Thursday 21 February 2013

Cheltenham Festival Champion Hurdle Preview

The most prestigious hurdling event in the British National Hunt calendar, the Champion Hurdle, is the traditional highlight on the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival. This year’s renewal, due off at 3.20 p.m. on Tuesday, March 12, 2013, looks as competitive as ever, with the last three winners, Rock On Ruby, Hurricane Fly and Binocular, once again in opposition. 

Willie Mullins’ 9-year-old Hurricane Fly (7/4) heads the betting on the strength of four Grade 1 wins out of four since finishing 5½ lengths third to Rock On Ruby in last year’s Champion Hurdle. He’s started at long odds-on and faced a total of just 17 opponents in those four races, but Mr. Mullins was delighted by his 5-length win in the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown in January. He said afterwards, “He is fine and has come out of his race very well and is back in the form he was in two years ago [when he won the Champion Hurdle].”  

Paul Nicholls’ 6-year-old Zarkandar (5/1) won the Triumph Hurdle in 2011 and finished fifth, beaten 6¾ lengths, in the Champion Hurdle last year. He subsequently fell in the Aintree Hurdle, but has been in decent form this season, completing a hat-trick of Grade 2 wins in the Elite Hurdle at Wincanton, the International Hurdle at Cheltenham and the Kingwell Hurdle, again at Wincanton. Strictly on the form book, he has something to find with Rock On Ruby, Hurricane Fly and Binocular but, unlike Rocky On Ruby and Binocular, he’s won on heavy going, so may have an advantage if the Champion Hurdle is run in testing conditions.

Harry Fry’s 8-year-old Rock On Ruby (6/1) has done little wrong since winning last year’s Champion Hurdle. He subsequently finished third, beaten 5¼ lengths, behind Oscar Whisky (ante post favourite for this year’s World Hurdle) in the Aintree Hurdle, over 2 miles 4 furlongs, but has run two perfectly adequate preparation races this season. He finished third, beaten 8 lengths, behind Zarkandar, to whom he was conceding 4lb, in the International Hurdle and showed the benefit of that run when comfortably beating Countrywide Flame by 3 lengths in the 32Red Hurdle at Doncaster in early February. That race was marred by a fatal injury to Darlan, but Harry Fry is reportedly delighted with the way Rock On Ruby has come out of the race. He said, “…we’re very confident and if it continues to dry we’ll be growing more confident by the day.”

Although he clearly has something to find with Rock On Ruby, if the Doncaster form is taken at face value, the North Yorkshire trainer has been equally bullish about the chances of his 5-year-old Countrywide Flame (16/1) in recent weeks. Prior to the 32Red Hurdle, Mr. Quinn said, “I think he’ll run a good race on Monday, but it’s not Cheltenham and that’s what we’re really looking forward to. We know he loves Cheltenham, he showed that in the Triumph Hurdle last year and as I was saying to someone the other day, if he hadn’t kicked the last hurdle out of the ground he’d have won the Triumph Hurdle by six lengths.”