Sunday, 7 February 2010

Cheltenham 2010: Champion Hurdle

Right then, thanks to Tim for dragging the blog into the new decade with a nice little review of the last ten years, but now it’s time to get back to the serious business of scooping. Over the next couple of weeks, I’m hoping to get stuck into quite a few Cheltenham Festival races and I’m going to start off with what looks to be one of the most competitive renewals of the Smurfit Kappa sponsored Champion Hurdle, that we’ve had in a long time. Last year, my main pick was Celestial Halo (at 10/1) who was beaten a neck by Punjabi (pictured above, Celestial Halo in red and white) and I would like to go one better this time around.

The showpiece event of the Festival’s opening day, the Champion Hurdle is for those horses aged four or older and is contested over eight hurdles, spread over two miles and half a furlong. The much fancied Solwhit and Go Native are two of the many Irish raiders looking to take on last year’s front three of Punjabi, Celestial Halo and Binocular, who all line up again for this year’s renewal; a tasty prospect. As ever, I will begin by looking at some key trends to try and thin the field.

The first thing to note is that there have been just two horses aged five win this race in the last thirty or so years and for a four year old Champion Hurdle winner, you must go back to Forestation in 1942. Similarly, we’ve not seen a horse aged older than nine win the race since the great Sea Pigeon in 1980 and 1981 and only two nine year olds have triumphed in that time. We ought then, to be looking at those in the six to eight years old bracket, allowing us to whittle the field from 34 entries to 24 and ruling out a couple of market fancies, in the shape of Zaynar and Solwhit.

The major trend in the race, as with a lot of the Cheltenham Festival events, is previous form at the track. The old adage of “horses for courses” really holds true here as many fail to get to grips with the undulations at Prestbury Park and some simply come alive there. Past course form may be important, but results at the Festival meeting itself are even better, as eight of the last ten Champion Hurdle winners had previously scored at the Festival, the other two having placed top four in a Festival race. Armed with this knowledge, I can reduce the field to just eight: American Trilogy, Celestial Halo, Punjabi, Dunguib, Go Native, Katchit and Quevega (all past winners at the Festival) plus Khyber Kim (twice winner at Cheltenham recently).

You could arguably include Binocular (left) on account of his two places at the Festival and Medermit, who battled on gamely to lose by a neck in Go Native’s Supreme Novices win, but I don’t like either of these. The latter has twice been comfortably beaten by Khyber Kim in the last few months, both times at Cheltenham, whilst Binocular is a horribly overrated and underperforming horse, who has been all but written off by his own jockey (AP McCoy, no less) in the last few days. Readers of this blog will know of my willingness to take him on.

I will also rule out Dunguib, as connections have stated a preference for the Supreme Novices and have effectively decided against a run in this one, leaving us with just seven.

As much as I’d love to go with Celestial Halo again, I really don’t know what to make of his preparation so far. A comfortable win on reappearance taught us nothing and was followed by defeat in the Boylesports International (2 ¼ lengths) to Khyber Kim (right), but he was giving away 4lbs and only lost after a blunder at the last. This was followed by a disappointing Irish Champion Hurdle, but the race was run in a bit of a bog so there are possible excuses. Unfortunately there are too many question marks for me and I’d rather invest in something a little more concrete, so I’ll be discounting last year’s tip, which is probably the cue for you all to run down to Hills and lump on at a best price 16/1.

Khyber Kim has twice failed at the Cheltenham Festival and has never looked much cop until recently, when landing a Grade 3, before following up in the Boylesports International (Grade 2), both at Cheltenham. Following the latter form line, I don’t think Khyber Kim can beat Celestial Halo at level weights and as I’ve already ruled that one out, I have to put a line through Khyber Kim too.

Quevega looks a live outsider, but could be more likely to go and defend her David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle title, which looks an easier option. Trainer Willie Mullins also has a poor record in this race, with nothing so much as a place from six tries. Let’s put a line through the 50/1 shot.

