Photo courtesy of RacehorsePhotos
By Charlie McCann
THE highlight of the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival is the Stan James Champion Hurdle and we have a vintage renewal of the biggest race of the season for hurdlers.
Hurricane Fly is bidding to become the first 10-year-old since Sea Pigeon back in 1980 to win the race and his critics will tell you he has won two below par renewals of the Champion, including 12-months ago, and he is not as effective, despite those successes, at Cheltenham as he is at his beloved Leopardstown where he looks unbeatable. His many fans, and I am one, will tell you if the race develops into a scrap from the last flight of hurdle he won’t get out-battled.
The New One is vying for favouritism and Nigel Twiston-Davies stable star powered up the hill to land the Neptune Novices’ Hurdle last year and is reported in rude health ahead of this acid test. He wasn’t beaten far in the Aintree Hurdle (2m 4f) as a novice last year and he is likely to ensure that pacemaker Captain Cee Bee doesn’t set a muddling tempo.
Whilst he and My Tent Or Yours are much respected the nod goes to the five-year-old Our Conor (3.45). Only Katchit has won the Champion Hurdle as a 5-y-o since See You Then back in 1985 but the selection has been brought along gently by trainer Dessie Hughes and doesn’t have much to find with The Fly on Irish Champion Hurdle form last time.
It promises to be the race of the week and it is Our Conor, half the age of Hurricane Fly, for me in what promises to be a magnificent renewal.
Champion Hurdle: Prices from BetVictor: EW ¼ first three
Hurricane Fly 11/4
The New One 11/4
My Tent Or Yours 4/1
Our Conor 9/2
The curtain-raiser is the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and Irving has won all four starts going right-handed for Paul Nicholls but there is no reason to think he won’t be as effective going anti-clockwise and today’s better ground will suit. Vautour has been vying for favouritism since beating The Tullow Tank at Leopardstown but I think the Willie Mullins’ second string Wicklow Brave (1.30) can reward each way support.
The selection has plenty of ability and the better ground and faster pace should help his jumping, which has hardly been foot-perfect to date, and at 13/2 with BetVictor he might just be the one.
The Arkle can go to Champagne Fever (2.05) who is bidding to score at the Festival for the third successive year having won the Festival Bumper (2012) and the Supreme Novices’ last year. He is sure to make it a true test at the minimum trip and whilst other horses might look to be going better than him they will do well to pass him up the hill. He is considered a possible Gold Cup horse rather than Champion Chaser but I would be disappointed if he didn’t go very close. He is currently 3/1 at BetVictor and I can’t see him going off bigger than that.
The Mares’ Hurdle can go to Quevega (4.00) for a record sixth time but from a betting proposition the two handicaps on the card are tricky puzzles although I have backed Present View (5.15) in the finale for Jamie Snowden. This better ground will suit this son of Presenting who has been raised 11lbs for his facile win at Kempton. Pendra looks a worthy favourite and at a bigger price Baby Mix can run well but I have long thought Present View was an ideal type for the race and conditions look to be coming in his favour.
AP McCoy favours Alfie Sherrin in the Festival Handicap Chase and the 20/1 on offer at BetVictor is likely to be a thing of the past with the Champion jockey favouring the Jonjo O’Neill-trained runner. He must go close but I think the better ground will suit Time For Rupert (2.40) and at 16/1 each way four places he just gets the vote over Alfie Sherrin and the novice Holywell whose inexperience might just catch him out.
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