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The feature race on day one of the 2015 Cheltenham Festival, is, as ever, the Champion Hurdle. This is the race that will determine just who the best 2-mile hurdler is, after a long, hard season. Fortunately, all the top contenders have made it to the final declarations before the race, so we thought it would be erstwhile taking a look at the contenders in the 2015 Champion Hurdle to help you (and us) work out just who really is the most likely contender to take hurdling’s top crown.
At 3:20pm on March 10th, 2015, these eight horses will, hopefully, line up for the £400,000 prize on offer for first place.
There was a question mark as to who exactly was going to ride the market leader, Faugheen, in the big race, with Ruby Walsh finally deciding to take the ride on Willie Mullins’ charge. The most important thing to note about Faugheen is that the horse has never lost a race under rules. Faugheen’s first win under rules came at a bumper at Punchestown, before heading to hurdles six months later. He then racked up wins at Punchestown and Navan, then comfortably won the Grade 3 Liberty Insurance Novice Hurdle at Limerick. Next, his toughest test to date, the Grade 1 Neptune Investment Management Novices’ Hurdle, which he won by 4.5 lengths over 2 miles 5 furlongs at Cheltenham. He backed that up with another Grade 1 win at Punchestown, a Grade 2 at Ascot and then the
Christmas Hurdle at Kempton in December last year.
It’s safe to say Faugheen is a worthy market leader, having won at the top level, won at Cheltenham and is lightly raced, with Cheltenham’s top man on-board. He’s won over 2 miles up to 2 miles 5 furlongs, so he not only have the speed, but he has the stamina for a tough race, too.
The only question mark would be that he’s yet to face the same level of competition that he’s going to face in this year’s Champion Hurdle. It’s one thing beating the second-best level of hurdlers, but when you’re facing the likes of The New One, Jezki and Hurricane Fly, it’s a different proposition.
The New One
The hard luck story coming out of the 2014 Champion Hurdle was undoubtedly The New One. Under the ride of his son, Sam Twiston-Davies, Nigel Twiston-Davies’ top hurdler finished a credible third, after being hampered and then finishing like a train to end up finishing just 3 lengths behind Jezki in third.
Out of 15 races over hurdles, The New One has yet to finish out of the places, having won 11, placing second 3 times and his third in last year’s Champion Hurdle being his only time out of the top 2. So there’s no denying he’s a real live contender, and with a year’s experience under his belt, his current position second in the market is well-deserved.
So far undefeated this season, the Twiston-Davies team will be bullish of his chances, with his imperious win in the International Hurdle at Cheltenham in December perhaps the pick of his recent form. Although his most recent win in the Champion Hurdle Trial at Haydock was not as impressive, the fact the ground was almost a marsh proves he can do it on all ground and he’s also won over various distances, proving himself to be more than just a 2-miler.
Maybe last year was The New One’s year, as he was facing a field without Faugheen, and a field that was maybe not quite as strong as previous years. This year, he has to beat the undefeated Faugheen, which will be a tough task. But there’s no doubt that he’s capable. Plus, he’s been there, done that and, at seven years old, he’s the ideal age to get his first taste of Champion Hurdle success. We wouldn’t be betting against that lightly, that’s for sure.
Last year’s winner of the Champion Hurdle might just be going under the radar of many people when it comes to this year’s instalment. Tony McCoy’s last ever ride in the Champion Hurdle will bring with it a lot of expectation, but the pressure on Jezki might just be off, as there is far more pressure on the teams of Mullins and Twiston-Davies to bring success home.
It’s not been the greatest of seasons for Jezki, as he’s found Hurricane Fly his better on the last three occasions, at Punchestown and then the last two times at Leopardstown. In fact, he’s yet to get his head in front this season, with his last win coming in May 2014 in the Irish Champion Hurdle, where he beat Hurricane Fly and Steps To Freedom. However, he’ll be coming into this race with a solid preparation under his belt and his third position in the market indicates confidence in the seven year-old.
Do we think Jezki can win back-to-back Champion Hurdles? To be honest, it’s going to be tough. We don’t think he’s shown the greatest of form, having lost to one of his contenders three times this season, but he’s the reigning champion, so he shouldn’t be counted out. The ground will suit, we know he likes the course, so he’s a live chance.
The horse that made history by being the first to win back his Champion Hurdle crown, Hurricane Fly, is coming into this race in top form. He’s won his three starts this season, beating market rival Jezki on every occasion. The only sticking point in this tale is that Ruby Walsh decided against taking the ride of Hurricane Fly, presumably believing Faugheen’s chances to be greatest than that of the two-time Champion Hurdler.
Looking at Hurricane Fly’s three wins this season, they were all in Ireland, on softer ground, but he’s been a convincing enough winner each time, with winning distances of 2 lengths, half a length and 3 lengths, so although not dominating, comfortable enough (apart from the half a length win, of course). Naturally, the key to Hurricane Fly’s form is his Cheltenham form, and being two-time winner of the Champion Hurdle points to the fact he loves the track. However, he was 5 lengths back from Jezki in last year’s Champion Hurdle, and with another year under the belt, it might be a lot to ask the 11 year-old to make it a three-timer.
