Champion Hurdle: Zarkandar to Rock Cheltenham

Zarkandar and Rock On Ruby are both of interest ante-post.

Never mind the highlight of the opening day, the Champion Hurdle is often the most eagerly anticipated contest of the entire Cheltenham Festival. Timeform's Matt Gardner is on hand to take an ante-post look at the two mile event...

"There is an interesting point to note from Zarkandar's two runs this season, which is that connections seem intent upon employing more prominent tactics than before which could just prove to be the making of the six-year-old..."

Champion Hurdle fields often feature a small number of realistic pretenders to the crown, a clutch of horses that you can sort of see running well without winning and then a few that really deserve no place in the line-up. It's almost certain that a few of the latter mentioned scoundrels will take their chance once more but this year, at this stage at least, there are nine or ten that it is not just feasible to see winning but that many will argue their claims until they are blue in the face. 

With not a great deal to separate them on Timeform master ratings it is probably best to deal with them in market order, so we shall therefore kick off with 2011 hero Hurricane Fly. The Willie Mullins-trained nine-year-old produced one of the best performances since the days of Istabraq when beating Peddlers Cross that year, his electric turn of foot decisive in a race that wasn't as strongly run as had been anticipated, though the manner of his victory meant that he'd have surely won no matter how the race had been run. 

A routine victory at Punchestown two months later capped a fine season but Hurricane Fly was not to be seen again until January of 2012, where he put to bed many doubts surrounding his well-being with a fine display, ensuring that he was sent off a warm favourite at the Festival. He could not follow the script there however and it was clear that his fragility had resurfaced as he came under pressure before the penultimate flight, staying at the last but ultimately unable to get on terms. The winning thread was regained at Punchestown but it was no more than a workmanlike performance, unable to put much distance between himself and Zaidpour, and although he has returned with a brace of trademark victories this season his aura of invincibility has been lost and doubts have to remain as to whether he'll even make it to Cheltenham having missed two Festivals in the past. 

Hurricane Fly currently trades at 4.67/2 but I'd be much happier taking that price, or slightly shorter, about him on the day in the knowledge that he has arrived at the track safe and sound so, from an ante-post perspective, he will not be the recommendation. 

The Nicky Henderson-trained Darlan was highlighted in the 2012/13 Jumps Horses to Follow publication as being a good bet for the Champion Hurdle at 14/1 and were that price still available I would stop writing now and tell you all to get on, however he presently trades at 5.39/2. Why the dramatic cut in price I hear you ask? Well, wind your video recorders back to Boxing Day and have another watch of Kempton's Christmas Hurdle, as the six-year-old was mightily impressive in thrashing his six rivals, taking a strong hold off a steady pace but quickening smartly upon entering the straight and having the race won from that point. 

Darlan is clearly a leading player for this, given that he remains open to improvement, and he is certainly one to keep on side but, having said that, his current price is probably about right and when looking ante-post we are hoping for a little bit of value so, whilst it is hard to knock his claims, we shall leave him to one side for now. 

Another who's claims are difficult to ignore, but will not be the selection, is Grandouet again purely from a price perspective. The six-year-old had achieved much more in terms of style than substance until beating Overturn in last season's Bula Hurdle, which represented his first real test outside of his own age group. Things could hardly have gone more smoothly that day, challenging on the bridle before quickening to assert once shaken up by Barry Geraghty, but what did not go quite so smoothly was the remainder of his season with a setback ruling him out entirely. 

An excellent reappearance at Cheltenham in December, when splitting Zarkandar and Rock On Ruby, put him right back in the mix for top honours this season as he produced a career-best and actually came out marginally best at the weights as he attempted to concede 4 lb to the winner, but what is up for debate is whether he deserves to be a point shorter than Zarkandar and more than two points shorter than Rock On Ruby. Fine margins I know, but they can make a difference and it is for that reason that we now move on. 

Let us now deal with Zarkandar and Rock On Ruby, starting with the latter who became Paul Nicholls' first Champion Hurdle winner when triumphing last season; of course the eight-year-old was most likely already in the care of current trainer Harry Fry, who set up on his own this term, but P Nicholls goes into the record books nonetheless. That was an above-average renewal of the Champion Hurdle, despite Hurricane Fly failing to meet expectations, with Rock On Ruby's performance being the second best in the last ten years. He can be forgiven a below-par effort in defeat at Aintree, most likely over the top following his exertions, and there was plenty of encouragement to glean from his reappearance, matching the first two for most of the way before simply shaping as if in need of the run.

Rock On Ruby did enough to suggest that he retains all of his ability and could be worth backing at 11.010/1 now as, were he to produce a smooth success in his next reported target, the Contenders Hurdle at Sandown, he will not be that sort of price come March. 

There is an interesting point to note from Zarkandar's two runs this season, which is that connections seem intent upon employing more prominent tactics than before which could just prove to be the making of the six-year-old. His success in last season's Betfair Hurdle was all due to his excellent response to pressure, enabling him to overcome being outpaced, but he could not repeat the feat having being tapped for toe coming down the hill. The suspicion was that he may need further at the very highest level but he travelled like an improved horse on his reappearance at Wincanton, moving smoothly and quickening well, and the differing tactics again suited him well when winning at Cheltenham last time. 

It has to be said that it was a good opportunity that day, receiving 4 lb from his two main rivals and holding a fitness advantage having already had a run, but there is no doubt that Zarkandar is a live Champion Hurdle contender, not least because after just eight starts over timber he remains with the potential to achieve more. 

Having dealt with the main candidates it would be unfair were we not to have a quick spin through those that could also feature. Cinders And Ashes and Countrywide Flame are both just setting out upon their hurdling careers really but need to pull out a fair bit more to get amongst the principals, whilst Grumeti has not been seen since winning at Aintree last April and, although trainer Alan King is hopeful of having him ready for the Festival, he cannot be supported at this stage. 

As if Nicky Henderson didn't have enough strings to his bow already he could also run Binocular, another yet to be seen this season but who could take on Hurricane Fly in the Irish Champion Hurdle, and Oscar Whisky, who would make plenty of appeal were he to line up but both trainer and owner seem determined not to run him at two miles ever again. Please Nicky and Dai let him take his chance, he could surprise you. 

Were all of those mentioned above to turn up at the top of their games this could easily be the race of the entire Festival, with a great deal of talent and as yet untapped potential on offer. Hurricane Fly is still the one to beat but he no longer holds sway over the division like he once did so it is best to look elsewhere, with Grandouet and Darlan also left out from a price standpoint. The two best options at this stage are Zarkandar and Rock On Ruby, one with the potential to do better still and one the defending champion yet both trading at 8/1 or above, prices which go a long way to stirring the interest of the ante-post punter. 

Recommendations
Back Zarkandar @ 9.89/1
Back Rock On Ruby @ 11.010/1

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