Ante-post focus: 2017 Stan James Champion Hurdle

Twenty-eight horses were entered for the Stan James Champion Hurdle a number of weeks back, but since the initial entries have been made the race has been dealt two big blows.

Last year’s winner Annie Power and the 2015 champion Faugheen were both ruled out of the race over the last fortnight, dealing their trainer Willie Mullins and owner Rich Ricci two bitter blows.

Their absence now means we have a wide-open renewal of the Tuesday showpiece. A lot of chopping and changing in prices has gone on and the market now has a settled look to it. We are just under six weeks away however, and it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if we saw more rumblings.

For example, with the two Mullins hotpots out of contention, the current JLT Novices’ Chase favourite Yorkhill could be rerouted here although, a £20,000 supplementary fee would need to be paid.

Knowing Annie Power was out of the picture and with Faugheen still to prove his race-fitness, at the time, connections of Buveur D’Air cut short an uninspiring novice chase career to tackle the Champion Hurdle. After all the shake ups in the race, amazingly, he is now the favourite.

The Stan James Champion Hurdle ante-post preview

A classy bumper horse in 2014/15 Buveur D’Air (7/2) had a highly successful novice hurdle campaign last season, winning a Grade 1 at the Aintree Festival the highlight. The well-bred son of French sire Crillon only had a trio of runs beforehand, where he bagged two low-key events before going on to finish a credible third in a strong-looking Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival.

At Newbury and Huntingdon on route, this half-brother to former high-class stayer Punchestowns showed a real liking for soft ground before his Supreme effort behind Altior on the fastest terrain he’d ever experienced.

A big drifter in the market before receiving an usually poor Noel Fehily ride – maybe connections knew he couldn’t beat Altior and had one eye on Aintree – Buveur D’Air deserves plenty credit for making the frame on ground he clearly handled.

His day in the sun would come on Merseyside, ironically, on softish sod where he just got the better of the Supreme Novices’ eighth, Petit Mouchoir. Having looked like he was going to win comfortably, the six-year-old struggled home a touch, maybe indicating he wasn’t at his best or a step up in trip would help.

To be fair to him, that form now looks extremely solid with the runner-up significantly boosting the run and the fourth home solidifying it further.

This season he was switched to fences and won his first two starts before connections had a change of heart and rerouted him over hurdles. His Cheltenham prep came in the Listed Contenders Hurdle at Sandown, he and Barry Geraghty went on to win smoothly in what turned out to be a poor contest.

He could do no more, but he hasn’t proved he is an improved performer this campaign and that must be a concern for a current Champion Hurdle favourite who will most likely race on his less-preferred spring ground come March.

Petit Mouchoir (9/2) is another horse that strikes me as being that bit better of softish sod. Formerly with Willie Mullins but now in the care of Henry de Bromhead, this free-going grey has readily improved this season.

The son of Al Namix was a very good novice hurdler in 2015/16, but just fell short of being top-class. His keen nature wasn’t a trait that served him well, but now he’s had another summer to mature, the Gigginstown House Stud-owned gelding is seeing his races out much better.

This has allowed Petit Mouchoir to improve, but his progress realistically started from Cheltenham to Aintree last year. A well-beaten eighth in the Supreme behind Altior when still buzzy, he turned in a much improved effort on softer ground at Aintree, making Buveur D’Air pull out all the stops, when more prominent tactics also aided his progress.

He’d go on to disappoint at the Punchestown Festival when probably feeling the effects of a long season and then started this campaign on the back of an eye-catching run at Down Royal. From here he went to Newcastle for the Grade 1 Fighting Fifth, only to fall four out when still bang in contention.

Two subsequent runs in Grade 1 company at Leopardstown have now confirmed him to be an open company Grade 1 horse. In winning the Ryanair Hurdle at Christmas and then the Irish Champion Hurdle, he has firmly put himself in contention for National Hunt’s most-prized hurdling asset.

The question is however, to what level has he improved? It’s hard to get a handle on his two Leopardstown wins when beating Nichols Canyon and Footpad, respectively. What we do know though, is this slick-jumping, strong-travelling type is tailor-made for the Champion Hurdle test on Cheltenham’s Old Course.

