Tony McFadden examines the credentials of the leading players in a high-class renewal of the Champion Hurdle...
"The level of form that they showed in the Christmas Hurdle is deemed by Timeform to be of a similar standard to the best that Hurricane Fly has produced but, whereas the current champion has surely reached his peak at the age of 10, there is good reason to suspect that The New One and My Tent Or Yours are both capable of better granted a fiercely-run two miles..."
The first point to note when assessing this year's Champion Hurdle is the fact that the top six in the market have all shown a standard of form that is higher than the level usually required to win an average renewal of the race. The second point is that five of them are second-season hurdlers and, as such, could yet be capable of showing improved form. This is clearly a top-class edition and an outstanding performance will be required to win.
Dual Champion Hurricane Fly is currently vying for favouritism with The New One following an impressive success in the Ryanair Hurdle where he comfortably fended off a couple of new challengers in Our Conor and Jezki. Hurricane Fly may have been unimpressive on his seasonal return against vastly inferior opposition in the Morgiana Hurdle, looking rather rusty as he registered a record 17th Grade 1 win, but he was much more convincing at Leopardstown over Christmas as he added another top-level prize to his haul. Hurricane Fly has a flawless record at Leopardstown - he has won on seven occasions, each time in Grade 1 company - and he seems likely to confirm the form with Our Conor and Jezki in the Irish Champion Hurdle later this month, but he will face the stiffest task of his career at Cheltenham up against some young, progressive top-class hurdlers. Hurricane Fly was ultimately well on top in last year's Champion Hurdle, winning by two and a half lengths, but it was disconcerting that he had to be nudged along by Ruby Walsh down the back straight in order to keep tabs on 2012 victor Rock On Ruby, especially when you consider Countrywide Flame and Zarkandar were both capable of going the gallop. Countrywide Flame and Zarkandar are both top-class horses in their own right - between them they have registered five successes at the highest level - but they wouldn't be blessed with anywhere near the same amount of speed as The New One or My Tent Or Yours, and Hurricane Fly can't afford to cede ground to opponents of their calibre.
Hurricane Fly is remarkably consistent for a horse of his quality - he has tasted defeat just once in the last four seasons - but he will face rivals in the Champion that have already run to a similar level, are relatively unexposed over a strongly-run two miles and are open to further improvement. Is Hurricane Fly capable of raising his game at the age of 10? No one can decry what Hurricane Fly has achieved - in fact, he perhaps hasn't always got the credit he deserves - but, at this advanced stage of his career, it is unlikely that he will be able to produce the career-best effort that will probably be required.
Last year's race was run at an overly-strong pace thanks to the front-running Rock On Ruby (blinkered first time) and, though he looks set to run in the Arkle this season, a good gallop could again be on the cards if Hurricane Fly's exciting stable companion Un de Sceaux takes his chance. Unbeaten in four starts over hurdles, Un de Sceaux has been brought along steadily by Willie Mullins - he has yet to race in a graded race - but he has created a tremendous impression and shapes like a horse out of the top drawer. The way in which Un de Sceaux annihilated the useful Foildubh at Navan, leaving that rival paying the price for attempting to keep tabs mid-race, makes him look well worth his place in the Champion Hurdle. Dominating a host of proven Grade 1 performers clearly won't be easy, and there is certainly an element of all-or-nothing involved with his aggressive running style, but Un de Sceaux is completely unexposed and should not be underestimated.
Mullins could also have another string to his bow in the shape of Annie Power. Annie Power's participation is unknown at this stage as the unbeaten mare also has the World Hurdle as a legitimate target (while the Mares' Hurdle could also come into the reckoning should something happen to Quevega) but she would have to be considered as a leading player if she does run. In receipt of 7 lb from the boys, Annie Power tops Timeform's weight-adjusted ratings for the Champion Hurdle and still retains the 'p', signifying that further improvement is expected. As a note of caution, though, Annie Power's best effort was on near-unraceable ground at Cheltenham on New Year's Day over 21 furlongs, so the Champion Hurdle, run over an extended two miles on ground that is likely to be appreciably quicker, clearly offers a significantly different test. Whether Annie Power will be able to reproduce her form under the conditions that she will face in the Champion Hurdle is clearly a query, but it should be noted that she has passed every test she has faced in her career to date, already establishing herself as one of the best mares of recent times, and would have to rank as a fascinating contender.
