Champion Hurdle 2011
My earlier preview was written some weeks ago. I’ve found no reason to change my mind on those already covered, though I’ve added a few words in some cases.
Those who were not in the original, but feature in this, are:
Binocular (now withdrawn)
I will go through them in the order of current betting (March 1st) at general NRNB (non runner, no bet) prices, with the price listed.
Binocular 3/1 (withdrawn)
The reigning Champion Hurdler seems to find it increasingly difficult to reproduce his best form away from the Festival – whether that is due to planning by his trainer or general inconsistency is unknown. Nicky Henderson has always said that Cheltenham in March is where it counts for this horse and he looked burly (according to Timeform’s paddock judge) on his seasonal debut at Newbury, finishing 3rd behind Peddlers Cross and Starluck.
Connections expressed themselves happy with that run. Eighteen days later, Binocular sparkled in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton (Starluck 6L 3rd), jumping fluently in general and winning fairly convincingly although I got the impression, as they turned for home, that AP thought he’d pass runner-up Overturn at his leisure. Overturn, though, kept finding and it took McCoy longer than expected to start drawing way.
Overturn‘s subsequent performance at Wincanton was so far below form that it can safely be discounted. Whatever was ailing him – he ran poorly in The Ebor last year, a race too many after a busy campaign – I hope he recovers for Cheltenham where, back at his best, he’d ensure a true pace in the Champion Hurdle.
Binocular was out again 18 days later at Sandown. He was 10/1 on but ran, I thought, in snatches (having sweated up perhaps a bit more than usual beforehand) and supporters would have been very nervous as he was seriously shaken up coming to the last where his stable companion made a mistake and surrendered the lead. Two strides after the hurdle, Binocular was hard on the bridle, the only point in the race he looked really comfortable, to my eye.
It might be that Mr Henderson had been easy on him at home given his relatively recent run and the likely opposition, but his performance echoed that of last season in the same race. These off-colour performances, his tendency to sweat, that snatchy style he showed at Sandown, . . I just wonder if the horse is developing a few quirks.
He’s been involved in two tough battles at The Festival, coming off worst in both against Captain Cee Bee and in that tight Champion Hurdle won by Punjabi. Visually, last year, he was most impressive, getting the fast pace he needs and good ground. But he seems to require everything to fall right for him and above all, what has he actually beaten?
In his best performance, last March, he beat Khyber Kim who, I believe, is really a 20f minimum horse (I think connections are crazy not to go for the World Hurdle where his turn-of-foot and ice-cool jockey could be a potent combination in picking off Big Bucks just before the post); back in third was Zaynar, then Celestial Halo.
I suspect the best horses Binocular has met are Go Native and Peddlers Cross, both of whom beat him. Go Native ran as though amiss behind Binocular in the Champion but had beaten him twice that season. Anyway, I think he’s appalling value at 3/1.
After some spirited debate on the Betfair forum, I spent time examining Menorah’s key races in detail.
The more I delve into this horse’s form, the more fascinating I find him. For those who can’t be bothered reading this lengthy analysis of Menorah’s last four races, here’s my summary view: Menorah has a fine engine but the torque is more effective during a race than towards the end. He’s not confident at his hurdles and is probably slightly quirky, a characteristic which might get worse rather than better.
He’s benefited from some fine tactical rides by Johnson but would probably improve for a rider who could instil more confidence in him at his hurdles. He will go close in the Champion Hurdle, but will be beaten by something with a bit more heart, experience and confidence.
Stan James Hurdle, December 11th 2010
1st – SC flattens the hurdle, Menorah runs through the gap
2nd – Menorah, slightly awkward
3rd – Nods slightly, not a good jumping shape
4th – Am happy to give him the benefit of the doubt here. On CH4 he looked like he brought down the panel with his hind legs; on RUK it looks like the horse to his right knocks it out with its front legs. Cattermole attributes the mistake to Menorah but I won’t argue the point.
