Tuesday 13th March 2018 – Champion Hurdle

written by Daniel Roe

The script for this year’s Champion Hurdle long seems to have been written: Buveur D’air wins; My Tent or Yours finishes a gallant second, again; Faugheen isn’t the horse he once was and does well to finish in the top three. Do we even bother looking for a bet, let alone even running the race? But even in a race that looks as weak as Tuesday’s centre-piece currently does, it’s never really that simple, is it?

Buveur D’air has been impeccable and remains unbeaten since switching back to hurdles in the middle of last season. He has only briefly – and I mean briefly – looked in trouble in any of his three starts this season, when having to be shaken up to quicken past The New One. The response was immediate, however, and he put the race to bed with consummate ease thereafter. In fact, he has won every race so easily this season that the only concern for him going into the Festival is that his trainer, Nicky Henderson, was worried about getting enough work into him in time for 13th March. I’m sure such concerns are incidental – if Henderson can get My Tent or Yours to finish second in three Champion Hurdles, he can get an odds-on poke to his race fit enough to win. The only question we have to answer is, does he deserve to be as short in the market as he is?

Your answer to that depends mostly on how you view the form of what was supposed to be his main rival, Faugheen. His re-appearance apparently confirmed the “Machine” to be “Back in full working order”, but his two runs since – pulled up over Christmas and second in the Irish Champion Hurdle has made us realise that maybe horses, no matter how talented, are not machines after all. He’s looked a shadow of his former-self – a former-self who would undoubtedly be favourite for this – but where most seem to take the view the horse isn’t what he once was, I actually think he’s become a backable price at a general 6/1. I never bought into the supposed brilliance of his come-back run and as a result never got carried away with it; it was a good performance from a once-great horse, but ultimately, he’s beaten nothing of note on very soft ground.

Winning distances tend to be exaggerated on bad ground, and even when horses appear to be winning easily, the races can be much harder on them than appears to the eye. Considering this, and the form of the Mullins yard at Christmas time, I can forgive his second run when he was pulled up in the Ryanair Hurdle. You could say he ‘bounced’ – he had been off for the best part of two years – but his last run is certainly not indicative of a horse who is finished. He has run to level of the low 160s, and I think he should improve for that and could even shake up the favourite at Cheltenham – he wouldn’t need to be within half a stone of his best in order to do so. One of his great strengths in his heyday was his ability to lead at pace from the front, burning off everything in behind. Although he took the lead in the Irish Champion Hurdle, he didn’t set off at any great pace which makes me think Paul Townend might have been cautious on him (understandably so). If Faugheen does improve for that run and he’s ridden a little more aggressively, at a course which suits him I think he could go close and make his current odds of 5/1 look a shade too big.

Given his record in the race reads 222 and this year’s renewal seems to lack strength in depth, My Tent or Yours seems a relatively safe each-way bet in the race assuming at least eight runners turn up. There’s still a little juice in his prices at 10/1 given he runs well fresh and was last seen winning a race for the first time since 2014. He can be relied upon in this race to run his level of the low 160s, but it’s difficult to believe he can be good enough at the age of 11 to win this.

This race does look like it could have a nice each way shape to it as there should be something at a bigger price capable of getting into the frame. Elgin has been touted – he has course form and the trainer reports he has improved significantly over the winter. It seems likely he will be supplemented, and the 16/1 available is about fair considering his progression this season. Melon is only slightly shorter, despite at the start of the year looking like Willie Mullins’ main hope in this race. He ran really well at Cheltenham in November when trying to give weight away to My Tent or Yours, finishing third despite pulling hard the entire way. I would ignore his run last time out completely – he was tried in first time blinkers and clearly didn’t react to them. You could argue he is over-priced because, if nothing else, I would back him to reverse the form with My Tent or Yours off level weights.

YORKHILL is a very interesting contender, if you’re willing to forgive his two runs so far this season. In the Christmas Chase he appeared to be running well until his effort emptied quickly, and he was just never travelling in the Dublin Chase. A lack of stamina was cited for his performance in the former, but the latter was worryingly bad over a trip that seemed sure to suit. He’s interesting, though, because if he returned to the horse of last season, he becomes Buveur D’air’s biggest threat, even when accounting for his apparent lack of respect for the smaller obstacles. His form last season reads incredibly well in hindsight: in the JLT he comfortably beat Politologue, the subsequent Tingle Creek winner, and Top Notch, who has won two Grade 2 chases this season with relative ease. He then finished a neck-second to Road to Respect, who is one of the main players in the Gold Cup, despite jumping violently to the left throughout and almost ducking out at the last, nearly unseating Ruby Walsh and giving away a couple of lengths away. The 10/1 available (Non-Runner No Bet) factors in how poor his last two runs were, so much so that one can’t help but wonder if there’s something either physically or mentally not quite right with him. But he’s got a perfect record at Cheltenham and if Willie Mullins can get the horse back, he’s quite possibly the best horse in this race. Even though you would think the trainer is already looking quite mob-handed in this and might route the horse to the Ryanair instead, Mullins has long thought of him as a Champion Hurdle horse. He’s an absolute tool at his best; let’s just hope he’s at his best.

Advised bet: YORKHILL