3.30 Champion Hurdle (Grade One)
The betting market for the Champion Hurdle provides a pretty powerful indication as to the dominance Willie Mullins currently enjoys.
Faugheen’s bid for back-to-back successes in this race was cruelly scuppered when a suspensory ligament problem came to light when he returned to work after his emphatic victory in the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown.
Having lost the odds-on ante-post favourite for hurdling’s blue riband, Mullins was dealt another blow when Arctic Fire - second behind his stablemate in last year’s renewal - was also sidelined with a chipped sesamoid bone.
However, the Irish champion trainer’s arsenal is brimming with artillery, meaning that despite those high-profile absentees, he can still send out the favourite for this race, a challenger vying for second favouritism and a lively outsider.
The supplemented Annie Power now heads the market at a best-price 9-4 as she bids to become just the fourth mare to win this race.
She originally looked destined for the Mare’s Hurdle in an attempt to atone for her dramatic final-flight exit in that race 12 months ago, a result that saved the bookmaking industry a figure estimated at between €60-80million.
A second-place finish in the World Hurdle at the 2014 Festival marks the only other time her colours have been lowered in her now 15-race career.
Running such a keen-going mare over three miles looked fraught with risk and she’s clearly more effective over shorter distances.
It’s disappointing that she wasn’t allowed to challenge favourite Hurricane Fly in that year’s Champion Hurdle. Those in the Mullins camp may have ended up sharing that sentiment when both runners met with defeat.
She arrived at that year’s Festival following a perfect prep, but this year’s campaign has been more unorthodox. Her seasonal debut came in a ‘race’ at Punchestown hardly worthy of the name.
Sent off at prohibitive odds of 1-20, she made all in a slowly run race and coasted to victory. All that victory revealed was that she’s returned healthy, but it will have done little to bring her to peak fitness. That work will have to have taken place at home.
The counter argument is that a solid test on her seasonal debut too close to the Festival may have blunted her brilliance, and she did run a big race last year, albeit in a weaker race, without any prep run.
If there is a runner in this race to match or surpass Annie Power in terms of innate ability, it’s probably My Tent Or Yours.
However, he has arguably failed to fully realise that ability. Barry Geraghty’s mount has won eight of his 14 career starts, but he could have added to that haul over the years if he had consented to settle in his races and had harnessed his energy more efficiently.
Perhaps more worrying than his tendency to pull his rider’s arms out, is his wretched preparation for the Champion Hurdle. He’s been off the track for almost two years with a tendon problem, meaning he lacks the fitness foundation that a standard campaign is meant to provide.
The nine-year-old may be an each-way price, but that does not mean he is an each-way prospect. We’ve no idea how much of his old ability remains or if he has fully recovered from his injury. That long absence means he comes into the race a pretty fresh horse, one that could be keener than ever.
However, he has always won on his seasonal debut. Perhaps his races take so much out of him that he could run best fresh.
Tony McCoy partnered My Tent Or Yours on his last 11 starts, but his aggressive style may have been a poor fit for the horse. It is possible Geraghty might prove better at curtailing his recalcitrant ways.
Nichols Canyon remains the only horse to have inflicted defeat on Faugheen, but it is tough not to conclude that his stablemate underperformed by quite some way when the two clashed on their seasonal debuts in the Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown in November.
The proximity of a race-fit Wicklow Brave back in third also casts doubt on the strength of that form.
The son of Authorised followed that win up with a gutsy two-length victory over Identity Thief in the Ryanair Hurdle at Leopardstown over Christmas. The attritional nature of that race obviously left a mark as his abject display in the Irish Champion Hurdle was too bad to be true.
Paul Townend’s mount has had 51 days to recover from that lifeless run, enough time to have been freshened up and restored to his best. However, questions still linger over what he has achieved this season.
The runner-up in the Ryanair Hurdle, Identity Thief, has improved significantly. Henry de Bromhead’s decision to skip the Irish Champion Hurdle now looks a smart move, saving his charge from another slog through the mud after his battling display against Nichols Canyon.
Prior to that, Bryan Cooper’s mount got the better of Top Notch in a bobbing finish to the Flying Fifth at Newcastle.
The winning margin was just a neck, but the consensus is that he would have had more to spare at the line if he had negotiated the final flight more adroitly.
Top Notch may be limited, but he does possess a really good attitude and finds plenty for pressure. An argument could be proffered that Daryl Jacob made his move in the Flying Fifth too soon, allowing Identity Thief time to eventually reel him in following that premature effort.
Identity Thief is a best-price 15-2 to triumph here, while Top Notch trades at 18-1, more than twice the price of his old rival, despite being closely matched on their previous meeting.
The New One does not get any love on this side of the Irish Sea, but has not done much wrong apart from a sub-par effort in last year’s Champion Hurdle, finishing fifth.
Trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies has attributed that underwhelming display to niggling problems suffered throughout the last campaign, and has insisted that his representative is in much better order this time around.
The son of King’s Theatre has never really impressed on winter ground and it would be unwise to read too much into his laboured win at Haydock last time out.
Some insist that he now need further than two miles, but he has run big races over the minimum trip at speed-favouring Kempton over the years.
Peace And Co justified favouritism in last season’s Triumph Hurdle, but has looked a shadow of his former self this season.
He has been beset by physical problems and has undergone a wind operation and been treated for back problems.
He could run really well if rekindling his old form, but heading from the sickbay to the Cheltenham cauldron in dubious health is a pretty arduous task. It is also disconcerting that Daryl Jacob has eschewed him in favour of taking the mount on Top Notch.
Owner Rich Ricci has a second string to his bow in this race in the form of Sempre Medici. He kicked off his season in the International Hurdle at Cheltenham.
Travelling better than his rivals for most of the trip, he eventually succumbed to Old Guard, with Hargam back in third. However, both those rivals had a fitness edge on him that day.
His two subsequent wins have come against outmatched opposition, but he does appear to be improving, and his weight-carrying performance at Gowran Park last time out may be better than it looked. His trainer has proved a master at coaxing improvement out of unexposed horses.
It’s tough to get away from the chances of Annie Power in a weak renewal of the Champion Hurdle and she probably is a worthy favourite. However, her preparation for the race has not been ideal, a comment that applies to a number of the leading protagonists.
My Tent Or Yours looks boom or bust material, in that his class could see him run a huge race, but his long absence could result in him running abjectly. In an open renewal, with doubts over so many of the field, it may be worth speculating on an outsider with a more orthodox prep such as Top Notch or Sempre Medici for small stakes.
Selection: Sempre Medici (each-way)