The Champion Hurdle is the feature on day one of the Cheltenham Festival and it sees the Willie Mullins trained Hurricane Fly return to defend his Champion Hurdle crown.
Despite the ‘curse of Montjeu’ that surrounded Hurricane Fly’s Champion Hurdle preparation in 2011, he duly went and bolted up, proving how classy an animal he is. This year he is surrounded by even more doubts as he has been subject to a less than ideal preparation for the race. However, he turned up in what was admittedly a weak renewal of the Irish Champion Hurdle and won by doing little more than what he would normally do on the gallops of Closutton. At 8/11 (Boylesports) he might be a too short for some but with fancied U.K. challengers such as Zarkandar and Binocular in the field he is sure to drift to at least evens, if not a shade of odds against on the day.
Zarkandar looked in trouble jumping the second last in the Grade 3 Betfair Handicap Hurdle at Newbury last month but once he got his act together he went away and won in what was a very-impressive performance. He is only a five-year-old and he faces a very tough task in trying to beat a battle-hardened superstar like Hurricane Fly but there is no doubt that he is improving and should Hurricane Fly underperform, Paul Nicholls’ charge will be there to pick up the pieces.
Binocular has been relatively disappointing since being out-battled by Captain Cee Bee in the 2008 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. Despite winning his share of Graded races, he has always fallen short at the very top level. However, this season he has shown signs of the horse he was billed up to be all them years ago. When eyeballed by Rock On Ruby at the final flight of the Grade 1 Christmas Hurdle at Kempton, Binocular stuck his neck out and out-battled a proven stayer to prevail by a neck. He followed up that win with a classy performance in the Grade 2 Kingwell Hurdle to put himself right back in contention for the race his connections so dearly want. He is the 5/1 second favourite for the Champion Hurdle but I personally cannot see him overturning Hurricane Fly. 11/4 or 5/2 about Binocular in the ‘Betting W/O Hurricane Fly’ market makes a lot more appeal and that price is sure to be a lot shorter on the day.
Oscars Well was a 33/1 shot for the Champion Hurdle before Christmas and although I missed that price I did manage to get a bit on E/W at 25/1. He was desperately unlucky not to win at the festival last year, leaving his hind-legs in the final flight when three length’s clear and surrounding all chance he had of winning. This year he has been campaigned with this race in mind and Jessica Harrington has made it no secret that he wasn’t going to be 100% until the 13th of March. If you look back through his form it’s pretty easy to see his progress and improvement from run-to-run. He will improve further for better ground and he will relish the frantic pace that is guaranteed in the Champion Hurdle. At 12/1 he still represents some E/W value and while most will be emptying this horse will only be getting going so you’re guaranteed a run for your money.