By Barry McEneaney
Hurricane Fly’s bid to become just the second horse in history to reclaim the Champion Hurdle crown would appear to be very much on course. Several horses have managed to defend the title, but only Comedy Of Errors, in 1975, managed to snatch it back, having lost it the previous season.
Last season’s odds-on loss may not have been as disappointing as it first appeared, as Willie Mullins’ charge suffered a less than ideal preparation for his defence. Hurricane Fly didn’t make his seasonal reappearance until January and while that run saw him run out an emphatic winner of the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown, such a limited campaign has historically spelled disaster for most Champion Hurdle aspirants.
However, this season normal service has been resumed. Undefeated in three starts this term, he goes to post as a best-price 9-4 favourite for the race. Ruby Walsh’s mount is versatile with regard to ground conditions and contrasting pace scenarios, and these qualities should stand him in good stead.
It’s difficult to find fault with the favourite, but there may be some small causes for concern for those backing him.
The ill-fated Go Native was in the process of giving Hurricane Fly a serious test when he capsized at the last in the Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown in November. That was Hurricane Fly’s seasonal debut, and a narrow win over, or loss to, a rival as classy as Go Native was couldn’t be regarded as poor form. Indeed, you could make a strong argument that the race was run to suit Noel Meade’s charge that day.
However, those of us hoping to learn more about Hurricane Fly subsequently, have been left disappointed.
Two victories at Leopardstown at 1-5 and 1-6 revealed little, merely confirming that Hurricane Fly was vastly superior to his opponents in those particular races. Thousand Stars, who finished behind his more illustrious stablemate in both those races has developed into a top-class horse, but two miles on soft ground isn’t his thing. His optimum performances have come over further and on a sounder surface, and his challenge was never likely to be a potent one. You could argue that the only other top-class opponent Hurricane Fly has faced this season has been Nicky Henderson’s Binocular, last time out. But he’s another animal that has failed to show his best on testing ground and he was always like to need the run, having been off the track for so long before that race.
Hurricane Fly won’t be improving at the age of nine, but that’s a given. The goal is to get him back to what he once was. Is he back to his best? Nobody can say conclusively. However, he hasn’t faced the best two-milers on the block this season. His times have been good, but not spectacular.
He’s just about the most likely winner, but he wouldn’t be for me at his current price. However, it’s a marginal call.
Binocular is another bidding to emulate Comedy Of Errors in retaining the Champion Hurdle title, but he’s the one horse in the race I’d be very much against. He’s been working well according to trainer Nicky Henderson and has shortened significantly in the betting in recent weeks, but the negatives against him are too great for me to consider him at his current price.
His best performances have come on a much sounder surface than the one that will prevail this year, while his prep behind Hurricane Fly was no more than adequate. As we saw with Hurricane Fly last year, you need to tread carefully when considering backing a horse coming into this contest on the back of just one run.
Grandouet made a superb return when finishing second to Zarkandar on his seasonal reappearance at Cheltenham in the International Hurdle in November. He conceded weight to that rival and many would argue he has good prospects of reversing the form. However, he’s been missing from action since then and that absence could prove insurmountable.
Rock On Ruby recorded a win on his last start in a race at Doncaster that will be remembered for all the wrong reasons, as it cost the hugely talented Darlan his life. But the defending champion appears to be peaking at the right time. Having recommended him each-way in this column 12 months ago, it’s tough to desert him, but the ground may have gone against him this time around.
Cinders And Ashes has disappointed this season, but the fact he remains short in the betting may serve as an indicator that his shrewd yard retain hope in their charge.
The value that does remain in the market may lie in Zarkandar, Countrywide Flame and Khyber Kim.
All three are devoid of the brilliance you associate with most Champion Hurdle winners in most years. They’re not flashy and don’t possess as much as would normally be required. But this isn’t a normal year. It could just be that stamina, rather than speed is the most important quality to possess on the unseasonably soft ground they’re likely to experience here.
Zarakandar stayed on strongly to finish fifth in last season’s renewal, having claimed the Triumph Hurdle the year before. However, there are plenty of reasons to envisage a better performance this season.
The Paul Nicholls inmate was just a five-year-old, making just his second start of the campaign, when he contested this race 12 months ago and that age group has a lamentable record in the race. Since See You Then took the race way back in 1985, only Katchit (2008) has been able to upstage older rivals, despite over 80 having attempted to achieve the feat.
As well as attempting to buck such a strong statistic, it’s highly-likely that he was feeling the effects of his remarkable comeback run in the Betfair Hurdle less than a month beforehand.