I really don’t know what to make of American Trilogy. The Vincent O’Brien County Handicap Hurdle winner hasn’t been seen since April and has been declared as unlikely to run in next week’s Totesport Trophy. They’ll surely struggle to get a run into the grey gelding before Cheltenham if it doesn’t line up, so I’m thinking they’ve changed their mind about the Champion Hurdle. Besides, it’s form since winning at last year’s festival isn’t inspiring, a beaten favourite twice in two, a Grade 2 and a Listed Race. Next please.

Go Native (left) is currently second favourite in the market (best price 6/1, widely available) and there is a lot to like about the seven year old. His only trip to Cheltenham saw him return with the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle trophy and he recently took the Fighting Fifth, which Timmy Murphy claimed would produce this year’s Champion Hurdle winner and was last year won by Punjabi (who did go on to win the Champion Hurdle). Noel Meade’s record in the race isn’t great though, with just a single place from eight runners, so I’d be wanting a good bit bigger than 6/1.

So I’m left with Punjabi and Katchit, both past winners of the Champion Hurdle. This race is well known for repeat winners, with five horses winning the race three times in a row (including Istabraq and the Nicky Henderson trained See You Then) and six horses winning it twice. This would seem to underline the pair’s already impressive credentials. Katchit was my saver last year and finished not far back in sixth, but this time round seems more likely to be contesting the World Hurdle, so I’ll leave him out for now.

Punjabi is quite overpriced as far as I can tell (16s widely available, as short as 10/1 with Totesport). His trainer has four wins in the race, the horse won the race last year and was placed third the year prior to that, aged five. You can argue all day long about the strength of the last two renewals, but for me, it’s very difficult to argue against that form. As disappointing as he was during the Boylesports International, Nicky Henderson did point out to all and sundry that the horse was in need of the run and last time out, he was beaten four lengths by Medermit (though giving away 4lbs) and he did make a mistake at the last that day. I’m sure we can expect better come the Festival. If Geraghty stays on Punjabi, that’s a further positive as he’s probably the best jockey around when it comes to riding Cheltenham.

At this early stage I’d be happy to stick a half point e/w on Punjabi at 16s. Closer to the time, I’d be looking at increasing that a little, with Go Native and Zaynar of possible interest as savers.

Smurfit Kappa Champion Hurdle
Tuesday 16th March, 15:20
Punjabi - 0.5 points e/w

12 March update: Punjabi is now a best priced 8/1, only with Totesport and Sportingbet. As short as 6/1 with some firms. Totesport are offering new members £60 in free bets, so you don't even need to stake real money - nothing to lose. Get on!


Paul said...

Good write up, i'm very keen on Go Native myself, but also think Punjabi will be great each way value, as it's one of those horses that will drift before the race i think.

moDtheGod said...

Punjabi now best priced 11/1 with the Tote and William Hill. As skinny as 8s in some places.

Zaynar was disappointing yesterday, though I'd say he was beaten by the ground as much as anything.

Punjabi is out tomorrow, though Felix de Giles will be on board. I'd imagine the horse will win and the odds will be clipped ever so slightly. Surely Geraghty will plump for Punjabi on the big day.

Binocular's out through a muscle problem. Yeah right, an ability problem more like.

moDtheGod said...

Punjabi is now best priced 10/1 (Hills, Coral and Tote).

I don't think Geraghty's made his mind up yet. If he picks Punjabi, they'll clip at least another point off this. There's still value to be had.

I'll be upping my 0.5 points e/w @ 16/1, with another 0.5 e/w at 10s.

moDtheGod said...

"I think Barry will stick with Punjabi through loyalty but nothing is set in stone."

- Nicky Henderson, this morning.

Best price now? 8/1.

Another Scoop troop exclusive, brought to you by me, six days ago.

I don't think it'll get much shorter, so now might be the time to trade out if you got on at 16s. Or alternatively, let it spin and SCOOOOOOOP! said...

Wow, there is a great deal of useful data above!