With the first smattering of confirmed Cheltenham Festival entries out this week, it makes sense to take an ante-post look at the day one showpiece race – the Champion Hurdle.
To say that it has been a muddy picture thus far would be an understatement, and Epatante has extracted herself from the mire and been elevated to a best priced 7/2 favourite, with two impressive performances.
On Boxing Day, she beat Silver Streak by an admittedly cosy 5 lengths, whereas that same horse was beaten 15 lengths by the ill-fated Espoir D’Allen in last year’s Champion Hurdle. She needs to improve again, and can, but it is a worry that she put in a poor performance in last year’s Mares Novice Hurdle at the Festival.
Wind back the clock to November 2018, and Saldier was in the process of giving Espoir D’Allen a proper race in a Grade 3 at Naas, and to my eye was actually travelling better, when clipping the top of the last hurdle and coming to grief. At the time, consensus was that it wasn’t strong form, but Espoir D’Allen went on to dispel that notion.
Saldier was then sent off an unconsidered 7/1 shot, in fact, the least favoured of three Willie Mullins trained horses when impressively winning the Grade 1 Morgiana Hurdle on reappearance this season. He beat last year’s Supreme winner Klassical Dream, whose temperament is in danger of wasting his talent.
Back in fourth was subsequent Leopardstown Grade 1 Matheson Hurdle winner Sharjah, who would surely need an unlikely ground description approaching ‘good’ were he to win a Champion Hurdle. While Petit Mouchoir was second, arriving race fit and assuming front-running duties – often favoured around the tight Punchestown hurdle track.
Saldier has the best form, and there could potentially be more to come, and looks way too big at 8/1 with William Hill. The only worry is the slight setback he had after the Morgiana, but a positive update was issued this week, and if he got there on the day, he’d surely be shorter.
Having spent a few days reflecting and analysing events at the Dublin Racing Festival, and with the news that Irish Champion Hurdle winner Honeysuckle will be kept to her own sex on day one of the Cheltenham Festival, I have found myself compelled to suggest another bet in the Champion Hurdle – in addition to the 8/1 already advised about Saldier a few weeks ago.
When you consider that Honeysuckle was 4/1 in places after winning at Leopardstown on Saturday, I find it increasingly hard to fathom how the horse that was beaten only a ½ length second, closing all the way, can be backed at 25/1 – with the NRNB concession an added boost.
Darver Star has only had one run out of novice company, due to a quirk in when he broke his maiden over hurdles, but when you consider just how well he ran in that only open Grade 1 assignment, there must be scope for more improvement.
Granted an extra ½ furlong, potentially softer ground and a steep hill into the mix, and he improves again to my eye. Given that Petit Mouchoir – just about the most solid litmus test for any Champion Hurdle form on the western side of the Irish Sea – was beaten into third, and you have all the makings of a hugely overpriced horse trained by the man that saddled last year’s Champion Hurdle winner.
Some doubters will point to the fact that he was only 3rd in the Royal Bond Novices’ Hurdle the time before, and that was only against novices. But I urge you to watch that race again, and observe how Darver Star is stuck behind runners as Envoi Allen and Abacadbras are quickening away. Once in the clear, he is steadily closing those two down.
Both Envoi Allen and Abacadabras have Champion Hurdle entries, such is how highly they are thought of in Gordon Elliott’s stable. Time may tell that this year’s novice hurdlers, such as these, are already close to being a better bunch than the Champion Hurdle crop.
Either way, I see no reason for Darver Star being as big as 25/1, and could be a left-field flyer that has a squeak in such an open year.