Cheltenham-The Champion Hurdle.

Why Hurricane Fly has to be a lay in the Champion Hurdle.


Recommendations:

Grandouet 7/1 EW (Boylesports NRNB)

Lay Hurricane Fly to win.

With Darlan and Rock on Ruby running at Doncaster today, I thought it would be a good time to look at the Champion hurdle picture.

The age factor in the Champion hurdle:

The Imperial Cup at Sandown is raced a week before the Cheltenham festival and back in 2007 the run up to the race was dominated by the argument about whether Gaspara could overcome one of the longest running age stats in racing and become the first 4 yo winner of the race in over 60 years.

Gaspara won easily by six lengths and I asked myself if it was just a blip or whether, as I had suspected for a while horses were maturing younger.

The French influence has been far more prevalent over the past couple of decades in National Hunt racing with the vogue led by Martin Pipe, towards French bred horses, who seemed to mature earlier and were bred for speed rather than stamina.

The Champion hurdle may well have been affected by this growing French influence more than any other major race. Irish bred runners dominated during the Nineties and the early Noughties; between 1998 and 2006 Irish bred runners won all but two of the renewals, but that has all changed in recent years, we have seen two French Bred Champions and they have also claimed a third of the total places available.

This despite the fact that six of the French bred runners aged 8 or older failed to make the frame, whereas the runners aged 7 or younger won 2 renewals with a further 4 making the frame from a total of only 15 runners.

Most importantly, from a punting point of view it’s interesting to see that the younger French bred horses still manage to slip under the radar. Thousand Stars was 4th at 33/1 in 2011; Binocular won at 9/1 in 2010 and Zaynar was 3rd (15/2) and of course Sublimity won the 2007 renewal at 16/1.


Fancied runners aged 8 or older in the first 4 in the market since 2002:




Date
Horse
Odds
Position
13.03.2012
Hurricane Fly (IRE)
4/6
3rd/10
13.03.2012
Binocular (FR)
4/1
4th/10
16.03.2010
Khyber Kim
7/1
2nd/12
11.03.2008
Sublimity (FR)
7/1
4th/15
11.03.2008
Harchibald (FR)
13/2
10th/15
13.03.2007
Hardy Eustace (IRE)
3/1
4th/10
13.03.2007
Brave Inca (IRE)
11/2
2nd/10
14.03.2006
Brave Inca (IRE)
7/4
1st/18
14.03.2006
Hardy Eustace (IRE)
11/2
3rd/18
15.03.2005
Back In Front (IRE)
7/2
9th/14
15.03.2005
Hardy Eustace (IRE)
7/2
1st/14
16.03.2004
Rooster Booster
11/8
2nd/14
11.03.2003
Rooster Booster
9/2
1st/17
11.03.2003
Like-A-Butterfly (IRE)
13/2
10th/17
12.03.2002
Istabraq (IRE)
2/1
PU/15

Since 2007 twelve 8 yos have run in the Champion Hurdle and all 12 have been beaten with only 3 of them making the frame. It wasn’t as if they weren’t fancied either, as mentioned already Hurricane Fly added his name to this illustrious list last year after starting at odds on following on from Binocular the year before.

Ah, but Hurricane Fly is a class above the others, I hear you say, yet he failed last year as an 8yo when many believed he only had to turn up to win. Time waits for no man, (or horse) just ask Harchibald, Brave Inca, Hardy Eustace and even the great Istabraq.

Rooster Booster did it in 2003 as a 9yo, but that was arguably the weakest Champion Hurdle in a long time, in a race where there were only 3 horses rated 160 plus. To put that into context, all but one of the 10 runners last year were rated 160 plus; there were 8 in the 2011 race and 9 when Binocular won in 2009.

Rooster Booster’s only three serious rivals in that 2003 renewal were Intersky Falcon, Rhinestone Cowboy and Like a Butterfly, hardly names that will go down in the annals of racing history.

The French influence.

