Cheltenham Festival Preview: Champion Hurdle

Throughout this week I am going to be previewing one of the big Grade 1 races at the Cheltenham Festival one week from the off time, starting off by looking at the feature Champion Hurdle on Tuesday.

The Champion Hurdle is always a fantastic spectacle, and this year we look set for another mouth-watering clash between some high-class Horses. Back in 2019 we faced a very similar scenario when the Irish Champion Hurdler Apple’s Jade took on the reigning Champion Buveur D’Air and the exciting young pretender Laurina, but that match up unfortunately never materialised with Buveur crashing out early and the two Mares disappointing – albeit the late Espoir D’Allen was an impressive winner in the end. This year the Irish Champion Hurdler Honeysuckle will bid to maintain her unbeaten record, but she faces no easy task with reigning Champion Hurdler Epatante and last season’s nearly Triumph Hurdle winner Goshen providing stern opposition. There are a host of outside chances who wouldn’t be without a squeak too, so I’ll do my best to touch on the majority of them.

I’ll start off by looking at Goshen, who to me brings the most question marks to this race. If you can determine where you are at with this five-year-old then it makes looking at the rest of the race far easier, because he’s such a marmite Horse in that you will either love him or be completely against him. Last season coming into the Triumph I was against Goshen as he was winning races by running away from his opposition on right-handed tracks, whilst showing an innate tendency to jump (often majorly) out to the right. He clearly was showcasing some level of talent to win by so far in these victories, but with question marks over the opposition it made for an easy decision for me to take him on. Now clearly as the events transpired, I got it wrong. Goshen jumped almost perfectly on the day and had put 10 lengths between himself and the remainder before infamously blundering at the final flight and unseating Jamie Moore. You don’t need me to tell you that he was in the process of running a massive race.

Fast forward 9 months however, and it looked as if he was almost gone at the game. Two poor efforts on the Flat when sent off as a short-priced favourite were followed by excuse after excuse as intended targets passed him by; missing out the Elite Hurdle due to the quicker ground and an ‘imperfect scope’, missing the Coral Hurdle due to an ‘unsatisfactory scope’, and then missing the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle for seemingly the same reason. When he finally did return in the International Hurdle at Cheltenham in December however, he put in an absolute shocker – dropping very quickly out of contention entering the home straight and finishing a tailed off last (beaten 29 lengths). You have to give great credit to the Gary Moore team for getting him back however, as his latest effort at Wincanton in the Kingwell Hurdle catapulted him back into the Champion Hurdle picture – as he bolted up by 22 lengths back to a much below-par Song For Someone (158). Whilst Goshen is clearly entitled to take his chance and have a big say in the Champion Hurdle, is beating a below-par Song For Someone really the standard of form needed to win what is such a high-class race? Will he be able to cope with the Good-to-soft or better ground? Will he be able to give away 7lbs to the Mares? There are more questions than answers for me, and at the prices I’m more than happy to take him on once again.

Honeysuckle undoubtedly brings the ‘sexy’ Irish profile to the race, and she will be bidding to maintain her perfect 11 race unbeaten record. Last season this Mare won the Irish Champion Hurdle by only half-a-length, and as such connections decided to go down the Mares Hurdle route. There was clearly a little bit of fortune that day at Cheltenham as she got a perfect run up the inside rail due to Robbie Power’s lapse of concentration on Stormy Ireland – but she still managed to hold off the well fancied Benie Des Dieux, silencing favourite backers and recording a first Festival success. She then returned to action this season when scrambling home in the Hatton’s Grace Hurdle at Fairyhouse, but following on from a 69 day break she did something quite extraordinary. Returning to the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown, Rachael Blackmore kicked on with her trusty Mare from the back of the fourth last flight – completely blowing the field apart and galloping on to maintain a 10-length victory over Abacadabras at the finish. The performance was nothing short of breathtaking, but when you get to these Grade 1 Championship races then you have to be much more picky than you would with say a Handicapper; and I think it’s pretty safe to assume that Honeysuckle won’t be able to repeat that trick at Cheltenham next week.

My main concern regarding Honeysuckle’s Champion Hurdle credentials however are the ground. After quite a lengthy period of dry weather, the current going at Cheltenham is Good-to-Soft (Good in Places), and although there is rain due at the end of the week, I’d imagine this will just help to maintain that description, rather than get into the ground and make it testing. This quicker ground does pose genuine question marks for Honeysuckle however; as her three highest Racing Post Ratings (RPRs) have all been recorded on Soft ground or worse. Performances on ground with ‘Good’ in the going description fill her 4 lowest RPRs on record, including her Grade 1 Novice Hurdle win at Fairyhouse in April 2019. You can even make comparisons between her Irish Champion Hurdle performances, as last year the ground was Yielding (the Irish equivalent of Good-to-Soft) when she beat Darver Star by a diminishing half-a-length, whereas this year she bolted up on Soft-to-Heavy ground. Considering she is a Mare who mixes it between running over 2m and 2m4f, I do worry that she may be vulnerable to a quicker Horse over a fast paced two-miles on better ground; and her Jumping will really be put to the test at Cheltenham.

