Sunday, 8 March 2009

Cheltenham Preview - Champion Hurdle

The Smurfit Kappa Champion Hurdle was won three years in succession by the great Istabraq. Three other horses have completed hat-tricks in the event, while several other horses have back to back wins to their credit. The biggest hurdling event of National Hunt season, this year the talk is all of one horse: Binocular (right). I’m not so sure.

As I alluded to, the race has produced several repeat winners and a major trend to the race is winners who have previous Cheltenham form, with sixteen of the last twenty winners having won at the track. The Prestbury Park undulations are notoriously testing and some horses just never take to them. For this reason, we should be looking at horses with previous Cheltenham successes to their name and unfortunately, this rules out Binocular.

Binocular should have won last year, in the Supreme Novices’, but was outstayed by stablemate Captain Cee Bee. “Choc” Thornton said that the winner hadn’t really enjoyed the softer ground and the current forecast suggests the going may again be on the softer side. This doesn’t appear to bother Nicky Henderson, who says that Binocular will be alright as he’s been on soft before, but in my opinion he’s never had a stern test in the mud. If the favourite can be outstayed by a horse that doesn’t really like softer ground, is he really going to fancy another scrap on a tough track, in unfavourable conditions? In a field this size, there’s no just value in the 13/8 widely offered by the high street layers.

So what do we oppose him with? Could Katchit (left) be yet another to successfully defend the title? I suspect not, as there’s a trend toward last time out winners, with 22 of the last 25 winners taking gold in their latest race and Katchit hasn’t won since his triumph this time last year. It is worth noting however, that his three runs since then have all been at sharp, right handed tracks, worlds apart from the left handed galloping course that is Cheltenham, where his record reads well: five wins and one second from six starts (including two out of two at the Cheltenham Festival). For that reason alone, he could be worth a small each way tickle at a best price 16/1 (Bet365).

Another major trend to the race is that seventeen of the last eighteen Champion Hurdles were won by a horse in the top six of the betting. Knowing that and factoring in the other trends, the most likely winner of the 2009 Champion Hurdle is Celestial Halo (10/1 with many firms, including William Hill and Coral). Last seen winning a Listed race (on soft ground) at the end of January, a race which included Champion Hurdle third favourite Osana (right), he had twice been well beaten by Binocular, but I think that in a much larger field on a much more testing track, we could see that form reversed. Although Celestial Halo only has the one win at Cheltenham, it is a 100% strike rate and he has wins at Newbury (on soft ground) and Newcastle among others, both testing left handed tracks, so he ought to be able to prove that it was no fluke.

In short then, as good as Binocular looks, there’s simply no value in backing him, especially with the doubts surrounding his ability to get stuck in on a testing track on potentially soft ground. The obvious choice to oppose him with, for me at least, is Celestial Halo, but don’t discount last year’s winner in a race known for throwing up multiple winners.

Smurfit Kappa Champion Hurdle
Tuesday 10th March, 15:20
Celestial Halo - 1 point e/w
Katchit - 0.5 points e/w

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