The latest Betfair Hurdle has not one talking horse but two, with Modus and War Sound both clear (at around 7/1) of the rest in the ante-post market.
Modus has won two of his three hurdles starts, is owned by J. P. McManus, whose My Tent Or Yours hacked up in the 2013 renewal and whose Darlan looked poised to win the following year until falling two out, and is trained by Paul Nicholls, whose Zarkandar justified favouritism in 2012. It's not hard to see why Modus is prominent in the betting, though strictly on the form book he'll need to improve a good chunk if he's to make a winning handicap debut off a mark of 139 in such a competitive race (was smart in bumpers and remains capable of better).
War Sound presumably did something impressive on Philip Hobbs' gallops a week after the entries were revealed in mid-January, as he was backed from 16/1 into 10/1. War Sound has won three of his five starts, admittedly, including the Swinton Handicap at Haydock in May, but that he's not been seen since tempers enthusiasm for backing him at his current price, with only the aforementioned Zarkandar having won this race on his seasonal return this century.
Timeform top rated as things stand--though that is subject to change as form gets reassessed--is Montbazon who was fourth in the 2012 Supreme Novices' and third in the 2014 County Hurdle (after finishing well held in this race). He's not run since July 2014, however, while his stable Winner Massagot (second on the ratings) found less than looked likely when among the favourites for the Ladbroke Handicap at Ascot in December.
The Ladbroke was won by Sternrubin who has grown up this season and completed his hat-trick there, when he responded extremely well to an aggressive ride (right out of the top drawer) by Richard Johnson to share the spoils with Jolly's Cracked It. Sternrubin is 8 lb higher here, and the support for War Sound suggests his stable may have a better-handicapped contender (it will be interesting to see who Richard Johnson rides, presumably War Sound who has built up a good relationship with 7-lb claimer Ciaran Gethings).
Another who has proven most progressive this season is Holly Bush Henry who completed his own hat-trick (unbeaten in three starts for Graeme McPherson) in a Musselburgh handicap last month. While he only won by a neck and half a length that day, a 5 lb rise could prove lenient (the penalty he picked up should get him into the Betfair field) and he's capable of even better--33/1 looks a big price for him.
Third best on the Timeform ratings is Starchitect who was fourth in the Fred Winter last March and was in the process of showing improved form (third) when falling at the last in the Anniversary at Aintree. He's an intriguing horse given he's joined David Pipe from Donald McCain, but he's been entered a few times this season and not run, which suggests he's had some issues.
Starchitect's owners Paul and Clare Rooney may have a more solid contender in Desoto County who made a winning debut for Gordon Elliott (had also left McCain) in a Thurles handicap in December. Desoto County shaped well when third of 23 to Henry Higgins in a valuable two-mile handicap at Leopardstown last month, staying on having met trouble, and he's another open to further improvement.
Other raiders from Ireland could include the Mullins/Ricci pair Kalkir and Dicosimo who both made encouraging reappearances, the former when a place in front of Desoto County in that Leopardstown handicap and the latter when winning a listed hurdle at Limerick in December. Their prices on the Betfair exchange suggest both are in line to run, which just adds to the competitiveness of this race.
Kalkir and Dicosimo both began their careers in France, as did Affair d'Honneur who made a very promising start for the Harry Whittington stable (saddled Arzal to finish sixth in this race last year) when second to Zulu Oscar in a handicap at Kempton in December. Affair d'Honneur was bought by his current connections for €110,000 and is likely to progress further, so his current position around fifth-best in the market is understandable.
John Constable is that rarest of beasts: an entire running over jumps. He's very well bred (brother to Leading Light) and showed useful form on the Flat for Aidan O'Brien before joining Evan Williams, for whom he's won two of his three starts over timber. John Constable improved further when four lengths second to Sternrubin in the Gerry Feilden over C&D in November and meets that rival on 12 lb better terms here; he's one for the shortlist.
Zarib ran at least as well as first time back when sixth in the Ladbroke, but it's fair to say he's still to make the expected strides in handicaps and will need to improve a good deal to figure prominently here.
Harry Fry saddled Activial and Jolly's Cracked It to finish third and fifth last year, and he could run Charmix this time around. The form of Charmix's ready defeat of Big Chief Benny here in December looks better now, but he was outclassed in Grade 2 company recently and looks to have been handed a pretty stiff opening handicap mark (6 lb higher than Modus who beat him off level weights over C&D in November).
Qewy was third in the Top Novices' Hurdle at Aintree last April and hails from the soon-to-be-dismantled John Ferguson yard that sent out Cotton Mill to finish runner-up to My Tent Or Yours in 2013. After two starts over fences, Qewy got back on track returned to hurdles (also his handicap debut) when a close second to Minstrels Gallery at Doncaster in December, and he could be suited by the demands of this race (strong traveller, listed winner on the Flat).
Gary Moore has won three of the last eight runnings (including with Violet Dancer 12 months ago) but his two entries this year could be up against it, Flute Bowl an inconsistent (lazy) sort who disappointed last time and Clayton currently well out of the handicap.
The last nine Betfair Hurdles have been won by horses aged five or six, which highlights the sort of horse you need to win. Modus, War Sound and Desoto County are all interesting but their current odds don't reflect their form claims given they are 16th, 24th and 38th respectively on the Timeform weight-adjusted ratings list, and better value at this stage may be had with John Constable at around 16/1. Qewy and Holly Bush Henry given are also both overpriced at 33/1.
Back John Constable at 17.016/1 or bigger in the Betfair Hurdle