Today I start a series that will analyse the all the championship races at the Cheltenham Festival, now less than seven weeks away. The Champion Hurdle is the highlight of the opening day, and the news this morning that Annie Power shall not be there to defend her crown sends another shockwave through the ante-post markets, following the injuries to so many other leading lights this season.
So we are left with a short-priced favourite in the mighty shape of Faugheen, the 2015 champion who was similarly unable to defend his crown last year due to injury and has not been seen on the racecourse since. His only defeat in 12 starts over hurdles came by half a length to the smart Nichols Canyon, and with two wins in the fierce cauldron of Festival fervour (the other one being the Neptune in 2014, showing that stamina is no problem) his credentials look rock solid.
Wily master Mullins reports his charge in fine form at home, and he is surely the most likely winner, but 6/4 at this stage looks thin for a horse that won’t have raced for 400 days. On that Tuesday in March those odds could be attractive, but for the moment I’m happy to look for each way alternatives.
Of his rivals at the head of the market, there seems little to separate Yanworth and Yorkhill from their Neptune form last year and both have done well this season. However, there is a suspicion that both might want further (Yorkhill isn’t even entered at this stage having been chasing) and again their prices are far from from encouraging at 4/1 and 8/1 respectively. The picture is further clouded by two more Mullins hopefuls who may also be routed elsewhere – Vroum Vroum Mag and Nichols Canyon.
Jezki, My Tent Or Yours and The New One filled the top three places in 2014, but they all have a lot of miles on the clock and it is hard to see them winning now. If a big-odds coup is to be found I would prefer to look to the less exposed younger horses, and the improving Petit Mouchoir and Brain Power have claims, but again the bookies are not giving it away at 6/1 and 12/1 respectively.
The recent spate of winning favourites in the race should not detract from the overall record. Since the Istabraq dominance around the turn of the millennium, there have been winners at 10/1, 33/1, 16/1, 10/1, 22/1, 9/1, 11/1 and 9/1.
The 22/1 shot in that list was Punjabi, who finished third to Katchit in 2008 as a five year old before winning in 2009, and I fancy another Nicky Henderson charge to pull off a similar feat this year. Top Notch was ten lengths off the pace to finish fifth last year but, like Punjabi, he was only five years old then and can be expected to improve.
After blowing off the cobwebs at Uttoxeter on his reappearance (when Henderson’s weren’t going all that well) he has won his next three impressively. Those were over fences and his obvious target is the Arkle, but it is interesting to me that he still holds an entry for the Champion Hurdle and he was obviously well regarded enough last year to go for that race rather than the Supreme Novices.
Several bookmakers are now offering the non runner no bet concession and I can see Henderson wanting several strings to his bow against the mighty Mullins bandwagon, so 33/1 looks pretty decent value.
Advice – back Top Notch each way to small stakes at 33/1 with Bet365 (NRNB, ¼ odds first 3)