2m½f Champion Hurdle (Grade 1) – Tuesday 10th March 2020
You don’t need me to tell you that this year’s renewal of the Champion Hurdle isn’t a vintage one – countless pundits and writers have been saying the same thing for months now. It’s funny how much a year changes a division in National Hunt Racing; it was only 12 months ago that we were licking our lips at the prospect of Laurina vs Apple’s Jade vs Buveur D’Air! As it turned out, the first two flopped and the latter named former Champion got injured on his sole start this season. In addition to the sad loss of last year’s brilliant winner Espoir D’Allen, the already fairly undistinguished 2019/20 two-mile Hurdle division has been blown apart – crying out for a new Champion to arise.
The problem with many contenders this season is that it’s so far been hard to tell if they possess the ‘star-quality’ so often required. Although noble, the likes of Ballyandy, Supasundae, Petit Mouchoir, Sharjah and Call Me Lord are unlikely to be able to improve significantly on what they have already shown. Last year of course we did see a five-year-old score in the Champion Hurdle, but this feat has only been achieved twice in the past 33 renewals. The likes of Pentland Hills, Coeur Sublime and Fusil Raffles would hardly inspire confidence of this stat being broken two years in succession – especially as Espoir D’Allen had much better form to his name coming into the race.
Having already discarded most 2020 Champion Hurdle candidates, you come to the less exposes Horses who could be set to line up. Cilaos Emery makes the fascinating switch from Fences to Hurdles having already achieved a rating of 165 over the larger obstacles in just four starts, which clearly provides this Willie Mullins Horse with a class angle. Although making a nine-and-a-half length wining return over Hurdles at Gowran Park last month, it was worrying to see him jump without any real fluency – a trait you would have to feel he will need to improve upon to even win a substandard renewal of the Champion Hurdle. Having said this, with the Champion Irish trainer in your corner clearly anything is possible, and the Gowran run should have helped him massively in the transition back to jumping Hurdles. The vibes from Closutton haven’t exactly been bouncing when discussing Cilaos Emery being supplemented for the race however, and it does seem like a ‘nothing to lose’ throw of the dice.
The other contender who hails from the unexposed angle is Epatante, who has done nothing wrong since flopping at the Cheltenham Festival twelve months ago. It must first be said that this Mare did have excuses that day having endured a troubled build-up due to flu-vaccinations, as well as sporting a first-time hood – equipment that connections have not used since. Returning to the track at Newbury in November, Epatante bolted up in a Listed Handicap Hurdle off 137, before really announcing herself in the two-mile Hurdle division when winning the Grade 1 Christmas Hurdle at Kempton in impressive style once more. Trainer Nicky Henderson has casted slight doubt over her chances by going public about this Mare coughing (Friday 27th February), but he has since stated that she has stopped – information which although wouldn’t inspire confidence, needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. With today’s news that Honeysuckle will be running in the Mares Hurdle rather than the Champion Hurdle, Epatante is by far the stand-out Horse left in the race, and she will take some beating having already smashed the likes of Silver Streak, Ballyandy, Verdana Blue and Fusil Raffles at Kempton on Boxing Day. Owner JP McManus has won four of the last six Champion Hurdles, and Nicky Henderson is the leading trainer in the race, with seven victories to his name. Although right now we are looking at the race with despair, Epatante clearly has the potential to emerge as a heavyweight in the division.
Epatante 3pts Win @ 7/2 (NRNB)
Good luck! – Jake Price