The International Hurdle (3.05pm, Cheltenham, Saturday) is traditionally one of the leading trials for the Champion Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival. This year’s renewal features a line-up of seven, three of which are major players for Champion Hurdle honours.
Rookie trainer Harry Fry’s Rock On Ruby (11/4) won last season’s Champion Hurdle by 3¾ lengths, when officially trained by Paul Nicholls. He is the highest rated horse in this race, according to the BHA. However, Rock On Ruby missed his intended reappearance in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle two weeks ago because of heavy going so, with heavy rain forecast for Cheltenham on Friday, he may struggle in the conditions. He also has an absence of 245 days to overcome, so makes little appeal as a betting proposition.
Zarkandar (5/4), trained by Paul Nicholls, is only 4lb better off for the 6¾ lengths Rock On Ruby beat him in the Champion, but has already had a run this season. He won the Grade 2 Elite Hurdle at Wincanton by a neck from better-fancied stable companion Prospect Wells, to whom he was conceding 17lb, five weeks ago. He’s rated just 2lb inferior to Rock On Ruby, according to the BHA, yet receives 4lb. He has never raced on going softer than good to soft, so he does have a slight question mark about his ability to handle very testing conditions.
Nicky Henderson’s five-year-old Grandouet (5/2) completes the trio of runners with realistic chances of winning. He’d be 6lb better off with Zarkandar and 4lb better off with Rock On Ruby in an handicap and has an absence of 371 days to overcome, but he’s the only one of the principals to have won on very soft going.
A line through subsequent Champion Hurdle runner-up Overturn, whom he beat when winning this race last year, suggests that he has about four lengths to find with Rock On Ruby. However, if he’s fit and ready to do himself justice, his proven ability to act on the ground increases his chance.
The fact that the bookmakers bet 66/1 bar the front three is an accurate reflection of the chances of the other runners. The highest rated of them over hurdles, Nigel-Twiston Davies’ eight-year-old Mad Moose (66/1) is rated 27lb inferior to Grandouet, never mind Zarkandar and Rock On Ruby and the rest are all another 7lb, and further, behind.
Patrick O’Brady’s four-year-old One Cool Shabra (66/1) run better than his finishing position suggests when 9th of 18 in the Racing Post Hurdle here in November, but was beaten again at Fairyhouse two weeks ago and faces an uphill struggle to even reach the frame. He has plenty of form on soft and heavy going but, even so, looks outclassed.
As for Minella Theatre (200/1), his usually shrewd trainer Lawney Hill appears to be having a brainstorm regarding his placing. He was ridiculously out of the handicap in the Becher Chase last week and should not be entered in this race either. His is a full 59lb inferior to Rock On Ruby. He may be looking for scraps of fairly decent prizemoney that goes down to sixth against just three high-class horses that have worries in the conditions, but it is still not clever.
In a race with question marks hanging over all the runners for one reason or another, our betting advice is to back ZARKANDAR to win at 5/4 with Bet365 or Blue Square. He holds a fitness advantage over his principal rivals and can provide another high-profile win for Paul Nicholls.