With only eight weeks to go until Cheltenham 2020 the Champion Hurdle looks wide open. Betfair Ambassador Kevin Blake wonders if Pentland Hills can get his bid back on track this Saturday...
"His form remains a stone below Champion Hurdle class and his supporters are taking a giant leap of faith in making him a 6/4 favourite to win the Unibet Hurdle on Saturday."
At the start of the season, the Champion Hurdle division looked windier than Lahinch during a status red wind warning. Following the unfortunate loss of Espoir D'Allen, Buveur D'Air looked to set the bar at a beatable level of 165 for the young guns entering open company for the first time.
Road to Prestbury Park littered with disappointments
With the likes of Klassical Dream, Pentland Hills and Fusil Raffles amongst others in the "could be the one" folder, there were hopes that the division might shape up into something to get excited about. However, we are less than eight weeks from the big day and there have been more lows than highs in the search for clarity amongst the two-mile hurdles.
Buveur D'Air (pictured below) was beaten in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle on his seasonal reappearance and picked up a nasty injury in the process that has most likely ended his season. Klassical Dream has twice fluffed his lines in Ireland. Fusil Raffles made a workmanlike winning return prior to bombing out in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton. Elixir De Nutz bombed out twice.
Then there's Saldier who looked like he could be the one when making a winning reappearance in the Morgiana Hurdle, but he has since missed the Matheson Hurdle at Leopardstown and was a notable absentee from the entries for the Irish Champion Hurdle this week.
Honeysuckle has all the potential to be the one, but her connections seem to only have eyes for the Mares' Hurdle. Some connections have attempted to "do a Buveur D'Air" by switching their horses from novice chases back to hurdles in the hope of capitalising on the windy division, but that didn't go well for Getaway Trump in the Christmas Hurdle.
Haydock is chance for Cheltenham contenders to emerge
That's the bad news, so what's the good news? Without doubt the pick of those that have emerged from the long grass to stake their claim in the division is the Nicky Henderson-trained Epatante. The six-year-old has taken her form to a new level this season, turning a competitive handicap hurdle at Newbury into a procession before running out the impressive winner of an average-at-best renewal of the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton. Her jumping was better than ever in the latter contest and she has been settling a shade better this season, but she still appeals as being a work in progress.
Of the Irish-based hurdlers, Sharjah has raised his hand the highest thus far based on his comfortable victory in the Matheson Hurdle. Though, one can't help but wonder is he any better than he was last season, which was a solid 165 horse at his best. Now, that may prove to be enough to win a Champion Hurdle in a below-average renewal, but mutual observers couldn't be knocked for hoping that we end up with a higher class of winning performance than that.
With only a handful of opportunities left between now and Cheltenham for Champion Hurdle contenders to emerge, each of them will be the subject of a great amount of focus. The first of them takes place this Saturday at Haydock with the Unibet Hurdle primarily being billed as an opportunity for Pentland Hills to get his Champion Hurdle bid back on track after a stuttering return to action in the International Hurdle at Cheltenham.
His performance in that race was one that was open to interpretation. Many seemed satisfied that he had shaped as well as anything, travelling strongly and looking the likeliest winner after the final flight (traded 1.61 in-running on Betfair) only to weaken late on. One obvious way to read his performance is that he was simply too fresh on his seasonal reappearance, racing too freely through the race and getting tired due to the lack of a recent run late on. The interpretation insinuates that he will be significantly better with that run under his belt and can be expected to show it at Haydock on Saturday. However, I would read it differently.
The International Hurdle was run at a notably steady pace and Pentland Hills was ideally positioned behind the leader throughout. He certainly did race more freely than ideal, particularly in the middle section of the race, but the manner in which he went from contesting the lead to weakening so notably in the final 100 yards to be beaten by five lengths was concerning to me. He didn't fade, he capitulated at the end of a race that wasn't a strong test of conditioning or stamina. His form remains a stone below Champion Hurdle class and his supporters are taking a giant leap of faith in making him a 6/4 favourite to win the Unibet Hurdle on Saturday.
O'Brien runner will relish testing ground
Not only does he have to prove he's up to the level required to win a race like this, he is unproven on the testing ground that will prevail at Haydock. Timeform judged the ground to be soft in the International Hurdle and that was the softest surface he encountered over hurdles thus far. That it coincided with him producing a worryingly weak effort under pressure might not be a coincidence. The surface he will encounter at Haydock will be significantly more testing and it has to be a major question mark next to his name.
In contrast, all of the leading rivals to Pentland Hills are proven on heavy ground. The one that makes the most appeal against him is the Joseph O'Brien-trained Darasso. The seven-year-old came in under the radar last season to win the Red Mills Trial Hurdle at Gowran Park by a long way and followed up when maintaining his unbeaten record over fences by beating Cadmium in the Webster Cup Chase at Navan.
While Darasso stays further than this, his performance at Gowran Park was strong on the clock and he looks to have enough pace to compete at this level over the minimum trip. Most importantly of all, he will absolutely relish the testing conditions. He appeals as being the most attractive alternative to Pentland Hills who, win or lose, looks to be far too short in the betting at around 6/4.