The Champion Hurdle 2013 is a fascinating contest. Although just nine run, three past winners bid to claim their second victory (3.20pm, Cheltenham, Tuesday).
The 2011 Champion Hurdle winner, Willie Mullins’ Hurricane Fly (15/8) has been the long term favourite and cannot be ignored. Expert opinion is divided on whether he represents value.
On the positive side, he is rated two pounds higher than anything else in the race. Ruby Walsh has chosen to partner him rather than the second favourite, Zarkander (7/2). Hurricane Fly has an impressive list of 14 Grade One wins to his name. His third place in 2012 was his only defeat in 12 runs since 2009. He won easily at his last outing in the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown in January.
Looking at the negatives, his regular rivals in Ireland are probably not in the same class as some he is going to encounter in this race. Now nine years old, he is certainly not getting any faster. The race time of his 2011 victory was also slower than the Supreme Novices Hurdle over the same course and distance earlier in the day. Was it another relatively easy race?
Many punters will remember that he started as the 4/6 favourite last year but could only manage third. Nobody ever dares criticise Ruby Walsh (or AP McCoy) but, if lesser jocks had been on board the two horses leading the Champion Hurdle betting, the racing press might have mentioned that they both gave away more than a few lengths at the start.
Whilst McCoy and Walsh let Donald McCain’s Overturn bound away in the 2012 Champion Hurdle, Noel Fehily started much more promptly on the winner, Rock On Ruby (9/2), and stayed close to the pace. He beat Overturn by nearly four lengths. Fehily partners him again this year.
Now eight-years-old, Rock On Ruby moved to Harry Fry from his former boss, Paul Nicholls in November last year. He is the second highest rated contender in the race and comes into it on the back of a win, albeit a facile one, in the 32Red Hurdle at Doncaster in February. He was left in the lead when his closest pursuer, Nicky Henderson’s Darlan, fell with fatal consequences.
Fry knows the time of day and has said that Rock On Ruby is in the best shape that he has been in all season. He needs to be. On his seasonal debut at Cheltenham in December he was beaten into third place in the International Hurdle by Zarkandar and Grandouet. The heavy ground would not have helped his cause. He will run in blinkers for the first time.
The third past winner is Nicky Henderson’s Binocular (8/1), the partner of AP McCoy. The 2010 victor started as the second favourite last year but finished fourth. In his last run, in the Irish Champion Hurdle, he came third, just over five lengths behind Hurricane Fly. The ground was described as soft to heavy (and that’s the Irish assessment) which was undoubtedly too testing for him.
Now nine-years-old with a history of physical problems and a breathing operation behind him, he seems to be up against it this year.
Paul Nicholls’ only runner, Zarkandar has shortened into 7/2. He is proven over course and distance having landed the JCB Triumph Hurdle in 2011. He finished fifth in last year’s Champion Hurdle but has risen eight pounds in the handicapper’s estimation since.
In his most recent outing on 16 February in the Grade Two Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton, he demolished two of his fellow Champion Hurdle contenders on heavy going. Nicky Henderson’s Khyber Kim (50/1) was four and a half lengths behind him (whilst giving him eight pounds) and Alan King’s Balder Succes (66/1) was more than eight lengths behind off level weights. There is no obvious reason why he should not prove superior to both of them again.
In December 2012, Zarkandar won the International Hurdle at Cheltenham on heavy ground, beating Nicky Henderson’s Grandouet by two lengths and Rock On Ruby by eight. They were both giving him four pounds. Now six-years-old, the statistics suggest that he is the ideal age for this race. He looks a progressive type and one for the shortlist.
Grandouet (15/2), another six-year-old, has to merit serious consideration too. He will meet Zarkander on level weights and should have come on for that run, his only this season. Form suggests that Grandouet is possibly a better prospect on a less testing surface. Henderson has resisted the temptation to run him on bottomless going this year but we know that he is as capable as anyone of getting a horse fit away from the racecourse. He has to be another for the shortlist.
The third six-year-old to line up is Donald McCain’s Cinders and Ashes (10/1). He rewarded his followers at this meeting last year by winning the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at 10/1, beating Darlan by over a length. He has not shown the same form yet this season. McCain claims he cannot be fairly judged until he gets better than heavy ground.
He was beaten 12 lengths by John Quinn’s Countrywide Flame on 1 December in the Grade One Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle. He could only finish fifth of seven in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton on Boxing Day. At the end of February, McCain thought he would have a ‘massive each-way chance’ in this race.
Countrywide Flame (14/1) is the only five-year-old to line up. He was another beneficiary of Darlan’s demise in the 32Red Hurdle at Doncaster in February. He finished three lengths behind Rock On Ruby. He was the surprise 33/1 winner of the Triumph Hurdle at this meeting last year. His jockey Denis O’Regan is not the only one to think that he could be an each-way prospect on slow ground.
Simon Claisse, Cheltenham’s clerk of the course (and once a very moderate point-to-point pilot), has confidently predicted soft going on the day. That has to diminish the chances of Rock On Ruby and will not help Binocular. Zarkander and Hurricane Fly look the most likely beneficiaries.
If Hurricane Fly managed to prevail, he would be the first winner since Comedy of Errors in 1975 to reclaim a lost Champion Hurdle crown. He would also be only the third nine-year-old since 1982 to succeed. Those statistics and question marks over the quality of his previous runs make him seem very poor value at 15/8.
Six-year-olds have the best record in this race (12 have come in since 1982). Zarkander and Grandouet are not only the right age but have form giving them strong claims.
At 15/2 GRANDOUET looks the best bet for the 2013 Champion Hurdle and is my each-way betting tip. Rated just one pound lower than Zarkander, he is double the price and may well have come on from their latest contest.