But that’s not to say he can’t do it. He’s beaten the current Champion Hurdler three times this season, so his price of around twice that of Jezki might just seem a little too big, and we think he’s going to go off closer to Jezki before the race gets underway at 3:20pm. He is getting on a bit, but he might be the each-way value of the race, given that the depth in the field is maybe not as good as previous years.
Willie Mullins’ third runner in the race does not look like a likely Champion Hurdle winner, but he is here on merit, and sitting in the midfield of the betting market shows that there is more confidence around him than some of the other runners. However, he’s yet to win this season, with his last win coming in May 2014 in a novice hurdle at Punchestown.
The fact is, Arctic Fire has been beaten by Hurricane Fly twice this season, and has never looked like winning a big race this year. But he’s young, and at six years old, Arctic Fire might be sending out a warning for the 2016 Champion Hurdle if he can put in a strong showing here.
But we think the betting market might just indicate where he’s likely to finish here – midfield. The Fighting Fifth form is not great, and is usually an indicator of Champion Hurdle chances. He’s a solid horse with a solid chance, but there are likely going to be one or two or three far classier propositions in the field.
The second horse owned by JP McManus in the field (the other being Jezki) comes in as one of the market outsiders, but the five year-old is perhaps a live outsider in the field. Kitten Rock is so far undefeated this term, winning at Naas twice, Limerick and Gowran Park, before heading off to Cheltenham. The one thing worth noting is that Kitten Rock’s best win was last time out in the Grade 2 at Gowran Park, which he won by 12 lengths from Thunder Zone.
At five years old, Kitten Rock might just be a bit too young, but the form looks fair enough and with Noel Fehily on-board, there is a solid jockey that knows his way to the winning post. Could it be a step too far too soon? Possibly, but Kitten Rock might be the unknown quantity in the field and even if he doesn’t win it this year, a performance in the top-four in the field could be enough to act as a pointer to next year’s Champion Hurdle. The potential for an each-way place at a fancy price makes Kitten Rock an interesting possibility.
Another horse in the field that is yet to win this season, but Vaniteux is a considerably larger price than Jezki. The reason? 7 races over hurdles and only 2 wins, in a Class 3 and a Class 4. His
last four races have been at Cheltenham, and the last three times he’s always found one too good (Rock on Ruby, The New One and Garde La Victoire), which doesn’t point to a horse that is going to win the Champion Hurdle.
But Barry Geraghty does know how to win the big races at Cheltenham, and Nicky Henderson knows what it takes, too, so maybe Vaniteux isn’t the outside chance that the bookies have him. To be honest, we would struggle to make a case for him, but his form at Cheltenham isn’t exactly terrible, it’s just not winning form. It might take a bit of a blunder by a couple of the market leaders, but he isn’t bothered by the Cheltenham Hill, so his stamina isn’t in doubt. He might be one for the longer hurdles races next season, but keep an eye on him for any market plunges.
The bookies’ rank outsider in the field, an it’s name your price on Bertimont. Harry Skelton riding for Dan Skelton will be under no illusions that he has an uphill struggle to even get Bertimont in the places. He’s yet to win any higher than at Class 2, and has been beaten by The New One comfortably the last two times out.
He’s not shown the kind of form it takes to win a Champion Hurdle, so it is going to take something special (or horrific) to see Bertimont crossing the line in first place. At five years old, he might come on for the run in this big race, but we can’t find any reason as to why he’s not going to finish near the back of the back.
Champion Hurdle 2015 Statistical Analysis
The stats for five year olds do not make great reading, with only 1 winner in the last 30 years being that age. So under that presumption, it might not be the year for Kitten Rock or Bertimont. 82 out of the last 84 winners were 9 years old or younger, so it might be a race too far for Hurricane Fly. Finishing unplaced in the Champion Hurdle the previous year does not bode well either, with no winner being able to overcome this in 21 years. So, again, Hurricane Fly’s chances do not look great on paper. The Christmas Hurdle has not always been an indicated of success, with Kribensis being the last horse to do the double in ’89-’90. Faugheen, the 2014 Christmas Hurdle winner will be hoping to buck that trend, but that stats aren’t on his side. The same problem exists for the International Hurdle winner, with Rooster Booster being the last to do it in ’02-’03. So The New One, like Faugheen, has that to overcome. Winners have also tended to have had a prep run in the same year as the race, so horses that haven’t run in 2015 will be at a statistical disadvantage. Faugheen is the only runner not to have competed in 2014.
So where does that leave us? Well, we have Jezki, Arctic Fire and Vaniteux being the statistical pick. However, the stats also point to the fact that the winner of the Champion Hurdle tends to be a winner last time out, which would leave us with nothing to back in the race. But going by the main stats, Jezki would be the choice.
We think the trend of the International Hurdle or Christmas Hurdle is going to be ended here. It looks like, on paper, a two horse race between Faugheen and The New One. The only question mark over Faugheen is how he’ll compete against the best two-mile hurdlers and we’ve yet to see what he can do against the likes of The New One. There looks like a shade of value to be had on The New One, so Nigel Twiston-Davies’ mount might just be the pick for us. He finished like a train last year, he’s got a lot of stats pointing in his favour, and it’s hard to make a case against him. The New One has got to be our pick. However, Kitten Rock is unexposed and might just put in a solid showing at a big-price, so could be the each-way play of the race. JP McManus will be looking for a future Champion Hurdle contender and this could be the one to take over from Jezki.