5th – jumps fluently
6th – jumps OK
7th – clips the top with front legs but OK
8th – jumps well
The visual impression, live, was that he sliced through his three main opponents on the run to the last. I believe now he hit top gear, and got a wonderful gap, at precisely the right time, just as the other three reached their optimum speed (they stayed abreast of each other for quite some time afterwards, enhancing the appearance of Menorah’s acceleration, as well as the impression they had little more to give).
As to his size/appearance, he is not small, as such, actually quite tall, but narrowish and a bit gangly (which might contribute to his numerous awkward jumps) and I think that if he grows right into his frame he will be a very fine specimen.
Greatwood Hurdle, November 14th 2010
1st – knocks the panel out with hind legs, awkward
2nd – skewed in the air, but clean enough
3rd – Looks like he clips the top though viewing angle unclear
4th – fluent
5th – OK, but slight cat jump (almost lands on all four feet)
6th – flattens panel, barely takes off
7th – OK
8th – OK, stumbles after last but recovers really well
Throughout, he raced 6 horses wide of the runner-up conceding significant ground though Hobbs said Johnson had walked the course and the ground was better on that route.
Aintree, 9th April 2010
1st – awkward head carriage and shape, hangs slightly on approach
2nd – clean jump despite a swerve on the approach
3rd – bad viewing angle, but head carriage looked suspect once more
4th – fluent
5th – superb jump
6th – OK but hangs slightly
7th – cat jump, hits panel
8th – OK
9th – OK
He must have traded very short coming away from the last, but he gives in quite tamely to a hard driven General Miller. This might be a hangover from his Supreme victory but he’d travelled strongly throughout, his action looking well suited to track and ground; he showed no obvious signs of being jaded, though I cannot discount the possibility he was feeling the effects of Cheltenham. This race was run at a pretty good gallop and, for me, it strengthened my suspicion that he might not quite see a race out at full championship pace.
Supreme Novices, 16th March
1st – OK
2nd – slight cat jump
3rd – OK, but runs around on approach
4th – OK but runs around on approach
5th – fluent
6th – cocks his head left and clips top with front legs
7th – jinks very noticeably both left and right (commentators blame the horse alongside him for being slightly wayward but his movement is nothing compared to Menorah’s, and it adds to my belief that Menorah is very nervous on his approach to hurdles)
8th – jinks again on approach though not so badly
The time of the race is described by Steve Mellish as “bang on good ground time” and for me the race is won by Johnson kicking for home on the turn in and getting first run on Get me out of Here who would very likely have won in another fifty yards, cutting Menorah down in much the same style as GM was to do at Aintree.
The RUK team are consistently effusive in their praise of Menorah’s jumping, but that is a lazy assumption based on the occasional fine leap he puts in. The reality, imo, is that the horse seems less than confident, often awkward in the few strides before he jumps as though not quite knowing how to put himself right, leading to what looks like a degree of panic, causing him to hang, carry his head high and guess a bit.
On the positive side, it says an awful lot for his engine that he has achieved his current level with such an inconsistent and generally poor technique. Unfortunately, it significantly increases the chances of a fall.
He travels very well in his races yet sometimes gives the impression that he slightly runs in snatches – not in the conventional way – being pushed along for a furlong or so – but more in a manner that he seems to drift on and off the bridle within a dozen strides or so.
It’s beyond question that Menorah has considerable talent, and it might well be that he will learn to travel more smoothly (thus conserving energy for the finish), and jump with greater confidence.
But if Hobbs sticks to his plan (“I’m 85% certain he won’t run again before Cheltenham”), then he will deprive the horse of much needed experience and it could well cost him the big race.
On the balance of what I’ve seen, I think he will almost certainly travel better, less ‘snatchy’ in a fast-run CH, but I doubt his hurdling will improve for it and a race-losing error at a critical point is a real possibility, imo. The better the ground, the stronger the chance that something will go past him on the run to the line. Softish ground will add considerably to his chances by blunting the speed of Binocular. In a battle with the tenacious Peddlers Cross, I doubt he’ll have the heart to beat Mr McCain’s horse.
In conclusion, given his form (unproven against hardened CH performers), his hurdling technique, the quirks I suspect he has, I consider him poor value but I am looking forward with excitement to see just how high he can go in this sphere.
