in this race by a significant margin, but he’s now 11 and suffered a nasty fall last time out. If he can reproduce the form he showed at Punchestown in April, when the fires burned brightly once again, he will demolish this ordinary field. That’s a big ‘if’, hence the quotes of 8/1, but every true racing fan wishes the legend well.

At this point in the market, things start to get a little bit more interesting, as we reach some younger horses who could still be improving. Emma Lavelle’s Paisley Park (12/1, 10/1 NRNB) is unbeaten this season, and according to the official handicapper has progressed 16 pounds in the course of registering those three wins. But in my view both of his graded wins are questionable. At Haydock he couldn’t keep up with the pace, and then stayed on from another postcode to get up at the line by half a length; he won’t get that chance in a better field. Then at Ascot he was all-out to beat 40/1 shot West Approach by two lengths in the Long Walk. Sue Smith’s six-year-old Midnight Shadow is certainly progressive, and got the better of perennial bridesmaid Wholestone at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day, but he’s never gone further than 2.5 miles. Given that only 8 of the last 42 to win or place in this race hadn’t won over three miles, he can be looked over.

The value in a weak renewal could lie with horses switched back to hurdling after disappointing as novice chasers. Black Op (16/1, 12/1 NRNB) didn’t take to the bigger obstacles at all, but did show off his big engine on both his chase starts; however, he is another that’s never actually proved his stamina, having generally raced at around 2.5 miles. For that reason, he’s not yet a betting proposition.

We can be certain that Colin Tizzard’s KILBRICKEN STORM does not have an issue with stamina, with three wins at three miles on his CV, the best of those his success in the 2018 Albert Bartlett over the Stayers’ Hurdle course and distance. That race has been largely written off because it was run on heavy* ground, but the form is actually working out well: second-placed Ok Corral is now clear favourite for the National Hunt Chase in March, while third placed Santini is very near the top of the market for the RSA Chase. Kilbricken Storm then followed up by finishing only half a length behind the winner Next Destination in the Punchestown Grade One in April, proving his Cheltenham win wasn’t a fluke. Sent chasing this season, he looked very uncomfortable on both his starts, but he had good technique over hurdles, so that shouldn’t be a concern. A more legitimate worry is his lack of speed, given that 15 of the last 17 winners had won a Graded hurdle race over 2m5f or shorter, showing you can’t just be a dour stayer to win the Stayers Hurdle. However in my view Kilbricken Storm’s unbeaten Cheltenham new course record (2/2) is enough of a positive to outweigh this, and with 25/1 available NRNB, a small chance can be taken on Tizzard’s horse to out-run his odds.

Another to note is Aux Ptits Soins, back to somewhere near his best at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day when comfortably winning a three mile handicap hurdle off 141, after missing nearly two years with injury. His ‘best’ includes a win in the Coral Cup and a very respectable fifth in the 2016 World Hurdle (as it was called then), so like any Cheltenham specialist he should be given the utmost respect in March. Given the difference in best prices at the moment, Kilbricken Storm is preferred as a speculative NRNB selection, but if Dan Skelton’s classy charge turns up fit and well on the day, he will be of major interest.

*officially “soft” ground, despite it being clearly bottomless to any onlookers, presumably in a misguided attempt to protect the reputation of the Clerk?

Mares Hurdle

It would be tempting to view this race as a straightforward betting proposition – the short-priced favourite has won seven out of eleven renewals – but that is a misleading statistic given that the mighty mare Quevega was responsible for six of those wins. In fact, since Quevega’s retirement, the favourite has been beaten in three of the four years, including the infamous fall of Annie Power at 1/2 on.

2019’s odds-on favourite is likely to be Apples Jade…if she runs here. Given the level of her form this season, winning three Graded races against the boys by a scarcely believable aggregate of 57 lengths, it beggars belief that she won’t be allowed to take her chance in a weak-looking Stayers Hurdle instead. But at the moment it does seem she will head here to take on her own sex, a decision perhaps taken due to her past inconsistent performances in Spring, usually attributed to being in season. Last year she won the same three races at Navan, Fairyhouse and Leopardstown before disappointing at the festival; at a best price of Evens it would be wiser to wait for the level of her opposition to be confirmed before taking a chance.

That opposition could prove to be anywhere between formidable and facile. 2018 winner Benie des Dieux, Champion Hurdle fancy Laurina, and 2017 favourite Limini could all race here…or not. Benie des Dieux is by far the most likely runner for Wille Mullins, and having vanquished Apples Jade last year, would need to be respected. Indeed, NRNB quotes of 11/4 are relatively tempting, given there’s no chance she would go off a longer price (unless Laurina did end up here). But her price is also unlikely to shorten too much prior to her being seen on a racecourse, so tying up money in January makes little sense.

