The first day of Festival week offers a chance to see potential future champions and a new champion crowned in the highlight that is The Champion Hurdle, making it the favourite day of the Festival for many. The first championship race of the week needs little introduction with it reading as a roll-call of National Hunt superstars.
The Champion Hurdle is always my earliest recollection of the Festival, as my Dad would make the trip to Cheltenham on the opening day of every year, asking me to pick ‘a winner’ before leaving in the early morning. The first renewal I can remember is 1997 when Make A Stand won, maybe because I can vividly remember picking him.
My memories of the Champion Hurdle are limited to the last couple of decades so I’ll miss out some obvious big names here, but from past winners we have to start with the great Istabraq who won three times and was probably denied a fourth by foot and mouth. My own favourite of recent years has to be Hardy Eustace, it might be because I backed him at 33/1 when winning his first Champion Hurdle, but he was just so tough and gave it everything from the front. I feel he is slightly underrated for a double champion, although that could be linked to the fact his second victory is perhaps remembered more for Harchibald not winning.
There have been some other memorable winners like Hurricane Fly, Rooster Booster, everyone loves a grey, and Brave Inca who was ultra-consistent through the years, while we’ve also had some less memorable winners, like Punjabi, Sublimity and Katchit.
The last two editions have been bagged by the Willie Mullins and Rich Ricci combination, with Faugheen looking like he’d go on to dominate for years when winning and Annie Power, who became the first mare in an age to win and will unfortunately miss her chance to defend her title.
This year’s renewal looks unlikely to go down as a classic renewal, appearing to lack both depth and quality it looks the weakest Champion Hurdle in some time, which makes it difficult to get excited about.
One of the biggest problems when analysing the potential field is the prospect of having to play Willie Mullins bingo. I have great respect for him as a trainer but he really doesn’t offer any help to punters and we’re always left guessing as to what will actually turn up on the day and what their well-being is.
Mullins’ managed to bag the title last year with super sub Annie Power coming in for the injured Faugheen and confirming that she was the greatest mare we’d seen in generations. The style in which she won and then followed up at Aintree confirmed what many had thought, that had she been campaigned more positively she could have potentially won multiple Champion Hurdles. Unfortunately she misses the Festival this year and I’d be surprised if we ever saw her race again.
Last year Annie Power benefited from the misfortune of Faugheen who had been an impressive champion in 2015. He missed last year through injury and is yet to be seen on the track since, missing a succession of entries over the past months and apparently failing to sparkle at home. The fact he has been off the track for so long and looks unlikely to get a prep-run before the Festival can only be a negative to his chances, and although realistically he may not need to be anywhere near his best to win such a weak renewal, it would take a brave man to back him at the current prices available.
Willie Mullins does have some other potential runners, with last year’s third Nichols Canyon most likely to run. Usually he’d fall well short of the required quality to win but he does have Festival form and he might not need to be top quality to win. Footpad finished a good second in the Irish Champion Hurdle but I’d be amazed if he is good enough to win even a weak renewal, whilst Vroum Vroum Mag, Yorkhill and Min are also featured in some price lists but unlikely to run.
Currently heading the non-Mullins contenders is Petit Mouchoir; midfield in the Supreme last year he was rumoured to be heading chasing this year but after falling when looking the likely winner in the Fighting Fifth and following up in two Irish grade one’s he has become a real contender for The Champion Hurdle. He is still relatively inexperienced with room for further improvement and does have some of the best form on offer this year, if not the best, but I can’t help but feel he is just short of the top class needed to win a Champion Hurdle.
Pushing Petit Mouchoir for second favouritism is Yanworth, a beaten favourite in the 2016 Neptune he was being aimed at a staying campaign and won first time out like a potential stayer, however, those plans were put on hold with the emergence of Unowhatimeanharry in the JP McManus colours. After his target for the year had been switched, he won the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton relatively comfortably and quickly rose in the betting for the Champion Hurdle. He undoubtedly still has untapped potential but a worry would be that he missed his intended engagement this week due to injury.
Perhaps another sign that Yanworth will fall short of Champion Hurdle material is the fact that despite having the second favourite, connections decided to abandon a so far unbeaten novice chase campaign and reroute Buveur D’Air to the Champion Hurdle. Third in the Supreme last year when maybe ridden a little too patiently to win, he followed up and won well at Aintree before embarking on his novice chase campaign. Personally, I’m not a fan of horses reverting to hurdles midway through a season as it’s generally not a good sign that connections have changed direction, but he was among the best novices of last season and some feel he looks a more natural hurdler. The fact that connections are also willing to blow his novice chase campaign can also be taken as a good sign.
Also from the Nicky Henderson stable is Brain Power, who has shown great improvement to bag two handicap hurdles in good style. There could still be further improvement left in him, but there would need to be to win a Champion Hurdle and I couldn’t be picking a horse with his profile for this. My Tent or Yours has three times been the bridesmaid at Cheltenham and is unfortunate not to have bagged at least one Festival prize. His form this year has been very disappointing and it seems age is catching up with him, however, if he could recapture anywhere near his best the 50/1 on offer wouldn’t be the worst each way bet ever placed – although, now that his handicap mark has dropped will connections be tempted to try him in something like the County?
One former winner who holds an entry is Jezki; successful in 2014 it’s hard to believe he is still only a nine year old. Despite being off the track for a couple of years he returned from injury to win decisively on his reappearance and was clipped into a lowest price of 6/1. Whilst he is undoubtedly one of the classiest horses entered, question marks have to remain around how much age and injury have dulled the speed required to win over two miles, which is why I expect him to run in the Stayers Hurdle where his mix of speed and stamina can be put to full use.
A winner of The County Hurdle last year, a path taken by previous winner Rooster Booster, Superb Story could be each way value at the 20/1 available, even if needing to improve again, but I can’t help but feel the best he could possibly hope for is a place. Available at similar prices is The New One; a three time contender for this race the best he has managed is third place behind Jezki, and whilst this year is a weaker renewal than usual, I fail to see how he could possibly win a Champion Hurdle at this stage of his career.
At this point, we’d be clutching at straws to pull out any other potential contenders; Apple’s Jade looked like a superstar mare after Aintree and Punchestown last year but has not progressed as hoped and looks to be heading to the Mares Hurdle, Moon Racer has an entry but is surely heading for the Supreme and Sceau Royal won’t be good enough.
The 2017 Champion Hurdle looks like it will be one of the most forgettable renewals for some time unless Faugheen can return and put in an unbelievable performance or something absolutely shocking happens. If Faugheen can make it here at anywhere near full fitness he surely wins, but with the current prices there is absolutely no value in backing him before the festival – unless he does have a prep-run, in which case back him before that.
There are question marks over everything else in the line-up, most of which would usually fall short of the class required to win. Any kind of value has disappeared for Yanworth and Petit Mouchoir so I’d have to ignore them and would side with Buveur D’Air. It must be significant that he has returned to hurdles when JP has a real contender in Yanworth and Buveur D’Air held a strong chance in the novice chases, so I’m taking the sign and backing him.
The best bet might be looking for each way value as the lack of depth and quality could lead to a big priced horse running well. Those that potentially look overpriced are Nichols Canyon and, if he can recapture any kind of form, My Tent or Yours.
Faugheen to win – Back before prep-run or on the day if arriving at Cheltenham without a run.
Buveur D’Air to win – back now @ 7/1 (Boylesports)
Nichols Canyon each way – @ 33/1 (Betfair)
My Tent or Yours each way – @ 50/1 (Multiple Bookmakers)