Hurricane Fly 11/2
I’ve backed HF among others for the CH, but his last run (Irish Champion Hurdle) raised some doubts for me.
That’s the second race in a row where I’ve noticed he jumps slightly right – just the width of a hurdle panel but it’s bound to affect balance and rhythm. It might also get him bumping a few rivals, taking even more out of him.
That tendency to jump to one side can also signify an underlying physical problem (could be favouring his near-fore) and given his previous splint problems, it’s not a good sign. That was his sternest test pace-wise and while he travelled with his usual effortless style, it was the first time this season I’ve seen him come under a semblance of pressure at the finish and, to me, he did not respond.
He kept on OK but I thought Solwhit was just pegging him back a bit as they approached the line – nothing obvious, but I’m fairly sure the Fly had little more to give. It could easily be down to his interrupted prep and/or his recent busy schedule; equally it could be an indication that he doesn’t find much under strong driving. If he jumps right in a hot-paced Champion in March, I suspect the hill will find him out.
Update, I’ve since learned that the reason for his interrupted prep was a bruised heel. Whether that has anything to do with his inclination to jump right, I don’t know. But, having watched the Irish Champion Hurdle again, he does it at every hurdle, changing tack just a couple of strides before the jump rather than a steady veer. I’d be most surprised if he wasn’t feeling something that day – and he’d jumped right in his previous race.
It’s worth remembering he’s missed the last two Festivals due to injuries. Mr Mullins is on record as saying he’s concerned that the buzz of Cheltenham might get to the horse – it’s two years since he said that but perhaps the recent fitting of ear-plugs (December Hurdle) suggests the trainer still has some concerns on that front. Also, the horse has yet to race outside Ireland since arriving there from France.
A very talented horse but given his right-jumping tendencies, previous injury record, absence of experience of both the track and the unique atmosphere, lack of proof that he won’t fret himself out of it on the trip across , and the threat of that famous hill blunting his sharpest weapon, makes him poor value too.
Peddlers Cross 6/1
Watching last year’s Neptune again . . . PC travelled strongly throughout under a fair degree of restraint, never more than three lengths off the lead on the first circuit, he lost two lengths when Maguire asked for a big one at the flight in front of the stands but was back to the three lengths deficit within a furlong, again travelling very well.
Approaching three out Maguire takes a pull (arguably, not something he’d have done had it been a 2 mile race). He wasn’t fluent two out and Maguire drew his whip to keep him on terms but once running again Maguire put his stick down and the 2nd and 3rd were under more pressure than PC approaching the last. A dozen strides after the last he was a length up and running on very strongly, looking in no danger of being caught.
I’ve no qualms at all about his pace – he’d certainly want to be more fluent in the CH, but the Neptune was just his third race over hurdles. He hurdled noticeably better at Aintree though showing a tendency to jump slightly right at the last two (he did it a couple of times at Cheltenham too). He certainly seems to jump better in the pack although his style of travelling – he’s tractable enough and looks reasonably happy to be restrained – looks to me to be tailor-made for front running.
Making the pace would, I feel, make much better use of his energy and allow him to get into a rhythm. Given his ability to quicken – again most apparent at Aintree, quickly going clear – , allied to his gameness and stamina would make a fearsome proposition for his pursuers. Whether his hurdling would stand up to it is another matter.
Update: Peddlers Cross won at Newbury on his seasonal debut beating Starluck and Binocular under a strong ride. Binocular was not at top fitness but the way the race panned out almost certainly would not have suited Peddlers Cross, given his proven stamina. He looked to me to quicken twice towards the end, dispatching Binocular easily then surging again as Starluck reached his girths.
Reportedly suffering a slight cough, he missed his next engagement and Mr McCain must have been very nervous about letting him take his chance at Kelso whose ‘heavy’ would make even Newcastle’s going stick quiver like a divining rod.
I was most surprised to see him pushed out a point to 6/1 after that race when Maguire kept him right up to his work with the Champion Hurdle in mind.
