At 15.20 on the 10th of March the jockeys will steady their runners for the start of the Stan James Champion Hurdle. With a distance of 2 miles and 110 yards, this grade one race is potentially the hottest renewal ever. With returning winners Hurricane Fly (2011, 2013) and Jezki (2014) and the unlucky runner up The New One (2014) this race looks destined to go down in history.
To the inexperienced reader/race goer this may come as a surprise, but none of the three listed above is the market favourite. Somewhat unsurprising however (if you’ve read my previous two previews), is that it’s another of Willie Mullins raiders, Faugheen. This monster of a horse is having its second run at the Festival winning by four and a half lengths to Ballyalton with a starting price (SP) of 6/4. The feedback straight after the race from Ruby Walsh was that “there’s a lot under the bonnet, and when you ask it’s there. It was a smashing performance”.
Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh have made no secret of how good they think this horse is and the betting market clearly mirrors this. But what is it that makes this race so revered?
The Champion Hurdle is open to races aged four years and above. It’s run on the old course at Cheltenham and during the running there are eight hurdles that are to be jumped. The Champion Hurdle is the most prestigious hurdling event of the National Hunt calendar and is sponsored by StanJames.com.
The race was first run in 1927 with the winning prize an astounding £365, compared to today’s winning prize total of £238,051 – you can see how racing has evolved with our economy. The race was cancelled in 1931 due to frost and in 1943 and 1944 due to World War II. Hatton’s Grace was the first triple winner of the race (1949, 1950, 1951) a feat only equalled by Sir Ken (1952, 1953, 1954), Persian War (1968, 1969, 1970), See You Then (1985, 1986, 1987) and the mighty Istabraq (1998, 1999, 2000). A feat Hurricane Fly is attempting this year.
Tim Molony is the most successful jockey, winning the race four times on four consecutive years (1951, 1952, 1953, 1954). The retiring AP Tony McCoy attempts to equal this record having won the race three times (1997, 2006, 2010), this year he takes the mount of Jezki, who’s looking to defend his crown. Nicky Henderson (1985, 1986, 1987, 2009, 2010) and Peter Easterby (1967, 1976, 1977, 1980, 1981) are joint leading trainers with five wins each. JP McManus, whose riders wear the distinctive green and gold-hooped colours, has won the race five times too (1998, 1999, 2000, 2010, 2014).
The Champion Hurdle is the final leg of the Road to Cheltenham which is a series of top class races sponsored by StanJames.com, which include the Fighting Fifth Hurdle (won by Irving this season), the International Hurdle (won by The New One the past two seasons (2013, 2014)), and the Champion Hurdle Trial (also won by The New one this season (2015)).
Dawn Run is the only horse to ever complete the Cheltenham Champion Hurdle and Gold Cup double. She was also the second mare to ever win the Champion Hurdle. Sir Ken is the shortest priced favorite to ever win the race with a starting price (SP) of 2/5.
The Champion Hurdle is the feature race of day one. Since 1998, eleven winners have come from Ireland, with Hurricane Fly and Jezki taking three of the last four renewals between them. Nine of the last ten winners have been between the ages of six and nine, representing just over 70% of runners. All fifteen horses that were aged ten and above in the last ten years have finished unplaced. Since 1997, there have been eight runners in the Champion Hurdle that finished in the first five places as five year olds and returned the next year finishing with three winners and two placed efforts giving a 37.5% return to win percentage.
Mares don’t have a good record in this race with three runners in the previous ten years and zero placing. Seven out of ten winners won last time out (LTO) with ten out of ten winners having a run since the 25th of December (Christmas Day, for those of you unaware!). Nine out of ten winners have run at least two to four times that season, with eight out of ten winners having had at least ten runs over hurdles. Eight out of ten winners had previously won a grade one race (Rock On Ruby had finished a close second twice in grade one’s).
Interestingly the form of the favourite Faugheen’s Neptune Investment Novices’ Hurdle doesn’t read so well with two places out of two runs, if he was a 20/1 shot backers would be happy but as an even money shot that statistic is worrying. The best race form from previous winners comes from the Punchestown Champion Hurdle which was won by Jezki whose race form reads five wins and one place from eight runners. Five out of ten winners ran in the Punchestown Champion Hurdle winning all five. Five of six Irish trained winners ran in the Ryanair Hurdle, finishing with three wins and two places. Five of six Irish trained winners also ran in the Irish Champion Hurdle, finishing with three wins and two places.
Irish trained runners have won six of the last ten renewals with five places out of fifty-one runners. Nicky Henderson has had two winners and six places from fifteen runners from the past ten renewals giving him a placing percentage of 53%. Willie Mullins has had two winners (both Hurricane Fly) and one place from eight runners in ten years. Paul Nicholls has had one winner and one place (both were Rock on Ruby) and Nigel Twiston-Davies has had two places from three runners in the past ten years.
Remarkably six of the last ten winners have been priced between 9/1 and 22/1. Favourites however, have won four of the last ten renewals with a level stakes profit of 38p. Another interesting stat for comparison is the field sizes. The New One was hampered last year by the falling Our Conor; had it managed to avoid Our Conor then the finish would have been a lot closer. From the last ten winners they had all finished in the first four on all of their starts between two miles and two miles and one furlong with ten or more runners starting the race.
So the profile of the horse we are looking for is a horse that is a gelding (male) aged between six and nine years old, that won last time out or was a very close second in a grade one race. A horse that has run at least two times this season, but with a maximum four runs. A minimum second season hurdler who finished in the top four of last seasons race (potentially excused if wasn’t eligible). A horse that has finished in the first three of their last four runs over two miles with a field size of ten or more runners and has previously won a grade one hurdle. Finished in the first three of the Champion Hurdle in 2014, or another race at the Cheltenham Festival. If it’s Irish trained, it must have finished in the first three of the Irish Champion Hurdle or the Ryanair Hurdle, or if it’s British trained it must have finished in the top three of the Fighting Fifth, or Christmas Hurdle. Trained by Nicky Henderson or Willie Mullins.
By method of de-selection that leaves Faugheen (without the run in last year’s race). Unbelievably, Jezki, Hurricane Fly, The New One, Arctic Fire and Vaniteux have all come out with similar profiles. Irving has the worst profile and will not be considered. Hurricane Fly, The New One and Arctic Fire come out slightly ahead of Jezki and Vaniteux however, if you factor in that Jezki predominantly runs better in the spring compared to the winter, excuses can be made. Due to Hurricane Fly’s age and last performance in the spring I can’t consider him. I will be including Faugheen (5/4) in my multiples and will be having two savers on Jezki (6/1) and Vaniteux (40/1) given Henderson’s fantastic placing percentage.
It will be the race of the day, and potentially a race that will never be this hotly contested ever again.