This year’s Stan James Champion Hurdle has the potential to be a real classic with a range of contenders including a possible four previous winners. Current champion Rock On Ruby will be defending his crown against Hurricane Fly, Binocular and Punjabi. Throw in the likes of Grandouet, Zarkandar, Cinders and Ashes and Countrywide Flame and you have a recipe for an absolute thriller.
The weather has hampered trainer’s preparations this winter but 2011 winner Hurricane Fly has once again been impeccable in Ireland and heads the betting for the third consecutive year.
Best priced at 15/8 with Paddy Power, punters will be hoping Hurricane Fly’s below par performance last year was just a minor hiccup and he looks primed to bounce back to the top with trainer Willie Mullins claiming he is better than ever.
The question remains whether he can handle a strong ran gallop. His turn of speed is second to none but he struggled to keep on track with Overturn and Rock On Ruby last year.
Yes he was probably below par last season and the one solo run leading to the festival may not have helped. However, many believe Ruby Walsh left it too late on catching Rock On Ruby but the fact of the matter is Rock On Ruby was further ahead at the finishing post than he was jumping the last.
The pace that Overturn brought to the race last year meant that the winning time has only been beaten once since the great Istabraq and whilst the ground was probably quicker than is likely this year, even an on song Hurricane Fly will struggle to match a time similar to last year.
That said the question is this year is who will inject the pace into the race. It is no secret Rock On Ruby would prefer a strong gallop but with no Overturn, who, if anyone, is likely to take them along?
Should no one decide to take it up, Noel Fehily may have to take it up with Rock On Ruby although I’d imagine he’d prefer not to. A somewhat fortunate victory at Doncaster after Darlan’s tragic fatal fall is Rock On Ruby’s only victory since his famous triumph last year.
His defeat to Oscar Whisky at Aintree was over 2m4f, a distance he has never won at that distance and so many Festival winners fail at that Aintree meeting.
His seasonal return came in the International Hurdle in December at Cheltenham. Coming around the bend he seemed to be going best of any, but he hit a flat spot after the penultimate flight and finished a good 8 lengths behind Zarkandar.
Trainer Harry Fry however was not expecting him to peak in that race and despite looking beat by eventual faller Darlan last out, he ran into a strong head wind and will definitely be better for the run.
Fry has since come out to express his delight in the form his stable superstar is currently in and he will, like he has most of his career, be a surprise winner should he emulate Hardy Eustace in defending the Champion Hurdle crown.
Fry inherited Rock On Ruby from Paul Nicholls after Nicholls put his maiden Champion Hurdle success last year down to his then employee Fry.
Nicholls hopes of himself defending the Champion Hurdle crown comes in the form of Zarkandar.
The 2011 Triumph Hurdle winner has had a much busier season than last year and looks a much stronger horse as a six-year-old than he did last year.
His season kicked off to a promising start when getting up to beat stablemate Prospect Wells by a neck and 15lbs despite been the unfancied of the two.
He kicked on from then to score at Cheltenham over Grandouet and Rock On Ruby but did have 4lbs in hand that day.
His most recent success came with victory over Khyber Kim at Wincanton. Victory was easy enough and he goes into the race in good form. He looks a real battler and should it turn into a slog for the line, this horse will be hard to pass.
It will be interesting to see where Nicholls decides to go with this young hurdler with him looking to be a potential stayer. He could be Nicholls long term replacement for Big Bucks.
Pre-New Year, Nicky Henderson looked to hold a firm hold on the race with Darlan, then ante post favourite, and Grandouet looking very prominent in the betting also. Them thrown in with Binocular meant he held three of the top eight of the betting.
However, Darlan’s tragic fall coinciding with doubts over the fitness Grandouet’s fitness have somewhat weakened Henderson’s hold on the race.
Grandouet at one point had been pulled out of the betting but Henderson assured punters his injury was not bad enough to keep him out of the festival.
His form is solid enough and the 4 length victory over Overturn last year was made even more impressive after the former’s second place last year.
However he has not proved enough to me that he is a strong enough finisher to compete in large fields in top Grade 1 races. It is not that I don’t think he is good enough to win this year’s Champion Hurdle I just think he has the most to prove.
Grandouet’s stablemate Binocular could well be the forgotten horse this year. The highly talented 2010 winner has nowhere near the amount of grade 1 victories as he should do.
His season return was a disappointing 3rd against Hurricane Fly but he has never ran well fresh and Henderson seems to get this 9-year-old firing when everyone writes him off.
Blessed with a phenomenal turn of speed and natural pace, rule Binocular out at your peril. His talent is there for all to see when you see his starting prices.
Never before has his starting price gone off in double figures and with him currently 10/1 and money continuing to come for Hurricane Fly, it maybe this, is the first time. In fact his biggest starting price was the 2010 Champion Hurdle victory, going on to win at 9/1. Should he stay a similar price he could well be a good each way bet.
Cinders and Ashes could very well prove to be the forgotten horse in this race. The heavy ground will not have favoured him one bit and he will be out to prove his worth at a big price of 12/1.
Many thought triumph hurdler victor Countrywide Flame would be a big player before a beaten favourite in the Christmas Hurdle.
A distant 2nd to Rock On Ruby at Doncaster does him no favours form wise but he is capable of performing on his day, but may still find himself a distance behind a high class field. This race has a poor record for five-year-olds with Katchit the only one to prevail in over 25-years.
Hurricaine Fly is seen by many as the one to beat and I have to say I agree. His overall hurdle record is simply outstanding and no one would be surprised should he be the first horse since Comedy Of Errors in 1975 to regain the crown.
However, with victories in Ireland of 2/5, 1/5 and 1/6 suggest, he has come up against very little and I believe Rock On Ruby will be out to prove last year was no fluke.
His race will all hinge on how the race is run. A strong gallop will most definitely favour Harry Fry’s defending champion and he will be better than we have seen already this season.
For some reason this horse has never had the respect from people that he deserves and he has a striking resemblance of Hardy Eustace.
Eustace was the last horse to win back-to-back Champion Hurdles and my money is on Rock On Ruby to emulate him.
The field is undoubtedly strong with Zarkandar and Grandouet deserved contenders but I think the race may simply hinge on how the race is run and my personal opinion is that they won’t feature.
If it is run at a pace then I think Rock On Ruby will win. If not then I’d fancy Hurricane Fly and possibly Binocular.
Paddy Power are offering money back should Hurricane Fly win creating the perfect opportunity to back Rock On Ruby and Binocular each way.
Win: Rock On Ruby (11/2 with Paddy Power (If Hurricane Fly wins, money back))
Each Way: Binocular (10/1 with Coral)