David Cleary, in the first of his detailed big-race previews for Cheltenham sides with a huge outsider in the Champion Hurdle. Decide if he's lost his marbles...
"Prior to Cheltenham, Elgin had enjoyed a really fruitful second campaign over hurdles, winning a listed handicap at Ascot, the Greatwood at Cheltenham and the Kingwell at Wincanton. In the last of those, he gave weight and a beating to Ch'Tibello and Call Me Lord, form which would put him firmly in the picture for Champion Hurdle glory this time round."
They say it's an ill wind that blows nobody any good, so let's hope that Storm Dennis can inadvertently do this column a favour. Had Wincanton's card last Saturday not fallen victim to the wind and the rain, then the cat might well already be out of the bag so far as Elgin's current form and well-being are concerned.
He was due to contest the Kingwell Hurdle there, on his first outing since the summer of 2018. As it is, the Kingwell has been rescheduled for Kempton this coming Saturday and Elgin may well get his chance then to flex his muscles.
Elgin last ran over hurdles when finishing fifth to Buveur d'Air in the 2018 Champion Hurdle. He was then switched to the Flat and quickly made up into a useful performer before he suffered a tendon injury. That and a breathing operation have been the reasons for his absence since.
His trainer Alan King reports on his stable website that Elgin is working as well as ever, though expects him to come on for the run at the weekend. That is perhaps understandable, though the trainer is one of the best in the business at having horses ready after a long absence.
In the 2018 Champion, Elgin wasn't good enough against Buveur d'Air and Melon, but this season's renewal looks a weaker race and he shaped better than the result that day, typically travelling well but caught a little out of position at the second last.
Prior to Cheltenham, Elgin had enjoyed a really fruitful second campaign over hurdles, winning a listed handicap at Ascot, the Greatwood at Cheltenham and the Kingwell at Wincanton. In the last of those, he gave weight and a beating to Ch'Tibello and Call Me Lord, form which would put him firmly in the picture for Champion Hurdle glory this time round.
Champion on radar for Emery after Gowran victory
The Champion Hurdle certainly looks ripe for a bet. Of the market leaders, three of the front six in the betting are more likely to run elsewhere.
Honeysuckle, who would be the pick of the Irish-trained runners on the strength of her victory in the Irish Champion, is instead a more likely runner in the Mares Hurdle, also the likely destination for Benie des Dieux. The exciting novice Envoi Allen, who won the Champion Bumper at last March's Festival, could clearly be a danger to all, but the Ballymore seems his intended target.
It's a measure of the weakness of the race that Cilaos Emery has been introduced to the market at single figures after his win in the Red Mills Trial at Gowran on Saturday. He was back over hurdles after a fall over fences at the Dublin Racing Festival and won in clear-cut fashion, but he was 4/1-on and did no more than might have been anticipated, while his jumping needs work over the next four weeks.
Cilaos Emery is entered at the moment only in the Champion Chase and the Ryanair, and though his trainer Willie Mullins plans to supplement him for the Champion Hurdle, the switch can be read negatively - Mullins clearly has much better candidates for both the chases but his options for the hurdle are pretty thin.
That is hardly a vote of confidence for Sharjah, who won the Grade 1 at Leopardstown at Christmas, but flopped behind Honeysuckle in the Irish Champion. His trainer felt Sharjah made two bad mistakes, but, while his jumping doesn't inspire total confidence, he more looked a horse that failed to pick up when required after two out.
Another who would need to be supplemented is the Betfair Hurdle winner Pic d'Orhy. That he might get an entry was mentioned as a possibility after his win at Newbury, though he's hardly quoted by the traditional bookmakers at the time of writing. An entry in the rescheduled Kingwell suggests the Champion may be coming under serious consideration, however.
Blue the value in Henderson nap hand
Nicky Henderson has plans to run five, including Fusil Raffles, a flop in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton and another possible runner intended runner in the rearranged Kingwell. Stable companion Epatante won the Christmas Hurdle impressively and deserves to be at the head of the Champion market, but there was more style than substance to the form and makes little appeal as an ante-post option.
The same is true, only more so, of Pentland Hills, who is currently second favourite. He ought to have won at Haydock last time, but that would be form a little short of what will be required at Cheltenham. The fact that connections have felt the need to perform minor wind surgery since suggests they feel there was something more than a mistimed run to his performance there.
The obviously overpriced runner among the Henderson quintet is our old friend Verdana Blue. She has the form to be a major player in a Champion Hurdle, though as Henderson acknowledged in his Press stable visit this week, she wouldn't want soft or heavy ground to be seen at her best. That certainly compromised her chance in last season's race and means that at this stage backing her is only an option on non runner no bet terms.
Of the rest, Petit Mouchoir, who was third in the 2017 renewal and who gave Honeysuckle more of a race than anything else last time, is in theory overpriced, but he's a nine-year-old that has won just three of his 20 starts over hurdles, so it would be really disappointing if he was up to winning a Champion Hurdle.
So, in summary, Elgin looks the play at this precise moment, 66-1 with Betfair Sportsbook or bigger on the Exchange. Hopefully, it will look an even better play by 2.30 on Saturday afternoon.
Back Elgin at 84/185.0 to win the Champion Hurdle