David Cleary kicks off the first of a four part Cheltenham Festival antepost betting series with a look at the Champion Hurdle
"Sign of A Victory figures among those at 50/1 or bigger in the ante-post Champion Hurdle market. However, unlike the vast majority of the others at such fancy prices, he remains with quite a bit of potential to improve. He is worth a small interest each way at those odds or bigger."
Of the four Cheltenham Festival 'main events' - the Champion Hurdle, Champion Chase, World Hurdle and Cheltenham Gold Cup - the Champion Hurdle on the first day of the Festival is probably the least appealing as an ante-post betting race. The top of the market is taken by three strong contenders - Faugheen, The New One and Jezki - with few flaws or questions about their participation, if all take their place likely to be little shorter on the day than they are with two months of knocks and set-backs still to avoid.
Further, the likelihood of such entries as Vautour, Un de Sceaux or Annie Power, plausible contenders all, actually lining up, seems remote, unless some mishap befell their stable companions Faugheen and Hurricane Fly. The vast majority of the remainder of the twenty-three entries announced on Wednesday have shown form well short of the standard required, which leaves thin pickings, in truth.
That said, there may be an angle in finding a horse which still has some potential to better its current form, and top of the (very short) list in that regard is Sign of A Victory (currently 85.084/1 to back). He has won just three of his six starts over hurdles to date, but he was very unfortunate not to complete a hat-trick as a novice when impeded by a loose horse after the last at Ayr in April. Sign of A Victory looked a potential high-class performer when hacking up at Ascot on his handicap debut/reappearance in early-November, that effort indicating there was plenty more to come. He would have been a warm order for the Ladbroke back at that track before Christmas, but was taken out as the ground was considered unsuitably soft.
Instead, Sign of A Victory took his chance against current Champion Hurdle favourite Faugheen in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton, sent off as second favourite at 6/1. The ground was more in his favour, but that was very much plan B and Sign of A Victory failed to make an impact, albeit going with plenty of zest and not given at all a hard time of it once it was clear he had little chance of getting involved with Faugheen. The Ascot win remains the race on which to judge him.
The upside of that Kempton defeat, some 31 lengths behind the winner, is that his handicap mark suffered no damage and he may well start close to favouritism if allowed to take his chance in the Betfair Hurdle at Newbury at the start of next month. Why, it might be asked, not just back him for the Betfair Hurdle, but there seems to be rather more doubt that the ground will be regarded as suitable at Newbury in February than it will be at Cheltenham in March. If the ground at Newbury is deemed too soft, he could alternatively turn up at Wincanton for the Kingwell Hurdle later in the month, even if the latter is obviously a lesser prize. There is only one Champion Hurdle.
As well as the potential to improve to a level where he might be competitive in a Grade 1 event, Sign of A Victory has shown himself to have the attributes normally required for Champion Hurdle winners, in that he travels strongly, has a good turn of foot and is a fluent jumper of hurdles. Sign of A Victory has yet to run at Cheltenham, though that may be a question of circumstance, rather than that there are concerns he won't handle the track. As a novice, he didn't really get going early enough for the Supreme, while this season, he was clearly earmarked for the Ladbroke, with Vaniteux representing Nicky Henderson in the Greatwood at the Open meeting.
Sign of A Victory figures among those at 50/1 or bigger in the ante-post Champion Hurdle market. However, unlike the vast majority of the others at such fancy prices, he remains with quite a bit of potential to improve. He is worth a small interest each way at those odds or bigger.