Full race preview and Champion Hurdle free betting tips for the feature race on day 1 of the Cheltenham Festival 2014 at 3.20pm.
The Stan James Champion Hurdle represents the ultimate hurdling test. Run over an extended 2m on Cheltenham’s New Course, the race attracts the best horses in training and regularly provides an incredible spectacle. Won in the past by the likes of Hardy Eustace and Katchit, last year’s victor – Hurricane Fly returns to defend his crown from what looks to be one of the most competitive Champion Hurdle fields ever assembled. Here are my thoughts and tip for the race.
Nigel and Sam Twiston-Davies are represented by last year’s Neptune Novices’ Hurdle winner – The New One (11/4 Stan James). Despite having won over 2m5f at last year’s Festival, connections were always confident that the horse would have the necessary speed to compete over 2m. This season he has so far duly obliged, winning twice over the minimum trip, beating the likes of Rock On Ruby and Zarkander comfortably. He failed to get the better of My Tent Or Yours at Kempton on Boxing day but made a hash of the last and did well to rally and only lose by half a length in the final few strides. In a race which didn’t suit, he had to make the running and was unable to fully utilise his biggest asset – his instant turn of foot. The demands and race characteristics of the Champion Hurdle look sure to suit and with his stamina guaranteed he could be powering up the hill as his competitors begin to struggle. One negative that is worth mentioning is his tendency to be sloppy over the odd hurdle. The mistake in the Christmas Hurdle put pay to his chances and there has to be a concern that he may well miss the odd one or two, mistakes which could be costly.
The reigning champion – HURRICANE FLY (3/1 bet365), will attempt to defend his crown after reclaiming it 12 months ago. The 19-times Grade 1 winner has had an unbeaten season to date, winning each of the three Grade 1 contests he has entered in Ireland. Touted by his trainer to have come back from the summer months – healthier and stronger than ever before, he produced a workmanlike effort to win the Morgiana Hurdle on his first start. He then improved as he beat both Our Conor and Jezki in the Ryanair Hurdle. Again he looked to have improved as he went on to win the Irish Champion Hurdle on his last start, again beating both Our Conor and Jezki. Oddly, many people continue to question the horses’ chances of success at the ripe old age of 10 despite his achievements to date. Taken literally, he has managed to comprehensively beat his two greatest Irish challengers twice so far this year. On his last start, Our Conor may well have got within a length and a half but Hurricane Fly was powering away as they got up to the line. This horse has stamina in abundance and providing the ground doesn’t dry up too severely then he should be sent off the favourite for victory. Both Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh are adamant that the horse is yet to show his best at Cheltenham, and when you also consider that he is already a dual Champion Hurdle winner then he looks to have a fantastic chance.
Despite loosing to the hoofs of Hurricane Fly twice already this year, last season’s emphatic Triumph Hurdle winner – Our Conor (9/2 BetVictor), must enter contention as one of the biggest dangers. As the youngest horse in the field, we are yet to truly see what this horse has to offer. Undoubtedly a horse with plenty of improvement left in him, he has been trained for this race and only this race all season. His trainer Dessie Hughes won this race in successive years with Hardy Eustace and is a master and getting horses to peak at the right time. If he improves on what he showed in the Irish Champion Hurdle he is likely to prove a very difficult horse to beat, especially on a track which seems to bring the best out in him. However, a word of caution – he was relatively un-troubled in the Triumph Hurdle as he sauntered past his rivals with clearly far too much class. In the cut and thrust of a strongly run Champion Hurdle he may well find the whole contest a tad daunting. At only 5 years of age it would not be foolish to think that the race may well have come a year too soon and that he might lack the necessary experience in order to mix it with the very best.
The English challenge is also made up of My Tent Or Yours (4/1 Coral), who finished second to Champagne Fever in last year’s Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. Unbeaten so far this season, he picked up the Fighting Fifth Hurdle with relative ease and then went on to claim victory over The New One at Kempton. Clearly a talented horse, many questioned his ability to battle after having travelled so well in the Supreme and then failing to pass the resilient front-running Champagne Fever. Many would have thought he put those concerns to bed on Boxing day but i’m not so convinced. Racing on a flat, speed track like Kempton would have suited him ideally and, despite being handed the race on a plate, he only claimed victory by half a length. With the recent minor set-back he suffered, coupled with my doubts over his effectiveness at a testing track like Cheltenham, he’s not my idea of the winner.
AP McCoy chose to ride My Tent Or Yours over Jezki (10/1 Ladbrokes) and as such the pecking order of the JP McManus runners clearly favours the former. I’ve been utterly underwhelmed by the efforts of Jezki this season. After two unconvincing successes in below par Graded races he went on to be comprehensively beaten by Hurricane Fly. His final start was particularly poor when you consider he had no excuses and had every chance coming in to the home straight. Many people are adamant that this horse has more to give, but I strongly disagree. Whether you like it or not, on form this horse cannot beat Hurricane Fly and will struggle to get the best of at least two or three more in this contest. Not one for me!
Of the others, Captain Cee Bee (200/1 BetVictor) was supplemented into this race for £20,000 and clearly has been installed as a pacemaker for the JP McManus runners. In all honesty I think that might be a slightly foolish move, as a properly run race is likely to put emphasis on stamina and therefore should suit the likes of Hurricane Fly and The New One far more.
The remainder of the nine strong field is made up of Melodic Rendezvous (25/1 Ladbrokes), Ptit Zig and Grumeti. The former has shown his best form on testing ground (victories in the Kingwell Hurdle and the Champion Hurdle trial were on heavy ground) and may find the drying conditions against him. Ptit Zig (50/1 Stan James) performed admirably to carry top weight and to finish runner-up in the Ladbroke, but is another who prefers soft ground. Finally, Grumeti (100/1 bet365) is lowest rated runner on official figures and will need to improve by over 20lbs to enter contention.
It is truly remarkable to think that a 19-times Grade 1 winner over hurdles who has won this race twice is not the clear favourite. Doubts over his age aside, the talent HURRICANE FLY continues to show, coupled with his natural attributes and experience, put him head and shoulders above this field. In the run up to this year’s race many people have gone on and on about how his challengers have been primed for one race and one race only, however who’s to say the same hasn’t been done with Hurricane Fly? If you examine his season to date, he has continue to improve after each race with the reassurance from his trainer that after every victory there was still more to come. Undoubtedly, he faces a stiff test as the younger horses look sure to put up a stern challenge but in all honesty would it be that great a surprise to see him victorious once again? Many were quick to write this horse off after his first race of the season and many who did so found themselves looking a little foolish after he went on to win another two Grade 1 races with ease. I have been bullish about this horse’s chances all throughout the season and I certainly won't desert him now!
HURRICANE FLY (WIN) (3/1 bet365)
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