2018 Champion Hurdle ante-post preview

Entries have yet to be revealed for the 2018 Unibet Champion Hurdle, January 16 I believe is the date connections must enter, and the public can expect to see those names in the following days. Run over 2m½f on the Old Course on the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival, the race is a test of strong-travelling and quick-jumping ability around the Prestbury Park undulations.

2018 Champion Hurdle ante-post preview

Despite not getting a feel for what may line up in this year’s Champion Hurdle with preliminary entries not out, it’s safe to say the 2018 running is not shaping up to be a vintage renewal. As the market suggests, last year’s winner Buveur D’Air (4/6) is the horse to beat. Given the prices, there is little point wasting time on covering Nicky Henderson’s inmate for a blog of this type.

Essentially, on what we’ve seen this season – and last – he has the best form, is healthy and is maybe even still progressing. His two victories this campaign in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle and the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton came on the bridle; in the latter race he beat a 160+-rated The New One with ease despite conceding race-pace and position to his inform and classy rival.

He’s the horse to beat and he’s the right price.

Second-favourite is a previous Champion Hurdler (2015) in Faugheen (5/1), a horse who in his pomp was one of the greatest hurdlers of his generation, maybe even the greatest. His Irish Champion Hurdle thumping of Arctic Fire (beaten 15 lengths) and Nichols Canyon (beaten 28 lengths) is probably the best hurdling performance I’ve ever seen, but since that day in January 2016, Willie Mullins’s stable star has only run twice, due to injury.

He returned this season after an enforced 665-day break to win the Grade 1 Morgiana Hurdle by 16 lengths. On paper and visually, it was a sensational comeback, but I don’t think he was anywhere near the 170+ horse he previously was. In fact, I’d say he was a good stone below his best.

Subsequently, the ten-year-old fluffed his lines in the Grade 1 Ryanair Hurdle at Leopardstown over Christmas, pulling up at odds of 2/11. Thankfully, the son of Germany was not injured and recent reports from Closutton are positive(ish). While the case, I find it hard to recommend a horse on the back of being pulled up, especially with a potentially downward spiralling profile.

A bigger threat – albeit one I doubt JP McManus and the Nicky Henderson will lose much sleep over – may come from Faugheen’s stablemate Melon (8/1). A readily held second behind Labaik in last season’s Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, although he was beaten the son of Medicean deserves great credit for running so well on just his second ever hurdles start.

It was very much a baptism of fire and although he didn’t win, the fact he pulled eight lengths clear of the third was impressive. He was subsequently beaten at the Punchestown Festival, but that race didn’t go his way and in the circumstances he did well to finish second.

His seasonal debut victory at Down Royal in the Grade 2 WKD Hurdle left me a bit cold, but the six-year-old took a huge step forward when running 3rd behind classy sorts in the Grade 2 International Hurdle at Cheltenham.

Despite racing too keen, being hampered at a crucial time and conceding weight to most of the field, to finish on the tails of My Tent Or Yours and The New One was a good run. He’s going the right way.

The above three horses aside, at the moment, I find it very tough to see another horse winning the Champion Hurdle, should the aforementioned trio get to Cheltenham in good order. The wonderfully admirable My Tent Or Yours (16/1) surely can’t win a Champion Hurdle at the age of 11.

To his credit, he could do no more than win the International on his seasonal debut, but the fact he got 6lb from The New One (2nd) and Melon (3rd) is off-putting, especially where the latter is concerned.

Can he run well and maybe hit the frame? Sure, he can, but it looks like he might be battling for one each-way spot should they all turn up and his price is only fair from that point of view.

There are quite a few in that boat, who could run into the frame. In that regard, I respect the likes of Defi Du Seuil (20/1), Mick Jazz (33/1) and Ch’Tibello (50/1) who are younger horses and should have more to offer.

Defi Du Seuil made a very disappointing start to his season in the Ascot Hurdle where a bad mistake at the third, and Philip Hobbs’s team not firing, didn’t help his cause. He hasn’t been seen since, but it’s encouraging he got an entry in the Betfair Hurdle.

While the case, I find it hard to recommend a horse on the back of such a poor run, despite there being reasons for the poor showing. He was a top-class juvenile hurdler last season, but open company is a different ball game and he had plenty racing for a young horse in the last campaign. The jury is out at the moment.

Mick Jazz and Cilaos Emery clashed in the Ryanair Hurdle that Faugheen pulled up in last month with the former being the main beneficiary, beating the latter, who has this week been ruled out of the Champion Hurdle through injury.

Gordon Elliott’s inmate will now go forward to represent this form, but it’s easily to be dubious about it with Faugheen not running his race and, the fact the winner maybe picked up the pieces from a horse who was in front far too early.

In Mick Jazz’s favour, you can see the sharp nature of the Old Course suiting his ability to travel sweetly. Furthermore, as a seven-year-old, it would be no surprise if he was still improving, especially coming from these (Gordon Elliott) quarters.