Horses would appear to mature at a younger age now; the Triumph (The 4yo championship race) used to have a reputation for bottoming horses and ruining them during their 5 yo season and was given as one of the main reasons for the 5yo’s poor 1 from 50 record in the Champion Hurdle the following season. However, I always dismiss a stat until I’ve seen the SP’s of the runners involved; if all 50 of the youngsters went off at 100/1 then even with just the one winner they would have punched above their weight. Since 1997 only nine of the 5 yos have gone off in single figures and on the whole the runners that went off in single figures have performed well, especially in recent years.

How the 5 yos performed in the Champion Hurdle.

The 2007 renewal saw the one disappointing well supported 5yo; Detroit City, who won the Triumph then became the first 4yo for 27 year to complete the Cheltenham/Aintree double. (He also took the Cesarawich on the flat for good measure). He won the Greatwood by 14 lengths on his seasonal reappearance as a 5yo and after he took the scalp of Hardy Eustace he went into the Champion hurdle as a worthy favourite on the back on 8 hurdles runs undefeated. He was never going on the day and finished 6th (28/1 shot, the 5yo Afsoun was just touched off for 2nd place and had been beaten 14 lengths by Detroit City in the Triumph).

Katchit became the first Triumph Hurdle winner to win the Champion Hurdle since Persian War in 1968 (73 five-year-olds had been beaten in the race since the 5 yo See You Then triumphed back in 1985) and it’s often said that it was a very soft Champions race that Katchit won but there were 6 runners rated 160 plus in that 2008 renewal including defending Champion Sublimity, Afsoun, Sizing Europe, Harchibald and Ebizyan, who had won last year’s Supreme Novice. Not a vintage renewal, but certainly not a poor one.

For the 2009 Champion Hurdle Binocular, who had side stepped the Triumph (finished 2nd in the Supreme) went off as favourite after beating beat Triumph winner Celestial Halo at Aintree by 7l.

Nicky Henderson made the cardinal sin of not getting a recent run into him before the Champion hurdle race; the First six home were aged 5 or 6 that year a half a length separated the first 3 home; the 2nd, 3rd and 4th were all 5 yos.

The following year Triumph winner Zaynar finished 3rd after winning the Triumph. The message would appear to be that 4 and 5 yo runners are more robust than they used to be 10 to 15 years ago and more capable of recovering in time from a punishing race like the Triumph to do themselves justice in the Champion Hurdle.

This year’s renewal.

There are 4 French bred younger horses that fit the bill in this year’s renewal.

Grandouet OR 166.

Zaidpour OR 158.

Trifolium OR 147.

Balder Success OR 145.

Bearing in mind that this is a race for Champions, you would have needed to be rated 156 to make the frame in recent years and unless Trifolium or Balder Success can show drastic improvement in the next seven weeks they look unlikely to be good enough this year.

Zaidpour would be interesting if the race was run on Heavy ground, but when you consider that since 1997 the ground has only been Soft once and the drainage system at Cheltenham is possibly the best in the country, that seems unlikely.

Which leaves us with Grandouet who was runner up in only his 2nd career race in the Triumph trial and then finished 3rd to Zarkander in the Triumph.

He then went on to win the Irish Juvenile and returned to Prestbury Park just before Xmas to take the Grade 2 Stan James hurdle.

Injury forced him to miss the rest of last season and he returned to defend his Stan James crown last month and made a most satisfactory return going down 2 lengths to old rival Zarkander and beating last year’s Champion Hurdle winner Rock on Ruby on heavy ground. When you consider that Zarkander had the benefit of a recent run and was getting 4lb off Grandouet it is easy to envisage him reversing the placings come May on better ground.

The Nicky Henderson factor.

Since 2007 Nicky Henderson has had 11 runners in the Champion Hurdle; 2 have won and 5 have placed.

With what we know it should come as no surprise to find that the three 7 and 8 yo runners all failed to place.

