*please note, this was written in advance of Faugheen's withdrawal on Feb 17*
Tuesday March 15, 2016
There hasn't been a back-to-back winner of the Champion Hurdle since Hardy Eustace in 2005, Willie Mullins possibly should have done it in 2012 with Hurricane Fly who was sent off a short 4/6 favourite to follow up his 2011 win. The Fly could only finish third that day but he did return in 2013 to power up the hill and claim the prize for a second time in three years.
But the odds say we'll enjoy a back-to-back winner with Willie Mullins' unbelievable gelding Faugheen rightly positioned at the head of the market. Last year's Champion Hurdle winner is now as short as 2/5 to follow up his 2015 success. Faugheen's faultless performance in the Irish Champion Hurdle actually makes that price look like a bit of value, while I am personally not interested in backing 2/5 at Chletenham he simply has to be on most people's banker festival accumulators.
Mullins also saddles the second home last year Arctic Fire (12/1) and Nichols Canyon (7/1) the only horse that has beaten Faugheen, both were also in the Irish Champion Hurdle field and were comprehensively beaten. Also in the field is last year's second favourite for the race, The New One (20/1) who won the Champion Hurdle trial at Haydock.
The first three home in last season's Triumph Hurdle, Peace And Co (14/1), Top Notch (33/1) and Hargam (33/1) are in the market along with other horses at the head of the market, Identity Thief (12/1) and Camping Ground (16/1) you basically have at this stage the best field that it probably could be.
But I can't see anything beating Faugheen.
The ideal profile of a Champion Hurdle winner is aged six to eight with at least nine runs over hurdles and ideally having between three and five runs that season, with his last start within a couple of months of the festival. I am ruling out the three contenders from last year's Triumph Hurdle as they are all five-year-olds and only one horse has won this race since 1985 aged five. I am also ruling out the nine-year-olds (one win since 1951) and over, they also have a bad record in the race, that takes out My Tent Or Yours (20/1).
Henry De Bromehead and connections decided not to run their Fighting Fifth Hurdle winner Identity Thief in the Irish Champion Hurdle instead they are planning on heading straight to Cheltenham, a move that would take him off my radar as a potential selection, as he needs to get a race in before the festival. Camping Ground looks like he will have a run in the Cleve Hurdle at the end of January and then all being well, connections will make a decision but I suspect that decision will be to go for the World Hurdle.
Of the likely contenders, I like The New One. He finished second to Faugheen in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton, finished fifth in this last year, after being sent off the second favourite and was third the year before when Jezki won it. At 20/1 he looks a little too big in the ante-post market, he'll also be arriving at Cheltenham in better form this year than last year. Nigel Twiston Davies said he had trouble with his feet last year and as a result he did all his prep in the swimming pool. Despite this he was still only beaten by eight lengths and with the Champion Hurdle Trial win under his belt perhaps he could get even closer to Faugheen this time around.
I have backed The New One in the W/O Faugheen market on the Exchange @ 11.010/1, I think that is a very fair price. He has finished his prep work and only an injury at home would see him not compete in this race, he has run creditably in previous Champion hurdles and I am sure Nigel Twiston Davies will have him right on the day. After his win in the Haydock trial his trainer was quoted as saying "Obviously Faugheen is very, very good but second, third, fourth - the crumbs are very tasty ones" he will be looking for his charge to finish as high up the placings as possible.