The same can’t be said for last season’s Neptune Investment Management Novices’ Hurdle runner-up Yanworth (5/1). Since that gallant effort behind Yorkhill we’ve only seen Alan King’s stable star run twice this campaign, winning both starts at Ascot and Kempton.

With those victories under his belt it means the strapping son of Norse Dancer has only been beaten once over hurdles, at last season’s Festival, and, there’s a case to say he’s a little bit unlucky not be unbeaten over obstacles.

There are few better big-race jockeys than Barry Geraghty and he’s one of the finest National Hunt riders I’ve ever seen, but his effort in last season’s Neptune is up there with one of his worst ever Grade 1 rides.

The past is gone and we won’t dwell, either will Geraghty with his strong mental approach to the game, but if he feels he got it wrong, there is a good chance to put that right in this year’s Champion Hurdle.

Yanworth is one of those classy horses that continues to divide opinion, but I like him, and so should you. Why? Because he’s a horse that continues to get better and there may well be more improvement to come, in fact, I’d be surmised if there wasn’t. In a depleted-looking Champion Hurdle, his form is right up there with the very best available.

He’s a strong-traveller for a big horse, people feel he lacks pace, but that isn’t the case. OK, he’s a stayer, too, but one quick look down through the most recent Champion Hurdle winners and that will tell you, staying ability is no negative.

The one thing people keep failing to see with Yanworth is he has the natural ability to win this race. There are negatives however; he couldn’t be described as the slickest jumper and he’s had a setback on route to March.

While the case, his gritty comeback win when not fit in the Ascot Hurdle and his beating of The New One on a track that didn’t play to his strengths means I’ll be keeping him firmly on side.

Best of the Rest

Nicky Henderson has a strong-looking hand in this year’s Champion Hurdle and Brain Power (15/2) is another inmate of his to respect. You really get the feeling they’ve liked this horse from day one, that he’s showed plenty at home, but failed to reproduce it on the race track at times.

Mental and physical immaturity surely contributed to some disappointing efforts while his early career over hurdles was blighted by poor jumping. Less than fluent hurdling was seen in his first three novice hurdle starts last season before improvement came in this department at Punchestown.

To connections and the horse’s credit, this progress, in both ability and jumping, came in a Grade 1; the son of Kalanisi improving in all aspects, finishing a highly encouraging third behind Don’t Touch It and Petit Mouchoir.

Brain Power actually shaped like much the best horse in the race, travelling strongly into the lead turning for home before his unfurnished frame laboured late and he was outstayed.

This season started poorly in the Greatwood Hurdle at Cheltenham, but he shaped much better than the bare result. Two high-class wins in competitive handicaps have seen the six-year-old climb the ranks since.

Once again, his strong-travelling ability was clear to all, but this season his body is capable of lasting out the latter part of the races. His slack jumping could be seen at times at Sandown while not a lot could be observed at Ascot when winning the Grade 3 Wessex Youth Trust Handicap Hurdle in fog.

He is set to go straight to Cheltenham, but I’d like to see him run again for further progress. Apart from that, and a feeling the handicapper has overrated him, there is plenty to like. He could be next year’s Arkle winner.

As short as 6/1 with non-runner no bet firms, the 2015 Champion Hurdler Jezki (12/1) is entered again, maybe with hopes of recapturing his crown. Jessica Harrington’s inmate missed all of last season through injury, but returned in good heart to win a pretty low key event at Navan three weeks ago.

Considering he was coming back from injury, visually, it was a highly satisfactory return. That form is nothing to write home about in terms of winning a Grade 1 however, and I feel he’ll be best served by running in the Stayers’ Hurdle on Thursday.

The Stayers’ is a contest many would like to see The New One (16/1) running in, too. The gallant nine-year-old might still, but it appears connections are leaning towards a run in the Champion Hurdle, the likes of Annie Power and Faugheen’s absence a significant factor.

Nigel Twiston-Davies’s charge has run in the last three Champion Hurdles, his form figures reading 354. On those numbers with him getting older and not showing improvement, you couldn’t really give him a chance, but this year’s renewal won’t be as strong as those won by Jezki, Faugheen and Annie Power, respectively.

While the case, he’s already been beaten by the likes of Yanworth and others look more progressive. I’m sure he’ll run well, but when the taps are turned on approaching three out, he’ll be under pressure. He’s a horse that would love the Champion Hurdle to be on the New Course.