The eight 5 and 6 yo runners won 2 renewals and only one of the 8 runners failed to make the frame.

All four 5yo runners placed without winning.

Two of the 6yo runners won.

The message is clear- in recent years Nicky Henderson doesn’t enter a young runner in the Champion Hurdle unless he believes they have a realistic chance of at least making the frame.

This year he has eight entries: Khyber Kim, Punjabi, Binocular, General Miller and Oscar Whiskey are all at least 8yo.

Darlan, Cash and Go and Grandouet are all 6yos; Darlan and Grandouet are both rated 166; Cash and Go at 145 would need to improve 10lb to even be considered as place material.

Can market leaders Hurricane Fly and Darlan be beaten?

I opposed Hurricane fly in this race last year as an 8 yo and apart from his age I thought he might struggle off a stronger pace than when taking this race the year before and once again he has looked imperious in small fields on bad ground this year, where the pace has been far from electric.

With Overturn and Rock on Ruby both likely to crank it up from some way out it would come as no surprise to see him struggle again in a truly run race.

When Hurricane Fly won this race in 2011, the time was 3:51.71, and it wasn’t one of the faster races in recent years. A year later on the same Going the winning time was 3:50.1, almost 2 seconds quicker and Hurricane Fly was beaten 5 lengths. The clock says he ran his race and his time was similar to his winning time a year earlier, the English trained front two were superior horses on the day, which casts doubt on the merit of his 2011 win.

In the championship races at the festival, the most prestigious British race so far that season has been a good marker.

In the last 10 years half of the Gold Cup winners also won the King George; the Long Walk has provided the World Hurdle winner 4 times and the winner of the Tingle Creek has won the Champion Chase twice in the last 10 years.

The exception in the Champion hurdle; no winner of the Christmas Hurdle has won the Champion Hurdle in the last decade and the other two main trials, The Bula and The Fighting Fifth have only produced one winner each. Half of the last 10 Champion Hurdle winners have been Irish and the best Irish 2m hurdlers don’t often contest the British trials, as the equivalent trials are often held in close proximity to their British counterparts.

Furthermore, unlike the other 3 championship races, the Champion Hurdle trials tend not to be run at a true pace and the recent prolonged bad ground has just made the crawl longer and the sprint shorter in the trial races. Patrick Veitch made the point that the reason recent form so often goes out of the window in the Championship races is that they are run at an increased pace for far longer than even in most Grade 1 races, sprinting off a slow pace is a different ballgame to quickening off an end-to-end gallop.

That’s the reason why previous festival form in the Grade 1 races is so important and last year’s renewal is often the best trial at a festival race as the horse has already proved that it can handle the increased pace under similar conditions.

So Darlan faces the curse of the Christmas hurdle winner and also doesn’t appear totally suited to Cheltenham, interestingly his best two runs have come at Kempton and Aintree; flat, pacey right handed tracks, the opposite to Cheltenham in other words. Darlan finished 2nd in the Supreme Novice last year, but is the only runner from the first six from that race to have come out and win ( they have all raced since, apart from Montbazon and apart from Darlan been beaten 9 times), the time of the race was slow and you have to wonder just how good a renewal it was.

Can the Hurricane equal his previous performance as a 9yo? Recent history tells us that the answer is no and that even if he can, it will not be good enough if this year’s renewal is one of the better ones. With the last 4 winners currently entered along with the best of the younger generation The Hurricane would need to achieve a feat that Istabraq, Hardy Eustace and Brave Inca found beyond them and that was during a period when the Irish hurdlers totally dominated their English counterparts.

It would appear that hurdlers reach their prime as either a 6 or 7 yo these days and in a vintage looking year I would be very surprised to see Hurricane Fly win.

Grandouet on the other hand has a lot going for him and it will be disappointing if he doesn’t make the frame at the very least.

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markfo profile image

markfo 3 years ago from Middlesex, England Author

Terrible, terrible news about Darlan, truly sickening to see.

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