Given the lack of clarity around mares’ March targets, the no-runner no-bet concession is vital, and the only standout price offered by Skybet is on Pearl Of The West. This likeable five year old has all-important course and distance form having won at Cheltenham in October. After that visually impressive staying-on win, her trainer John McConnell said that he “would take a look at the Mares’ [Hurdle] and see next March”. She is an intriguing proposition, because she’s likely to be progressive and is still unexposed, but counting against her is her lack of runs at a trip longer than two miles. After all, 30 out of 33 horses placed in the 11 renewals have won at 2.5 miles or longer: you have to stay up the hill.

As such, it looks better to play a waiting game in this trappy market.

Champion Hurdle

Until Boxing Day, there was nothing to discuss: Buveur d’Air was inevitably going to be crowned Champion Hurdler for a third successive year, given that he looked better than ever and there was apparently no competition. But that all changed with his shock defeat to the mare Verdana Blue at Kempton, a result that has breathed some much-needed life into the Champion Hurdle market.

Buveur d’Air lost at Kempton because he made a major hurdling error – perhaps the first of his career – and lost momentum and ground at the vital stage. Nothing in the way the race was run indicated that the mistake was due to being pressurised by another horse, and basically he was mugged by a speedier horse on the line given a superb ride by Nico de Boinville. Having managed to win the Champion Hurdle last year despite having never “being at his best” according to his trainer, Buveur remains a rock-solid favourite, and my reading of that Kempton result is that it’s simply put some juice in his price, moving him out to 6/4 NRNB from odds-on. He went off 4/6 on in 2018, but that was against a weaker field, so a best guess of his price on the day is close to Evens. As such, there’s no need to tie money up for two months.

The likelihood of a stronger field this year is due to the presence of two mares near the head of the market: the aforementioned Verdana Blue, and the wildcard Laurina. Willie Mullins – a pretty good judge of equine talent – seems infatuated with her, ranking her as highly as any mare he’s trained. Ruby Walsh also rates her, having all but confirmed he will choose her in the Champion Hurdle ahead of last season’s close second Melon or recent Grade One winner Sharjah. But as mere punters, we are going on trust: there isn’t any substantial form in the book. Yes, she won the 2018 Mares Novices Hurdle on the bridle, keeping pace with talented Maria’s Benefit and then leaving the rest of the field for dead, and followed up with a win in the Fairyhouse Grade One equivalent – but that’s not high-class form in the book. She will need to find nearly a stone of improvement on the day to win, and as such NRNB quotes of 7/2 are the worst value you’ll find for any race in March.

Verdana Blue rates a much more enticing bet at 10/1 NRNB, because she does have some form in the book, and not just the Kempton win. Her early-season defeat of the reliable Old Guard is rock-solid; her 4th in the Greatwood Handicap over Champion Hurdle course and distance was a decent effort considering she was crowded out, and she stayed on well up the hill. The concern is over ground. Her trainer has insisted throughout that she needs “genuinely good” ground, and there is no chance of that on Tuesday 12th March: it will either be good-to-soft, or softer. Her connections previously agreed with Nicky Henderson, saying at one point they’d swerve the Champion Hurdle entirely, but seem to have come to their senses: after all, her win over Buveur d’Air was on officialy good-to-soft ground, and she recorded her best two RPRs of last season on a similar surface. It’s likely that on a track which puts more of an emphasis on stamina than Kempton that she’ll come unstuck, but at 10/1 the only thing stopping a bet is the small possibility of soft ground on the day. Otherwise she seems to have been curiously underrated and could be good value on the day.

The other leading contenders simply aren’t convincing, especially given they’re up against a proven high-class champion. Melon couldn’t beat a below-par Buveur d’Air last year, and though Willie Mullins insists he’ll “only have to improve a head” to win, that’s wishful thinking. Sharjah does look to have progressed significantly this season, with handy wins in two Group Ones and the massively valuable Galway Handicap off 146. But he could only finish a poor 8th in the Supreme Novices last season and was beaten by a below-par Samcro in November. It doesn’t add up to Champion Hurdle form.

At slightly bigger prices are the other two to consider. Brain Power was sent chasing by Nicky Henderson and basically wasted last season as a result; thankfully his owner Michael Buckley finally insisted his horse was sent back over hurdles in December, and he won a Grade Two at Cheltenham on his return to the smaller obstacles. That form isn’t bad: on a line through the second-placed Silver Streak he’s not far off the required standard, but held by Verdana Blue. More troubling is that he was only 8th in the 2017 Champion Hurdle and has never run well on Cheltenham’s old course. Espoir d’Allen exploded onto the Champion Hurdle scene with an easy eight length beating of Stormy Ireland in a Limerick Grade Three. He has handy juvenile form last season, but that isn’t adding up to much in open company; none of last season’s juveniles have really made a name for themselves this term.

With questions to answer for all his competitors, Buveur d’Air remains the best value at this stage at 6/4 NRNB – if you think his price will shorten significantly between now and March and can tie up the money. But waiting seems the wiser choice. After all, a lot can happen in two months, and at short prices, there can’t be any doubts.

Advised Bets (15/1/19)

Kilbricken Storm – Stayers Hurdle – 0.5pt e/w 25/1 NRNB (Paddy Power)

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