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Vacancy: Top-Class Two-Mile Hurdler
I'm loathe to diss a horse who's won 12 races from 15 starts, and his last ten straight, but I have reigning champion Buveur D'Air on 160, a whole 10 lengths shy of the 170-ballpark for a top-class jumper; what's more, his second victory in the Cheltenham Festival day-one feature wasn't even the best hurdling performance of the season.
An edgy Buveur D'Air about to
work out at Kempton after
racing on February 24th 2018
As far as connections are concerned he got the job done, but - with the going softer than ideal every time he raced - the style marks were lower than when he won the Champion, then the Aintree Hurdle, in 2017. Forced to miss the 2018 Aintree Hurdle due to a small amount of mucus present after a trachea wash, he remains the one to beat, but I'd be more confident of a three-peat in the Champion if the going was no worse than good to soft.
It was Melon who gave him the most to do in the Champion, running the good race that I predicted he would in this piece a year ago, and in the process bouncing back from a poor effort in the Irish Champion at Leopardstown in February. It was his only blip in an otherwise-consistent record, albeit one not above picking holes in.
On the back of a smooth reappearance win at Down Royal, he took his chance in the International Hurdle over the New Course at Cheltenham in December. He finished third to the resurgent My Tent Or Yours, looking comfortable when he was produced to challenge at the last but carrying his head a little high and finding only the one pace up the hill - arguably a found-little, which is probably what went on at Leopardstown, only to a greater extent.
Melon looked poised when falling three out in the Punchestown Champion Hurdle on his last start, which was eventually won by Supasundae (who'd won the Leopardstown race). While Melon is in the 2019 Champion mix for me, I'm not sure where to put Supasundae, who runs like a stayer and - despite two Grade 1 wins in 2017/18 - seems to be a horse without a trip.
The Punchestown Champion was coming to the boil nicely before things were pretty much trashed - from a racing purist's point of view - at the third last. Not only did Melon come to grief, the Baring Bingham Novices' Hurdle-winner Samcro, who went off at 5/6, also fell. Thankfully both were okay.
Easy for me to be judgemental, but for me the Michael O'Leary-owned Samcro should go over at least two and a half miles and run in novice chases in 2018/19. That decision, of course, is up to trainer Gordon Elliott and the Gigginstown-team, and Samcro going for the Champion - for which the biggest odds were 8/1 at the time of writing - wouldn't be a surprise to some.
After all Faugheen ran over a trip too short for a three-and-a-half-year period, and won a Champion Hurdle whilst doing so. Having won over three miles when last seen, the assumption is that he'll stay over that trip this season and therefore he isn't discussed at length in this piece. As for Samcro, my instinct is to swerve him in the Champion Hurdle.
What to make of Mick Jazz, the Champion Hurdle-third? Firstly it's no surprise that he was improved for joining the Gordon Elliott-yard, benefiting when Faugheen - who was perceived as being the only horse in the Ryanair Hurdle at Leopardstown in December, going off at 2/11 - blew out completely with three to jump, Mick Jazz beating horses that scarcely blipped on the radar for any big-race target. His third-place at Cheltenham proved him a high-class individual, though he arguably found little - as was the case when Harry Fry trained him - when shaken up approaching the last.
So we're struggling for anything among the established hurdlers that could beat Buveur D'Air, and advancing years have caught up with My Tent Or Yours and The New One, who was pulled up for the first time in his career in the Aintree Hurdle when last seen - so, as always, we look among the novices and the juveniles.
Not for long, though. The prevailing heavy (soft in places) going for the Supreme Novices' resulted in the stamina of the outpaced Summerville Boy kicking in as he stayed on to catch the lazy Kalashnikov, who seems best on that ground himself - it was worse than at Cheltenham when he won the Betfair Hurdle at Newbury - and neither horse screams 'Champion Hurdle contender'. Likewise everything else in the race, and everyone from the Aintree and Punchestown equivalents - Vision Des Flos ran well to be runner-up at both, but he shapes as though wanting further.
Annie Power was the first mare for 22 years to win the Champion when taking the 2016 renewal, and the Mullins-stable's Laurina led on the bit once in the home straight in the Trull House Stud Mares' Novice at Cheltenham, only needing to be pushed out in the last 150 yards and arguably earning the highest style marks of any winner at the 2018 Festival. I predict that we won't be talking about who she beat (except in mares' races), but that we might well talk up Laurina as a Champion Hurdle-horse (best odds 14/1 at the time of writing).
There's only one four year-old who looks as though he might do better, and that's the unbeaten Nicky Henderson-trained - now there's a surprise, not - We Have A Dream, who hasn't seen Cheltenham yet. The heavy ground looked important to him when he won the Finale at Chepstow, rescheduled to January from its usual Christmas-date, but the going wasn't an issue when he ran in the Anniversary at Aintree, the style marks very high when he beat Gumball by seven lengths, leading at the sixth and not hard pressed to draw clear two out.
Time and again I've written about how last season's juveniles find it difficult the following season, though, and Defi Du Seuil was the latest-such horse to flop. The other good juveniles in 2017/18 more or less beat each other from February till the end of the season, so which way will We Have A Dream go?
I really am short of inspiration here. Prospective Champion Hurdle-candidates are distinctly lacking. That is a possible reason why, when I looked at Oddschecker during August when writing these pieces, their ante-post list for the Champion contained several unfamiliar names, apparently 'horses' who normally appear on the virtual racing-circuit - I can only assume their page was hacked. Who knows, if they turned up in the Champion, they'd probably run close.
If the 2019 Champion Hurdle was tomorrow, who are the first four?
We Have A Dream
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