He’s won on different tracks at various trips on going from Cheltenham’s ‘good’ to Kelso’s ‘pudding’. He has a thoroughly likeable attitude, has won at The Festival and, most importantly for me, he is the only unbeaten runner in the Champion – we don’t yet know where ‘the bottom’ is. I think he has much more speed than he gets credit for and he’s ultra-tough.
He is, I think, the best value among those at the front of the market.
Oscar Whisky 10/1
This is another horse I really like the look of. I haven’t seen him in the flesh, and Timeform describe him as ‘angular’ and ‘lacking in stature’ but, on TV, he looked very well put together, muscular and athletic last time at Chepstow. He seems to have a tremendous attitude and considerable scope for improvement.
Reviewing the Supreme again, he travelled like a very good horse till belting the fifth, a mistake which would have floored many but cost him just a couple of lengths. Still, I think it damaged his confidence as he was not fluent afterwards, cat-jumping the last. It says much for him that he finished as close as he did in what is now looking a hot race.
His jumping remains my one concern. He made a couple of mistakes first time out at Cheltenham and did so again at Chepstow last time. Although his Cheltenham victory was over 20 furlongs, the way he cruised clear after the last shows he has plenty speed.
If I had no concerns over his jumping, I think 10/1 would be a reasonable price. But he won’t get away with the type of bad mistake he made in The Supreme. If it comes up soft, I’ll be tempted to back him and if he does manage a flawless round, I would not be surprised to see him do what many believe Hurricane Fly will, pulverise them on the run in.
I fear Dunguib. Probably not enough to add him to my growing list of bets in this though. I was impressed by him in his only run this year and thought he settled comparatively well considering the slow pace and small field. His jumping was better too – he seems to have acquired a degree of cleverness when meeting one wrong; he’s still no Binocular but he’s far from the clumsy, gangly jumper we saw too often last season.
His price, I think, reflects a lack of confidence in both his jumping and, to some degree, his much-criticised jockey, Brian O Connell, rather than a perceived lack of talent. He was a breath-taking Champion Bumper winner in 2009 and a short-priced favourite for The Supreme last year where, though he disappointed, he was hardly disgraced.
His trainer reportedly wished to avoid heavy ground with him this season and also give him plenty of schooling. How effective schooling is with an eight-year-old hurdler is worth a full article in itself. Can you teach a horse to hurdle fluently much beyond the age of three or four?
Anyway, he’s very much the unknown quantity. Some comfort should be taken in Cheltenham’s policy of producing good to soft ground on day one (though they failed to manage that last year, Mr Claisse defiantly sticking his head in the good-to-soft sand, adamant the going was not good – another article awaits!).
Easy ground will favour Dunguib. His two defeats have come on good going through it would be peevish to argue he did not act as well on it. One bet I wouldn’t mind having is that he will be the pick of the paddock – a striking individual whose coat should be glinting and glowing on the day.
Khyber Kim 25/1
That looks a big price about a horse who’s turned from unpredictable to looking like a very game and consistent performer. How much credit should go to the trainer, I don’t know as you never see these men at work. But I love watching Brennan at his job and I’ve no doubt he’s made a major difference to this horse.
I’m utterly convinced he needs a strong test of stamina and he was a major lay for me when turning up at Kempton on his seasonal debut in the Christmas Hurdle . Unless it’s very soft in the Champion Hurdle, I would not consider him. His best performances have been when stamina was needed: soft for both his Cheltenham victories and, though good ground at Aintree, it was over 20 furlongs.
I backed him NRNB for the World Hurdle in which he would have been the EW bet of the season for me at 20/1.
We’ve been racing on bad ground for most of the season (what some trainers would give for a repeat of the 1975/76 season when Champion Hurdler Night Nurse had 8 runs, none of them on ground easier than good). If we get proper good to soft for the Champion Hurdle, I’ll stick with my current main bet which is Peddlers Cross. I’d be happy enough with him too on good ground, though maybe not quite so confident.
If it is proper soft ground, Khyber Kim would have a very fair chance, thought the 25/1 will be gone and in those conditions I’d bet Oscar Whisky at anything above 10/1.
Your thoughts would be most welcome on what should be a fascinating race.
Thanks for reading this far and good luck.