If the Champion Hurdle picture looked murky before the season started, the events of the past couple of months haven’t done much to help clear the waters.
Klassical Dream remains at the head of the betting for the first Championship race at the Festival, despite a somewhat underwhelming reappearance when third behind stablemate Saldier in the Morgiana.
That represented a clear step back from his top class novice form which saw him head into the season as market leader for this, but I’m still somewhat on the fence as to how badly below par the Supreme winner was at Punchestown.
The major worry would be the way Klassical Dream failed to pick up as well as Saldier or Petit Mouchoir when asked to quicken, having travelled arguably better than pair prior to the question being thrown his away.
There’s obvious reasons to think he’ll improve for that- he ran like a horse who was short of full fitness, and he wouldn’t be the first Mullins champion to be beaten by a lesser fancied stable companion in the Morgiana either.
Even considering that run as disappointing, he still only had 2 ½ lengths to make up on Saldier, so it’s easy enough to see why, when adding that to his imperious novice season, he still heads the betting, and though his profile may not appear as bombproof as it could’ve done with a different result at Punchestown, it looks likely that this year’s Champion Hurdler may have a few more chunks in the armour than normal.
His next performance is arguably the most important of his career regarding his prospects as a Champion Hurdle contender- he wins, and he’s undoubtedly the right favourite once again. Defeat, though, would see him head to Prestbury Park with something to prove.
Saldier himself was somewhat considered the joker in the pack prior the season starting- Willie Mullins was keen to stress in the summer that it would have been foolish to dismiss him as a potential champion and a number of shrewd judges seemed to be wanting to have this lad in their corner.
Of course, he was practically hiding in plain sight, given the trouble he looked to have late reigning champion Espoir D’Allen in at Naas before taking his season ending tumble last year.
His victory at Punchestown last month- his second over C&D, he also took the Champion 4yo Hurdle there in 2018- now looks as strong as anything else achieved by the horses heading this market in the past twelve months
We don’t know exactly where his ceiling is, or when we’ll next see him, but he’s already proven that he’s more than a match for Klassical Dream under the correct circumstances and merits his prominent place in the Championship picture.
I’ve already had a long range punt in this, having taken the 40-1 about Honeysuckle that was available back in October. She’s as short as 8-1 now, and would probably be even shorter if this race was confirmed target, given the class she oozed when maintaining her unbeaten record in the Hatton’s Grace last time out.
The obvious caveat, though, is that connections still appear to leaning towards the Mares’ Hurdle, and though 2m4f may appear to be her optimum trip, she doesn’t lack the pace required to operate at the top level over the minimum trip.
Personally, I’d also argue that Benie Des Dieux, whose performance at Auteuil at the end of the British season confirmed her as a proper Grade 1 quality animal, would act as tougher opposition than anything Honeysuckle would race in the Champion Hurdle, especially given that she would no longer benefit from the 7lb allowance she would be given by a potentially inferior opposition if she was to take the more prestigious option.
Racing’s big races need superstars, and I think this mare is one, so I sincerely hope De Bromhead and team are persuaded by the thought of Championship glory.
Two-time champ Buveur D’Air won’t run, his campaign curtailed by an injury sustained in Fighting Fifth, but stablemate Pentland Hills made his seasonal debut on Saturday in the International Hurdle. Unbeaten in juvenile company last year, Pentland Hills proved a revelation switched over obstacles after looking fairly moderate on the flat, though it was hard to gauge how of a good barometer that performance was of exactly where this horse is at such a stage in his career.
If Pentland Hills is a bonafide Champion Hurdle contender, he should have be winning on Saturday- though that’s not to say his juvenile form hasn’t worked out well, with Fakir D’Oudairies shining over fences and Triumph runner up Coeur Sublime, himself now considered a Champion Hurdle player by some, but that level of overall form is a notch below what is usually required to win a Champion Hurdle.
Nevertheless, despite racing freely and jumping well, he’d need a stone worth of improvement from this fifth on Saturday to win a usual open Grade One contest- finishing behind Ballyandy and Monsieur Lecoq shouldn’t be happening to a top class animal, but that being said, he’s not exactly had the chance to prove just how good he is yet, and though I’d err on the side of caution, he’s got a likeable attitude and could win races on route to Cheltenham this season.
He’s a highly unlikely Champion Hurdler in my eyes, though.
The reaction to fellow Nicky Henderson hopeful Fusil Raffles’ narrow victory in Wincaton’s Elite Hurdle was mixed- Champion Hurdle sponsors Unibet shortened him after that effort, but not everyone was convinced and other bookmakers chose to push the four-year-old out.
Henderson was adamant post-race that we’ll see an improved version of the horse the next time we see Fusil Raffles and I wouldn’t be too keen a crab this horse yet. Though the manner of victory may not have been visually impressive, he jumped well and got past a tough yardstick in Grand Sancy, so if we buy Henderson’s assurance that Fusil Raffles was only half fit, I’d say you could slightly mark up that effort.
He’s yet to face a rival we know is top class, though horses of that description currently look few and far between in. Clear improvement is needed, I’d consider his current price of 12-1 an overreaction to a perfectly fine performance.
Logic dictates that, given the amount of stones that can be thrown at those towards to head of the betting in this market, it could be worth trying fish for something at a bigger price- Getaway Trump is going back over hurdles on Boxing Day, but his start to the season over fences were both disappointing and he might not get ground as quick as he’d like at Cheltenham.
Nevertheless, if there’s anything to come out of the pack at a big price with the most potential to shorten, it’s probably him.
The Christmas Hurdle doesn’t tend to take much winning and easy to see Getaway Trump going well in that and halving from his current 33-1 price, though I’d still not be entirely convinced of how well suited he’d be by the two-mike championship.