You would think finding the best Champion Hurdle tips (3.20pm, Cheltenham, Tuesday) would be easy for our big-race preview this year.
After all, this 2013 renewal has the smallest field for a third of a century. But despite just nine runners, it is no less of a puzzle for punters with the last three winners, Rock On Ruby, Hurricane Fly and Binocular, all in opposition.
The reigning champion is trainer Harry Fry’s eight-year-old Rock On Ruby (9/2 in the Champion Hurdle Odds). This horse was officially trained by Paul Nicholls when winning the race under jockey Noel Fehily 12 months ago. However the 3¾-length victor was actually prepared by Fry at Nicholls’ satellite yard, Seaborough Manor, in Dorset.
Harry Fry has sole charge of the Oscar gelding this time around and believes he “will take an awful lot of beating” if the ground is no worse than good to soft at Cheltenham. Clerk of the course Simon Claisse expects the going to be soft when the Festival gets underway on Tuesday and the fact that Harry Fry has decided to fit Rock On Ruby with blinkers hardly inspires confidence, whatever Mr. Fry says to the contrary.
Hurricane Fly (2/1) won the Champion Hurdle in 2011 for master trainer Willie Mullins before finishing third, beaten 5½ lengths, behind Rock On Ruby when odds-on favourite last year. He’s unbeaten in five Grade 1 races since and, unlike Rock On Ruby, is suited by soft going. He looked as good as ever when beating stable companion Thousand Stars and Binocular by 5 lengths and a neck in the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown in January and, despite being easy to back recently, he looks to have decent prospects of regaining his crown.
Nicky Henderson’s Grandouet (8/1), due to be ridden by stable jockey Barry Geraghty, is marginally shorter than his stable companion Binocular but, although he made a pleasing return to action when second, beaten a couple of lengths, behind Zarkandar in the International Hurdle at Cheltenham in December, he hasn’t been seen in competitive action since. Henderson said at the time that he would like to give him another run before the Champion Hurdle, but he suffered a minor setback in February. Grandouet could go well, but there are enough doubts about him at present to suggest he’s worth taking on.
Henderson’s second entry is the nine-year-old Binocular (9/1), who is the mount of Tony McCoy. He won the Champion Hurdle in 2010, but was only fourth, beaten 6¼ lengths, behind Rock On Ruby last year. He was never competitive when third, beaten 5¼ lengths, behind Hurricane Fly in the Irish Champion Hurdle on his only start since, but the trainer reckons he retains the ability to be a genuine contender once again this year. It’s worth noting that My Tent Or Yours, also trained by Henderson and owned by JP McManus, runs in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle rather than here. That fact alone is a positive clue to Binocular’s chance.
Zarkandar (7/2) is three from three over hurdles this season for his handler Paul Nicholls. He beat Grandouet by 2 lengths in the International Hurdle at Cheltenham in December, with Rock On Ruby six lengths back in third, so is clearly one to take seriously. However, he hasn’t won in Grade 1 company for nearly two years and on last year’s Champion Hurdle form he has work to do to beat Rock On Ruby, Hurricane Fly and Binocular.
The remaining runners, Cinders And Ashes (11/1), Countrywide Flame (16/1), Nicky Henderson’s third representaive Khyber Kim (50/1) and Alan King’s Balder Success (100/1), are all smart hurdlers, but look outclassed at this level.
Champion Hurdle Tips Conclusion
The negativity surrounding Hurricane Fly is off-putting and there are doubts about Zarkandar, Rock On Ruby and Grandouet for one reason or another, so this preview’s betting tip is to back BINOCULAR each-way at 9/1. He has apparently come on an “awful lot” for his run in the Irish Champion Hurdle and should be spot on for this.