Dan Skelton’s Ch’Tibello was the other horse of interest from a betting perspective. The seven-year-old has done nothing but improve over the last two seasons and had some smart form behind Yanworth last season before injury ruled him out of the 2017 Champion Hurdle.

He is another who ran in the International behind My Tent Or Yours when beaten three lengths. On his first start since February, he ran a nice race, especially considering he looked a touch fresh and was also hampered in the straight.

It would be no surprise to see him turn the tables with the Nicky Henderson winner come March, but it’s possibly going to be tough to do so with Melon on 6lb worse terms.

Other horses to at least get a mention, but are not betting propositions for various reasons are Apple’s Jade (25/1) who looks set to run in the Mares’ Hurdle and The New One (40/1) who will surely – and finally – be asked to participate in the Stayers’ Hurdle.

Alas, there is a potential fly in the ointment and a horse who could instil fear into the odds-on favourite, the enigmatic and wonderfully nutty chestnut, Yorkhill. Given his trainer (Willie Mullins), I’d expect to see the 2016 Neptune and 2017 JLT winner feature among the Champion Hurdle entries.

At the moment, it’s unlikely he’ll run here, but should Douvan, Min and Un De Sceaux all get to Cheltenham fit and well – and it’s a sizable if – there must be a chance Graham Wylie’s star horse is rerouted, especially if Faugheen didn’t happen to make the Festival.

I agree, it’s all ifs and buts, but stranger things have happen and Willie Mullins has always hinted at Yorkhill being a Champion Hurdler in his eyes.

The Final Verdict

As the prices suggest, Buveur D’Air is the horse to beat. Of the likely runners, I just don’t see any horse good enough to stop him in his quest for a second Champion Hurdle.

Faugheen looked well below, albeit his sky high, best in winning at Punchestown on his comeback from injury and has subsequently failed to complete.

Nothing came to light for that pulled up effort and reportedly, little strenuous exercise has been undertaken since. As connections turn the screw and try to get him to the peak of his powers, it would be surprise to see his huge but fragile frame fail him again. On that trail of thought, he’s impossible to recommend at this juncture.

So is the 11-year-old My Tent Or Yours, who has also had his injury problems. I’m sure he can run well again at the Festival, but running well this year could see him beaten 8 lengths back in fifth. He offers poor value from an each-way perspective.

Much more inviting prices are on offer about the unlikely winning trio of Defi Du Seuil (20/1), Mick Jazz (33/1) and Ch’Tibello (50/1), but should all of those ahead of them in the market turn up, they could all be fighting for one each-way place. In terms of each-way betting, that’s a hard sell in anyone’s book.

Factor in Defi Du Seuil’s poor recent form and Mick Jazz and Ch’Tibello needing to improve significantly, despite sexy prices, they can be left.

To my eye, the 2018 Champion Hurdle is not a race to try and get clever with. I want to be with those to the head of the market despite value potentially looking skimpy. I feel there will be better value bets to come, there are 27 other races after all!

At this time, MELON looks the best betting opportunity and he should be backed in the without Buveur D’Air market. I just can’t see him beating the favourite, but I’m confident in his ability to finish second.

There are so few horses in this year’s Champion Hurdle genuinely on an upward curve, especially with Melon’s type of ability. Like I said above, his seasonal debut underwhelmed me, but his International third was a huge step in the right direction.

He was taking on much more seasoned and at the time, much more classy horses in My Tent Or Yours and The New One. He’ll met the winner on 6lb better terms come March with the distinct promise of more to come. Furthermore, a stronger run race on quicker ground back on the Old Course are three more positives.

In a recent interview with The Irish Field, I was taken by Ruby Walsh’s suggestion that Melon’s last race had made a man of him and he’d come forward for the race. There is every chance of more to come.

Ruby’s full comment read, “He’s come forward for the run in Cheltenham. That was his first run with the big boys. He’s definitely a better horse for it. The Champion Hurdle will be a stronger-run race, and on a different track – it’s on the Old Course – so that will definitely suit him. You’d imagine he’ll go to Leopardstown. He hasn’t a lot of experience and will be improving every day.

With some bookmakers offering Non-Runner No Bet concessions, I’m also going to suggest a saver on Melon’s stablemate Yorkhill. If he was switched to this race, and it’s unlikely at the moment but we have non-runner safety net, he’d likely be second favourite.

Advice

2.5pts each-way Melon ‘betting without Buveur D’Air’ @4/1 (Betfair Sportsbook, Paddy Power) – 1/5 odds 1,2,3 – Non-Runner No Bet

1pt win Yorkhill ‘betting without Buveur D’Air’ @11/4 (bet365), 5/2 (Betfair Sportsbook, Paddy Power) – Non-Runner No Bet

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