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Two-mile to 2m4f Hurdlers

There was one thing that looked likely to happen going in to the 2017 Champion Hurdle – that the race would be won by a JP McManus-owned horse. Yanworth was the hot horse over the Summer of 2016, then he failed to impress many observers in posting a series of ones next to his name, then Buveur D’Air was reassigned from novice chasing to hurdling, and smashed it in the Champion Hurdle then the Aintree Hurdle.

Yanworth was subsequently found to have a prohibited substance in his system at Cheltenham, then disqualified. Before the positive test came to light, he went to Aintree – as a clean athlete, we know now – and stepped up to three miles to win the Liverpool Hurdle. Maybe Justin Gatlin had a wager, if he’s a betting man. As for Yanworth, he reportedly goes novice chasing, so he doesn’t figure in this piece or the staying hurdlers-preamble.

Buveur D’Air, on the other hand, very much does – he’s the logical place to start. With Yanworth not firing in the Champion, he wasn’t troubled to beat My Tent Or Yours at Cheltenham, or at Aintree. ‘MTOY’ remains not worthy of lengthy discussion as a Champion Hurdle-candidate in these lines. He ran second – at all of Cheltenham, Aintree and, in Buveur D’Air’s absence, Punchestown behind Wicklow Brave - but second still isn’t first (the Punchestown Champion Hurdle should have been his for the taking) and I’m not expecting any improvement in 2018.

Which leaves one wondering exactly where a challenger is going to come from, and who that might be. If you go by results, there weren’t many stronger credentials than those of Petit Mouchoir, but that turned out a case of results looking better than they actually were in the flesh.

As always not many horses lined up in the Grade 1 two-mile hurdles at Leopardstown, the Ryanair Hurdle over Christmas and the BHP Insurance Irish Champion Hurdle at the end of January. In the Ryanair Petit Mouchoir caught Nichols Canyon on an off-day and won by seven lengths – that runner-up, of course, ended up over three miles come March. He dispensed with the same rival in the Irish Champion and had Footpad a length back in third that time.

All you can do is beat what’s against you, but in Petit Mouchoir’s case it wasn’t much, and it was no surprise he was found wanting in the Champion; that said he went fast enough in front early on, racing keenly, but the same outcome seems likely to happen again in 2018.

Whereas lack of resolution has been My Tent Or Yours’ undoing, it will now be advancing years. The same might be true of that genuine sort The New One going forward, but it’s been suggested that he’ll be going up to three miles in the new season. His fifth-placing in the latest Champion is worse form – not my much, admittedly – than his previous placed efforts in the race. Third in the Aintree Hurdle was okay, but he ran again and was only fourth in a Listed two mile five furlong-event at Sandown on the last day of the season, beaten by three horses he’d have wiped the floor with two or three years ago.

The Willie Mullins-trained 2015 County Hurdle winner Wicklow Brave is capable, but a few lbs shy of Buveur D’Air’s level at his best, and often reluctant to race – he might be rested anyway, having been running on the Flat over the Summer and taken in a visit to New York, running fourth in the Belmont Gold Cup Invitational Stakes at Belmont Park. The Closutton stable’s latest County victor Arctic Fire, who came late to take the 2017 renewal giving weight all round, is more genuine but at about the same level formwise; that form is good enough, though, to run into a place.

But it's easy to forget that the best of all Mullins' two-mile hurdlers, Faugheen, was a notch above everyone else when last seen out, making other top-class hurdlers look ordinary. Easy to forget - and I very nearly did, for this paragraph is an afterthought. If he comes back, will he be as good as before? If so, he'll walk the Champion Hurdle, but he's missed a season and a half. The longer the absence, the harder it is.

So we’re a bit stuck for credibility amongst the current crop of established two-mile hurdlers. Let’s sift through the 2016/17 novices. The obvious candidate, sadly, is unlikely to be seen on the track again, Supreme Novices’ winner Labaik sustaining an injury when finishing fourth to Wicklow Brave in the Punchestown Champion Hurdle.

Any joy elsewhere? It’s sometimes been the case that horses placed in a Cheltenham Festival novice hurdle improve the following season and win the Champion, like Jezki in 2014. The Supreme runner-up Melon hasn’t had a lot of racing. He was unlucky to catch Labaik on a good day in the Supreme, moving comfortably and seeming poised turning in, but headed by the winner – on his best behaviour – coming from nowhere at the same time as he tried to go on approaching the last. He had Cilaos Emery, who was behind him at Cheltenham, improve past him in the Champion Novice Hurdle at Punchestown, but wasn’t helped by taking on eventual third Pingshou up front from the start. They were only Melon’s second and third hurdle races and, with credible reasons for both defeats, you’d think there would be more to come.

Pingshou disappointed in the Supreme, but stepped up markedly in the Top Novices’ at Aintree, albeit able to dictate, before being unable to go with Cilaos Emery and Melon at Punchestown. If he stays hurdling he’ll probably go up in trip. His trainer Colin Tizzard also has that fine novice Finian’s Oscar, who’s more of a stayer in the making, in the same ownership, and plans for one of them might influence those of the other, with at least one of them likely to be going novice chasing. Neither of them impress as Champion Hurdle-candidates.

There is one – and prior to the start of the 2017/18 jump season-proper, only one – four year-old that looks likely to be famous for longer than five minutes. We’re talking Defi Du Seuil here. His juvenile-form as it stands is a long way short of what will be needed, but his attitude to racing is a professional one on what we’ve seen up to now.

Defi Du Seuil’s official rating of 157 is steep, to say the least, and might force his trainer Philip Hobbs into running him in conditions/Grade 2-hurdles from the getgo. The Listed hurdle at Kempton in mid-October would probably be easy pickings, but a run in pretty much anything else from November onwards – such as the Fighting Fifth or International, to nominate a couple of possible targets – will be more informative.

We end where we began, then – the 2018 Champion Hurdle could well be won by a JP McManus-owned horse (that’s not My Tent Or Yours).

If the 2018 Champion Hurdle was tomorrow, who are the first four?
Buveur D’Air
Defi Du Seuil
Arctic Fire

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