Things We Learned » Champion Hurdle draw

Champion Hurdle draw

We know the draw now for the two Champion Hurdle semi-finals: The New One and My Tent Or Yours in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton on Thursday, Hurricane Fly, Jezki and Our Conor in the Ryanair Hurdle at Leopardstown next Sunday. The winners will meet in the final at Cheltenham on 11th March.

Clashes were inevitable, there are only a finite number of top class two-mile hurdle races on the calendar, and that is a good thing. Nobody has blinked yet. Every time one of the Big Five has run this season, he has won, strengthening his Champion Hurdle claims accordingly. Big Six if you add Annie Power. Seven runs, seven wins.

The New One was the latest member to enhance his prospects, showing a fine turn of foot to come clear of the highly-talented Zarkandar in the International Hurdle at Cheltenham last Saturday. Consequently and inevitably, his odds for Cheltenham were snipped just a little.

It is fascinating. Can one of last season’s top class novices improve enough to catch and pass the standard that Hurricane Fly has set and, if one can, which one will it be? Hopefully nobody goes stepping on a stone between now and Christmas target time because, if those five line up in those two races, the picture will have been brought a little more sharply into focus.

Conor still special

Our Conor is the only member of the Big Five who has not run yet this season and, as such, Barry Connell’s horse is the one with the most to prove.

Not only that, but Our Conor is a four-rising-five-year-old, and we know how poor a record five-year-olds have in the Champion Hurdle. Only one five-year-old has won the race since See You Then won it in 1985. That will be 29 years ago in March.

That said, Our Conor was an exceptional juvenile hurdler. He went unbeaten through his juvenile season, and he won the Triumph Hurdle by a record-breaking 15 lengths, a margin that flattered his opponents, not him.

There was a danger that the Dessie Hughes-trained gelding was beating up on a sub-standard bunch of contemporaries last season, but events this term thus far suggest that that was not the case. On the contrary, the Triumph Hurdle form is working out really well.

Triumph Hurdle runner-up Far West went close to winning the Elite Hurdle on his debut this term. Third-placed Sametegal won on his seasonal debut at Cheltenham’s October meeting, then finished a half-length second to Dell’ Arca in the Greatwood Hurdle.

Fourth-placed Diakali won the Grade 1 Champion Four-Year-Old Hurdle at the Punchestown Festival in April, won at Naas on his debut this term, and was only beaten two lengths by Jezki in the Hatton’s Grace Hurdle. Triumph Hurdle sixth Rolling Star was impressive in winning a Class 2 event at Haydock on his debut this season, and is favourite for this afternoon’s Ladbroke Hurdle at Ascot, racing off a mark of 150. Even seventh-placed Chris Pea Green was only just beaten in a good handicap hurdle at Ascot on his debut this term, and is another with a big chance in the Ladbroke this afternoon.

Nothing has happened since last March to suggest that Our Conor might not be the special horse that we all thought he was then.

Sacre dominant

In contrast to the Champion Hurdle picture, the Champion Chase picture is fairly one-dimensional.

Sprinter Sacre is obviously a magnificent racehorse, but the interest with him is in watching him race, appreciating his presence, the manner in which he is put together, his turn of foot, his fluency over a fence. We can marvel at Sprinter Sacre as an individual, not in the competitions in which he partakes.

It does not help the competition either that two of Sprinter Sacre’s would-be opponents (insofar as he can have real opponents), Kid Cassidy and Captain Conan, are both trained by Nicky Henderson and are therefore less likely to take him on than they would if they were housed elsewhere. So as Sprinter Sacre lines up for the Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton on Friday, Kid Cassidy will probably be lining up in the Paddy Power Dial-A-Bet Chase. Kempton’s loss could be Leopardstown’s gain.

Sizing Europe is obviously set to run in the Dial-A-Bet, a race that he won last year. Captain Conan is on the easy list, so he will not be going anywhere over Christmas anyway. Somersby is also apparently set to by-pass Kempton and probably waiting for the Clarence House Chase (the old Victor Chandler) at Ascot. Sire De Grugy is also by-passing Kempton (Or he was! – Ed) and probably going to Ascot. The Ascot race is the plan for Sprinter Sacre as well, so hopefully he gets there and does not scatter the opposition.

Looking ahead to Cheltenham, it is difficult to see from where real opposition to Caroline Mould’s horse is going to come. Sizing Europe will be 12, and he has 19 lengths to make up on Sprinter Sacre from last year’s Champion Chase. Simonsig is out for the season. Cheltenham targets for Cue Card, Flemenstar and Arvika Ligeonniere, are likely to be over further than the minimum trip. And it is not realistic to think that one of this season’s top novices could take a shot. Who wants to try to finish second in a Champion Chase when you have a chance of winning an Arkle?

The two-mile chase championship division is a fascinating division when there is true competition. The Viking Flagship/Klairon Davis/Sound Man era was captivating; the Moscow Flyer/Azertyuiop/Well Chief era even more so. The Sprinter Sacre era, such as it is, is special, but it is special in an observe-and-appreciate way rather than in a lung-bursting-white-hot-heat-of-battle way.

Tennessee tops

Just when you thought that you had seen just about all the best novice hurdlers this season, along comes Sizing Tennessee and wins as impressively as he did at Navan on Sunday.

It was a solid maiden hurdle too. Runner-up Rock The World had finished second in both his previous runs over hurdles, and the front pair were clear of Drumlee, a bumper winner who had run in the Cheltenham bumper and who wasn’t beaten that far by Moyle Park over Sunday’s course and distance three weeks previously. The field was well strung out behind the first three, and the time was good, the fastest comparative time on the day and almost two seconds faster than the handicap hurdle run over the same course and distance a half an hour later.

It was interesting that trainer Willie Mullins said afterwards that the Robin Des Champs gelding would come on appreciably for the run. Winner of two bumpers last season and sent off the 10/1 sixth favourite for the Cheltenham bumper, he has huge potential now over hurdles and later over fences.

National clues

After Monbeg Dude and Soll and Triolo D’Alene and Colbert Station and Sire Collonges and Alfie Sherrin in recent weeks, Sunnyhillboy was the latest horse to throw his hat into the 2014 Grand National ring when he won a handicap hurdle at Cheltenham last Friday. The sedate early pace should have been all against JP McManus’ horse, yet he showed remarkable pace for a 10-rising-11-year-old to forge clear of younger and supposedly sprightlier rivals on the run-in.

Runner-up in the 2012 National, when he went down, agonisingly, by the narrowest winning margin ever recorded in the history of the great race, the Jonjo O’Neill-trained gelding was well beaten when he unseated his rider at the final fence in last season’s renewal. However, the Aintree extravaganza is undoubtedly on his radar again this term. You know that he handles the place well.

He will be 11 in 10 days’ time, but the last two winners of the National were 11 and the last four winners were 10 or older. He is rated 142 over fences, he is on the same mark as the one he was on when he went down by a whisker to Neptune Collonges in 2012, and best odds of 33/1 about him for the 2014 renewal look big enough.

© The Irish Field, 21st December 2013