If there is one horse in this year’s Champion Hurdle field capable of hitting the frame at a big price, I think it’s the Willie Mullins-trained Footpad (25/1). The Simon Munir & Isaac Souede-owned gelding was a two-time top-level winner as a four-year-old, winning the Spring Juvenile Hurdle at Leopardstown and a Grade 1 in France.

He was also third in last year’s Triumph Hurdle behind the subsequently disappointing Ivanovich Gorbatov and the improved Apple’s Jade. His run here is worth upgrading. Jumped off last by Ruby Walsh, he was given way too much to do and while there is an element of him running on past beaten horses, he did well to finish as close to the front two.

He was clearly off his game at Aintree when he fell next time out before running well (winning one) in three French races. The son of Creachadoir was disappointing in the Ryanair Hurdle over Christmas where a bad mistake at the first didn’t help his cause before he ran a lovely race to be second in the Irish Champion Hurdle.

There is no doubt he’s a little flattered to get as close to Petit Mouchoir, but I don’t think it was hugely benefitting to be ridden like he was. Daryl Jacob also took an age to get after him proper. It was at least encouraging that he improved massively on his previous run and he now looks to be going the right way.

Last year’s Champion Hurdle third, Nichols Canyon (25/1) is worthy of a mention despite him now looking ready for a step up to two-and-a-half miles and possibly being a little below par this season. Sceau Royal (33/1) is better than his Fighting Fifth effort, where he travelled into the race nicely before fading badly. It wasn’t his true running, but he looks up against it in this field.

The two mares, Apples Jade (20/1) and Vroum Vroum Mag (14/1) are entered here, but I think it’s highly unlikely we’ll see them in the Champion Hurdle.

The Final Verdict

A poorer renewal of the Champion Hurdle with both Annie Power and Faugheen set to miss out. The race has at least benefitted from Buveur D’Air coming back into the hurdling fold, but I’m happy to take him on at this juncture.

While his form over hurdles now looks classy, mostly due to the exploits of Petit Mouchoir, his early season campaign over fences, while successful in terms of wins, hasn’t necessarily told us he’s an improved performer. Proper spring ground could see him tapped for toe and it makes sense to take him on.

The shape of the betting to this year’s Champion Hurdle doesn’t exactly lend itself to being a great ante-post betting heat. Those at the head of the market are mostly priced about right while very few horses at bigger prices look good enough to compete with the market leaders.

With that being the case, I see four potential bets, three obvious and one slightly left of field. The trio of obvious options are Brain Power, Petit Mouchoir and Yanworth. The outsider? Footpad. Given the situation, it probably makes sense to narrow the obvious options down first.

I’m happy to swerve Petit Mouchoir at this time. Like the race-favourite, I suspect he may be a handful of pounds better on soft ground, which is not a given at Cheltenham. He really impressed me over Christmas when hammering Nichols Canyon, but his Irish Champion Hurdle victory suggested his progress may have curbed.

Maybe this was due to the quicker ground or him not being at his very best, I’m not sure. Petit Mouchoir’s aggressive style of racing means he rarely has an easy race and I wonder has he now reached a peak for the campaign.

Brain Power and Yanworth are much tougher to separate. On what we currently know, Yanworth, for me, is around a 5-6lb better horse, maybe more. The market suggests similar, but with the McManus horse having an interrupted campaign with a muscle injury setback, it casts doubts in my mind.

On what we’ve seen this season and on their last two starts, there isn’t much between Brain Power and Footpad. Both will come to Cheltenham on the back of career bests and are young enough to improve.

At 15/2 and 25/1, respectively, a chance is taken on FOOTPAD to prove his Irish Champion Hurdle second was no fluke. He’s in the right hands with Willie Mullins and will most likely be given a patient ride. He’s not good enough to win, but he offers value in the each-way part of the bet.

There is one huge caveat to note in this year’s Champion Hurdle. For me, this is the race for Yorkhill. He is not entered, but Willie Mullins may ask Graham Wylie to stump up the cash to supplement him.

I’m itching to see him in a strong-run race over two miles. Visually, we could see a breath-taking performance, but that’s all ifs and buts at the moment.

Advice

1pt each-way Footpad @25/1 (Betfred, Coral, Ladbrokes)

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