Clearly there is every chance that Honeysuckle overcomes those slight doubts and proves just how good she is, but with all the hype I do think the reigning Champion Hurdler has become the value play. In a division which looked less than satisfactory 12 months ago, National Hunt racing really needed a Horse to come out and win the 2020 Champion Hurdle with authority – and Epatante managed that feat under no uncertain terms. Cruising into the race under Barry Geraghty, this Mare showcased impressive speed to go on and score by a very comfortable 3 lengths. Her official rating for winning that race so impressively was 162 (1lb higher than what Honeysuckle is rated now), and she rubber stamped that mark with another visually impressive performance in the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle in November – where Aiden Coleman bided his time on the bridle before scooting away under a hands and heels ride, and Epatante was able to put 4.25 lengths between herself and Sceau Royal (157) on Good ground very quickly.

She seemingly had everything in her favour then when running the Grade 1 Christmas Hurdle at Kempton on Boxing Day, bidding to follow up in the race she burst onto the scene in 12 months prior. There were immediate worries going down to post that she didn’t seem herself that day however, as she was throwing her head about and really not looking comfortable at the start. It quite quickly became apparent that things weren’t right in the race too as she didn’t even arch her back at the first flight (I’ll touch on this more in a moment), but when she flattened the third-last there was no doubt that something  was wrong as she is usually inch perfect over her obstacles. You don’t need me to tell you that she ran much below par when only managing second place behind Silver Streak (163). As Nicky Henderson has been preaching lately you can just put a line through that run however, as during Seven Barrow’s thorough diagnostics they found a back issue – which Nicky said has always troubled her slightly, and that they’ve always had to ‘keep on top of it’. If you have a look at the video below then you can see that Epatante does put in these weird jumps every now and again where she doesn’t bend her back at all – and there was even one during her Fighting Fifth victory where she ended up being so impressive…

The reports coming out of the yard now are that Epatante is back to her best having had her back ‘tweaked’ (operated on), and if that is the case then she would have to have a fantastic chance in the Champion Hurdle, with the likely Good-to-Soft ground suiting her more than it would Honeysuckle. Considering the back issue may have even been troubling her during the Fighting Fifth then I think there is plenty of reason to suggest that Epatante has much more to give this season, and if she puts in a round of jumping as quick as we know she can, then these marginal gains at each Hurdle could pay dividends in what is sure to be a closely run affair. In my eyes all the geldings set to line up will struggle to give away the 7lbs allowance to two exceptional Mares, but I will be siding with Epatante to bounce back for Nicky Henderson and JP McManus, who have won 3 of the past 4 renewals together.

Just to touch on the remainder, Abracadabras is yet to convince me that he really wants to win when locked into a battle, and there certainly shouldn’t be a scenario where he just finds himself in front like he did in the Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown in November – and even then he tried his best to throw it away! The Gigginstown runner was put well in his place behind Honeysuckle last time, and although I do think he will finish much closer to the Mare at Cheltenham, I find him hard to fancy for anything other than a place. Aspire Tower is a little more interesting as he beat Abacadabras by 4.5 lengths in the WKD Hurdle at Down Royal in October, before then only finding Sharjah too good in the Matheson Hurdle at Leopardstown over Christmas (A race Sharjah just seems to absolutely thrive in). Aspire Tower will need to improve again to be going close at Cheltenham, but he’s been put away since that run over Christmas to be specifically targeted at the Champion Hurdle. Willie Mullins usually has a few runners up his sleeve, but this year his shortest priced runner is Sharjah once again – and although he ran well enough in second place 12 months ago, he was put well in his place by Epatante and I can’t see where he would find any additional improvement as an 8yo now. The admirable Silver Streak and likable Song For Someone are given worthy mentions, but I think they are realistically classic Grade 2 Horses (and yes I know Silver Streak has won a Grade 1 now). Perhaps the most intriguing runner of all however is James Du Berlais, who is set to make his debut for the Mullins stable having joined from Robert Collet over the winter. This Simon Munir and Isaac Souede 5yo is a twice Listed and twice Grade 3 winner in his native France, and he was only beaten a short-head in the Grade 1 Prix Renaud du Vivier over 2m3½f at Auteuil on his latest start. That race has previously been won by the likes of De Bon Coeur, Master Dino and L’Autonomie so it clearly sets him out as a very good Horse, but my reservations for this race is the fact that Willie Mullins likes to give his French recruits plenty of time before running – but I definitely think he will be one of those Horses that we take out of the race with next season in mind.

In what looks set to be a fantastic renewal of the Champion Hurdle, Honeysuckle will clearly take a lot of beating considering she’s done little wrong and is coming here off the back of a career best effort. With the quicker ground causing slight question marks in such high-class company however, I’m going to stick with the quicker and reigning Champion Hurdler Epatante to bounce straight back to form for the Nicky Henderson team, who obviously know exactly how to prepare a Horse for the big occasion. Considering in some books she is even behind Goshen in the betting, this JP McManus Mare looks a great bet to my eye.

Good luck! – Jake Price

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