Horses To Follow » Celestial Halo

Celestial Halo

It was impossible not to have been impressed with Binocular in the re-staged Boylesports International Hurdle at Ascot on Saturday.

Everything about his performance smacked of quality. He hurdles like a cat. It doesn’t seem to matter how he meets a flight, he seems to be able to get his hind legs in underneath his body on the landing side and propel himself away from the obstacle with unusual alacrity. He had to do the hard work himself in order to bridge the gap between leader Celestial Halo and the rest of the field, as none of his rivals was able to do it, but, even so, he was able to come readily clear after the second last, and record an impressive win. The winning time was just 1.2secs outside standard, and 0.8secs faster than the time that Sentry Duty clocked in the Ladbroke Hurdle an hour later, when they went flat out from early.

Unusually, the four-year-old hurdlers are more than holding their own against their elders this season. Another four-year-old, Celestial Halo, chased Binocular home and they both came well clear of Chomba Womba and Katchit. Okay, so Katchit wasn’t competing at his beloved Cheltenham and Alan King had said that he hadn’t been working well in the lead up to the race, but there didn’t appear to be many excuses for Chomba Womba. She came into the race as an in-form mare who had form at the track, and she was well and truly stuffed, coming home 12 lengths behind Celestial Halo.

So where does that all leave us in the context of the Champion Hurdle? Binocular is very good, no question, perhaps exceptional, but it is worth drawing breath for a second and considering his Champion Hurdle prospects, given that he is now no better than 13/8 for the race. There is no disputing his class, but all of his best efforts have been on tracks that favour speed: Ascot, Aintree, Ascot again. The Champion Hurdle is as much – perhaps more – a test of stamina and guts as it is of speed. Look at some of the recent winners, Katchit, Brave Inca, Hardy Eustace, all with guts to burn. And that is even more the case in the last year or two since the racecourse executive aim to provide good to soft ground and not good ground for the opening day. Binocular was beaten over hurdles just once in his life, and that was on the only occasion that he raced at Cheltenham.

I had a look at that race again during the week, the 2008 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, and Binocular travelled supremely well around the home turn and down to the last, looking by far the most likely winner at that point, but his speed was blunted by the hill and he just couldn’t repel the late challenge of Captain Cee Bee, even though he was in receipt of the 8lb weight-for-age allowance. The standard time for a two-mile hurdle at Ascot is 3mins 45secs. The standard time for a two-mile-and-110-yard hurdle race at Cheltenham, the Champion Hurdle course and distance, is 3mins 52secs. Those seven seconds are significant.

From a purist’s point of view, you would love to see Binocular going and winning the Champion Hurdle, and maybe winning one or two more to boot. You love to see good horses win good races. Racing needs its champions. From a betting point of view, however, 13/8 is too short.

By contrast, 16/1 is too big about Celestial Halo for the Champion. There was a lot against him on Saturday. The speed-favouring track was not in his favour, nor was the ever-quickening ground, nor the fact that he had to set his own pace. Also, it appeared that Binocular had been trained to the minute for this race. He had had a prep run, and Nicky Henderson said in his post-race interview that this was not a trial, this was the real thing. It is significant also that the trainer was desperate that the race would go ahead. For Celestial Halo, this race appeared to be just a starting point, his seasonal debut. Paul Nicholls didn’t appear to be too hopeful before Saturday’s race, and it is probable that there is a fair amount of improvement to come. Furthermore, the Henderson horses are zinging at present, whereas the Nicholls team are just going okay without surpassing themselves. This may be the case as well in March, but it may not be.

True, Celestial Halo made the running when he posted the best performance of his career before Saturday in the Triumph Hurdle last March, but he doesn’t have to lead, and it is probable that he would be even more effective if he was held up just behind a decent pace, as long as there was a decent pace, as he was when he won on his debut over hurdles at Newbury last December. Binocular beat Celestial Halo by seven lengths at Aintree in April, but that was also on a speed track, the Nicholls horse had to make his own running again, and he had been trained for Cheltenham. Aintree was just an add-on.

The greater the stamina-test that it turns out to be at Cheltenham, the greater Celestial Halo’s chance, and the closer he will get to Binocular. He could be a real player in the Champion Hurdle this season, and the 16/1 that you can get with Coral is too big.

© The Irish Field, 27th December, 2008