Looking for a Champion Hurdle antepost bet? David Cleary conjures up a selection for the opening day's feature in his latest big-race profile...
"It was almost as if Abacadabras travelled too strongly in the Supreme, his rider Davy Russell in two minds whether to go for home before the last, the hesitation allowing Shishkin his chance, the pair pulling 11 lengths clear."
On a weekend of significant Cheltenham trials, Goshen's stylish return to form in the Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton was perhaps the most notable. Since his dramatic exit at the last in the Triumph Hurdle at the 2020 Festival, Goshen had been underwhelming in two handicaps on the Flat and had flopped in the International Hurdle at the Cheltenham December meeting.
Although Saturday's race ended up being a bit of a non-event, with the favourite and eventual runner-up Song For Someone never going well, Goshen was impressive in the effortless manner in which he drew right away in the straight. He had been a leading contender for the Champion Hurdle on his projected effort in the Triumph - a race that has stood up well as a piece of form in the year since - and is back more or less where he was in the autumn after his Wincanton romp.
The Champion Hurdle will present a much more searching test of Goshen's ability, and may not be run on very testing ground, which he clearly handles better than most. That said, the ground in the Triumph wasn't that soft and he was pretty effective on that.
Epatante: Can she bounce back?
Last season's Champion heroine Epatante is one obstacle standing in Goshen's way. She was making it three wins from three starts when scoring decisively last March, having landed the Gerry Feilden and the Christmas Hurdle on her way to the Champion. She looked in fine nick when scoring in the Fighting Fifth on her return, but was turned over at 1.21/5 in her repeat bid in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton.
Epatante has been treated for a back issue since that defeat, where she suffered a rare jumping lapse with a mistake at the third last and clearly is best judged on her earlier form. Although the 2020 Champion Hurdle field wasn't a vintage one by any means, Epatante still holds leading form claims in her quest to become a dual Champion Hurdle winner.
Arguably the only one with stronger claims is Honeysuckle, who has won the Irish Champion Hurdle for the last two seasons and who defeated Benie des Dieux in scoring in the Mares' Hurdle at the last Cheltenham Festival. All told, Honeysuckle is undefeated in ten starts over hurdles. She is still in the Mares' and has done most of her racing at two-and-a-half miles, but is at least as effective at two.
So, Honeysuckle, Epatante and Goshen present a pretty formidable trio at the head of the Champion Hurdle market and it's hard to argue that they don't deserve to be there, or, at the same time, that any one of them is a bigger price than they should be. Concertista would be a significant player were she to run, but all the signs are that she will go for the Mares'.
Air's age an issue
Rooster Booster, Hardy Eustace and Hurricane Fly were all beaten as 10-year-olds when seemingly still retaining the ability to win the race again, so Buveur d'Air, who didn't show enough at Haydock to suggest he's as good as he was is an unlikely one to baulk that trend.
Most of the rest have proved fairly conclusively that they aren't good enough to win an average Champion Hurdle. Perhaps Silver Streak was better than ever in beating Epatante at Kempton, but she had a problem and he's been beaten in the last two runnings of this race.
Abacadabras: Supreme defeat a pointer to Champion chance
The one possible exception is Abacadabras. It's true that he's won just once from four starts this season and that he was beaten comprehensively by Honeysuckle in the Irish Chanpion last time out, but it may just be that he'll be seen to much better effect in a well-run, larger field Champion Hurdle, than the sort of races he's been running in in Ireland this winter.
Gordon Elliott's horse can look tricky, but he tanks through his races and it's worth focusing on three of his runs in particular to build the case for backing him in the Champion, even though he didn't actually win any of them.
The first two came at Cheltenham. At the 2019 Festival, Abacadabras took fourth in the Champion Bumper, which was won by Envoi Allen, with Thyme Hill in third. He went through the race as well as Envoi Allen, but immaturity/quirkiness told against him. In 2020, Abacadabras lined up for the Supreme, in which he traded at 1.152/13 in-running on the Betfair Exchange before going down to a head to Shishkin.
It was almost as if Abacadabras travelled too strongly in the Supreme, his rider Davy Russell in two minds whether to go for home before the last, the hesitation allowing Shishkin his chance, the pair pulling 11 lengths clear. Imagining Envoi Allen or Shishkin in the Champion Hurdle probably isn't a sound way of looking at his chance, but they'd clearly be a warm order. Yet they have lots of 'ones' next to their name, while Abacadabras, frankly, doesn't.
Which takes us to his last run, 10 lengths adrift of Honeysuckle in the Irish Champion Hurdle. It's asking a lot for him to turn the tables, but Honeysuckle was seen to maximum advantage, whereas Abacadabras wasn't.
The crucial point in the Irish Champion came two out, where Honeysuckle slipped her field, Abacadabras going second turning in but his cause already a lost one, his rider looking after him. Such considerate handling was perfectly understandable, given he'd run no sort of race on his previous start, the aim clearly to get him back on the right track.
Abacadabras finished nine lengths ahead of Sharjah, last season's Champion Hurdle runner-up, and they are at similar prices in the fixed odds markets. Sharjah is an obvious each-way play, likely to be ridden to finish as close as he can, from out the back, whether his regular rider Patrick Mullins is able to take the mount or not (he may need to take out a professional licence temporarily).
but Abacadabras has significantly greater potential to win the race, as reflected in the exchange odds; he looks worth a play at 15.014/1.
One other entry that may well be overpriced is James du Berlais - currently 36.035/1 on the Exchange - who looked an exciting prospect until a short-head defeat on his final start in France. He has now joined Willie Mullins, though has yet to race for him. Any signs that he might take his chance should be noted.