Undefeated in three starts this campaign, his main attributes include versatility with regard to underfoot conditions, strong staying qualities and admirable battling qualities.
Having highlighted the magnitude of the task facing five-year-olds in this spot, it may seem contradictory to highlight the chances of Countrywide Flame.
However, there are strong parallels between John Quinn’s runner and the last five-year-old to win this race, Katchit. Both were Triumph Hurdle winners, but more importantly, both had a wealth of experience both on the Flat and in the National Hunt sphere. It seems to be a lack of physical maturation and a lack of experience that scuppers the bids of five-year-olds who contest this race.
Having ticked the experience box, how does Countrywide Flame compare to Katchit physically? This is one area where he falls down. Katchit was a horse of almost pony-sized proportions. He’d done all his growing and strengthening by the age of five, whereas Countrywide Flame is scopier and is probably still filling out his larger frame. You could argue that he’ll be a better horse next year, but maybe not for this race. He’s already so stamina-laden that there’s a strong possibility he won’t be competitive in this race in 12 months time as his staying abilities are only likely to increase. It’s also highly likely that the ground will be faster a year from now, which will also show up his lack of acceleration. Denis O’Regan’s mount will never be speedy. Horses with an impressive turn of foot simply don’t come second in a Cesarewitch if they possess that attribute. Indeed, the horse who beat him that day (Aaim To Prosper), has only been able to score over three miles since he’s gone hurdling, which is pretty much what you’d expect from a horse winning over 2m2f on the Flat.
But Countrywide Flame looks a little more versatile than that stayer and he is highly progressive.
His win in the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle , where the heavy ground offset his lack of raw speed was followed by an apparently ‘poor’ run in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton. He went off the 6-4 favourite that day, but was totally outclassed by the impressive Darlan. Raya Star and Dodging Bullets, who aren’t superstars, also finished ahead of him. But I like that piece of ‘poor’ form because that’s one of the main reasons he’s 16-1 and not 10-1 or 12-1. The Christmas Hurdle was run at a dawdle and a sprint finish inevitably ensued. We already know speed isn’t a weapon Countrywide Flame possesses in his armoury, so he was always going to flounder in such a scenario. But Kempton’s flat speed-favouring track is a very different one to Cheltenham. It’s hard to know just how fast they’ll go here, but we’re certainly going to see a stronger gallop than prevailed that day.
His last outing came at Doncaster, another track that wouldn’t play to his strengths. Having forced a strong pace, he was overtaken by Rock On Ruby on the run for home and went down by three lengths. The winner is another who is arguably more suited to the test that Cheltenham provides, but he may not cope with what could be tacky ground as well as Countrywide Flame. Rock On Ruby is likely to confirm form with Countrywide Flame, but the disparity in prices between the two looks too great. Rock On Ruby is a best-priced 9-2, while Countrywide Flame can be backed at 16-1.
The joker in the pack could be the old-timer Khyber Kim. He’s a 50-1 chance. The case against him is overwhelming. He’s much too old and he’s only had one start in the last two years. Horses with such a profile don’t win Champion Hurdles. He’ll probably end up being pulled up. However, he may make some appeal to those who want a highly-speculative bet for minimum stakes.
He finished second behind Zarkandar on his reappearance in the Kingwell Hurdle last month at 14-1. That result shouldn’t have come as too much of a surprise in some respects, as he was receiving eight pounds from the winner and boasts a tremendous record when fresh. What was surprising was that he was able to run any kind of a race on a right-handed track, as his record going clockwise is pretty deplorable. The early pace was pedestrian, which would have not only unsuited the winner, but also the strong-staying Khyber Kim.
Admittedly, there’s not a huge amount to recommend him. But I’ve seen a huge number of 50-1 shots with much less going for them. There’s still a glimmer of hope emanating from the dying embers of his career. At 50-1, a glimmer is all you need.
The major caveat in recommending the chances of Zarkandar, Countrywide Flame and even Khyber Kim is that all three will need a strong pace to be seen to full effect. Without it, all three are likely to underperform. But with the prospects of four of the field (Rock On Ruby also requires a strongly-run race) resting on a fast early-pace scenario, the likelihood of just that is probable. Factor in terrain softer than normal for the Festival and the likelihood of an attritional finish up the hill, and all three could outrun their current odds.
Whatever your selection, make sure it’s backed each-way. Mathematically, the each-way terms are so inviting, that you should feel compelled to do so.
Alternative: Countrywide Flame
Advised staking policy (scale 0-20 points)
Zarkandar 4pts each-way 4-1
Countrywide Flame 2pts each-way 16-1
Khyber Kim 0.5pt each-way 50-1