Still concentrating on the Irish challenge, Our Conor and Jezki may have been held by Hurricane Fly at Leopardstown but it is conceivable that they could put up a stronger challenge at Cheltenham. Our Conor put up one of the best performances ever seen by a four-year-old hurdler when a wide-margin winner of the Triumph Hurdle last season, his 15-length triumph a record in the race. He was beaten for the first time over hurdles when only third behind Hurricane Fly and Jezki, but he shaped well, making good headway before flattening out close home, and is entitled to progress from what was his first start of the season over timber. Unlike most winners of the Triumph, Our Conor possesses plenty of pace so should be well suited to the Old Course, where there is a greater emphasis on speed, and it would be foolish to completely dismiss him. Jezki has also shown top-class form over hurdles, his best effort coming when a comprehensive winner of the Champion Novice Hurdle at Punchestown last season, and he was a shade unfortunate behind Hurricane Fly having been left short of room at a crucial stage. He probably wouldn't have beaten Hurricane Fly even with a clear passage, though, and, similar to last year in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle, he may find a few slightly too good.
Last year's Supreme Novices' Hurdle was run in an outstanding time, particularly when compared to the Champion Hurdle, and the form is undoubtedly strong with three highly-promising novices pulling clear. My Tent Or Yours, beaten a half-length in second, perhaps didn't receive the credit he deserved, however. An ultra-impressive winner of the Betfair Hurdle on his previous outing, My Tent Or Yours was understandably a strong favourite for the Supreme, having already achieved a level of form good enough to win an average renewal, but, having jumped well and travelled powerfully, he couldn't overhaul the superbly-ridden Champagne Fever on the run to the line. Though a shade below what he had produced at Newbury, it was still a highly-creditable effort from an inexperienced novice and the fact he found less than likely after the last shouldn't be held against him, particularly as he has since shown a highly-admirable attitude under pressure to win the Christmas Hurdle.
In one of the most eagerly-awaited clashes of recent times, My Tent Or Yours got the better of The New One by a hard-fought half-length in the Christmas Hurdle, though the result could well have been different had his rival not clattered the final flight when narrowly in the lead, causing his rider, Sam Twiston-Davies, to lose an iron. Supporters in either camp can take plenty of positives from the Christmas Hurdle, and speculate as to what the result would have been without the error, but what the race did confirm is that both horses are top class - they pulled 28 lengths clear of the smart Sametegal who finished third in last season's Triumph Hurdle - and there probably isn't much to split the pair in terms of ability. Crucially, the race also allayed any doubts as to how much My Tent Or Yours finds off the bridle. His task in passing The New One was obviously made easier by that horse's final-flight blunder, but simply keeping tabs with The New One while he was accelerating and putting significant ground between himself and some smart performers was meritorious.
The conventional wisdom seems to be that two miles around Kempton's flat circuit was absolutely ideal for the pacey My Tent Or Yours, and The New One, who has proven stamina and a good course record, will relish the strongly-run two miles and prove too strong up the hill at Cheltenham. However, the testing ground at Kempton on Boxing Day ensured that the Christmas Hurdle wasn't the outright test of speed it often is, and there are grounds for believing that the strong-travelling My Tent Or Yours will benefit enormously for the return to what is likely to be a sounder surface at Cheltenham, even considering the course's watering policy.
It was difficult to split My Tent Or Yours and The New One at Kempton, and, in all probability, there won't be much between the pair in the Champion Hurdle, either. The level of form that they showed in the Christmas Hurdle is deemed by Timeform to be of a similar standard to the best that Hurricane Fly has produced but, whereas the current champion has surely reached his peak at the age of 10, there is good reason to suspect that The New One and My Tent Or Yours are both capable of better granted a fiercely-run two miles. At the current prices, My Tent or Yours, who is trading at [5.8] compared to The New One at [4.2], just shades the vote in a fascinating contest.
Back My Tent Or Yours @ [5.8] to win the Champion Hurdle.