The Champion Hurdle is one of the most intriguing races at the Cheltenham Festival with an undefeated Faugheen taking on reigning champ Jezki and two-time winner Hurricane Fly as well as last year's third The New One. But Donn McClean is searching for value and is keen on one lower down the list...
"Arctic Fire thrives on good ground behind a fast pace. He is at his best when he can be held up and delivered late, the potency of his turn of foot maximised away from winter ground. The Cheltenham Festival was made for him."
Even if only the top five in the market line up, the Champion Hurdle will be one of the most intriguing races of Cheltenham week.
There are so many imponderables, several fascinating questions that will be answered by the running of an incident-free race.
Faugheen, for starters, has never been beaten, so we still don't know where the ceiling of his ability lies. Willie Mullins' horse has run nine times - once in a point-to-point, once in a bumper and seven times over hurdles, three times at Grade 1 level - and he has won nine times.
He is versatile too. He has won over three miles on heavy ground and he has won over two miles on good to yielding ground. He has won on flat tracks and undulating tracks, going right-handed and going left-handed, in Ireland and in Britain and under four different riders. We probably won't know how good he is until he gets beaten.
The New One has a score to settle with the Champion Hurdle. It is impossible to know for sure how much ground he lost when he was hampered by Our Conor's fall in last year's renewal, but it is easy to argue that it was more than the two-and-three-quarter lengths by which he was beaten. Nigel Twiston-Davies' horse has not been beaten since.
In contrast to The New One, Jezki has not won this season. He has run three times, and he has been beaten by Hurricane Fly three times. That said, Jessica Harrington's horse is the reigning champ, and he thrives under Cheltenham Festival conditions: good ground, fast pace, electric atmosphere. He put up the best performance of his life under those conditions to claim the title last season, and there is every reason to expect that a repeat performance is forthcoming.
Which brings us on to the phenomenon that is Hurricane Fly, 22-time Grade 1 winner, dual Champion Hurdler. Won it, lost it, won it, lost it. Complete the sequence. It is interesting that Willie Mullins does not subscribe to the notion that the Montjeu gelding is not at his best at Cheltenham, that he believes that there were reasons for his two Champion Hurdle defeats.
Common sense and history tells you that he cannot be at his best at the age of 11, but his form this season tells you otherwise. Remember that Sea Pigeon won the Champion Hurdle at the age of 11 in 1981, beating Pollardstown and Daring Run and Bird's Nest and Badsworth Boy. It's possible.
The Champion Hurdle market has matured now and found its points of equilibrium, as markets that have been around for 12 months tend to do. However, if there is any value left in it, it probably lies in Arctic Fire. He may still be a little under-rated at 17.5 on the exchange or at 14/1 on the Sportsbook.
The Soldier Hollow-gelding proved that he can handle Festival conditions when he finished second in the County Hurdle last year. He might have won it too had the race panned out a little differently. He hit the front on landing over the final flight out in the centre of the track, and he was just mugged close home by Lac Fontana, who raced up the favoured stands rail. That said, it was still a high class performance: Lac Fontana went on to Aintree and landed the Grade 1 Mersey Hurdle.
Arctic Fire has progressed again this season. He got to within two lengths of Hurricane Fly and Jezki in the Ryanair Hurdle at Leopardstown's Christmas Festival, and he split the pair of them in the Irish Champion Hurdle back at Leopardstown in January, admittedly helped by Jezki's final flight blunder. But those two runs proved that, at worst, he is not far off.
Of course, Mullins' horse has to improve again if he is to get closer still in the Champion Hurdle, but there are two reasons for believing that he can. Firstly, he thrives on good ground behind a fast pace. He is at his best when he can be held up and delivered late, the potency of his turn of foot maximised away from winter ground. The Cheltenham Festival was made for him.
Secondly, he is only six, he is still improving. It is not a coincidence that only one five-year-old has won the Champion Hurdle since See You Then in 1985, but that three of the last six winners were six. His trainer says that he believes that he will continue to improve all the way to Champion Hurdle day. The 17.5 on the exchange is tempting, but it is probably best to back him at 14/1 on Betfair's sportsbook, because you can back him each-way at that, it is a good each-way race, and you get the added bonus of non-runner-no-bet.
1pt Back Arctic Fire each-way @ 14/1 on the Sportsbook (non-runner-no-bet)