Going into the Irish Champion Hurdle I was convinced we would have some kind of clarity regarding Faugheen. The former two mile hurdling king would either blow out again and be retired or hack up, as he did in the Morgiana on his comeback, and emerge as the only serious contender to Buveur D’air at Cheltenham. In the event we got neither. His second place to Supasundae only telling us one thing – he isn’t the ‘machine’ he once was anymore. And when you look back at the Morgiana, despite being so visually impressive, in retrospect the fact is that the race basically wasn’t a very good one. The yardstick to measure it by is Jezki, whom Faugheen beat by 16 lengths into second at Punchestown and comfortably again by just over nine lengths at Leopardstown.
There is a but however. Without doubt going into the Champion Hurdle Buveur D’air looks head and shoulders above his rivals and should defend his title with the minimum of fuss. He is a best price 1/2 to do so though and not a punting proposition. Instead, you can back Faugheen each way at 13/2, which for me would look to be a bet to nothing. There’s no Supasundae lining up this time, meaning his biggest opponents for a place are My Tent Or Yours and stablemates Melon and Wicklow Brave. Now he may not quite be as brilliant as he once was but you would be bitterly disappointed if he wasn’t good enough to beat two of the above. Plus, of course, there’s the chance the Mullins magic can eke out something special from the 10-year-old on the day or indeed that Buveur D’air could fall or just have an off day. This is horse racing after all and it’s rarely as straightforward as you think.
The joker in the pack is still Yorkhill. Previously advised at 20/1, despite having a pretty forgettable season so far, you just know that he could suddenly bounce back to form. He’s outrageously talented and if anyone is going to get him back it’s Mullins. With the growing possibility of the Closutton trainer having the twin attack of Douvan and Min for the Champion Chase, the Champion Hurdle would surely look like Yorkhill’s most obvious target now and I wouldn’t put you off taking the 12/1 each way NRNB that is available. If he does line up then, regardless of his past two runs, he will be shorter on the day.
Faugheen 13/2ew NRNB (previously advised 8/1)
Yorkhill 12/1ew NRNB (previously advised 20/1)
A horse with Festival form following his win in the Coral Cup last year, Supasundae has emerged as the leading contender for the Stayers Hurdle next month. His last two performances, in beating Faugheen in the Irish Champion and pushing Apples Jade to within half a length over Christmas, are the best form on offer in what looks to be a weak division.
I did previously advise three at double figure prices however and all remain solid each way hopes. In December I recommended taking chance at 20/1 that Yanworth might switch back to hurdles. Well, today Alan King has confirmed the son of Norse Dancer will indeed take that route. It is a development that will see him renew rivalry with Supasundae, who he beat by a length to win the Liverpool Hurdle at Aintree last April. I do, however, think Supasundae is a better animal this season and could well reverse the placings. Yanworth will almost certainly be shorter than 7/1 on the day though so if you fancy him I’d advise you to get on now.
Put up at 18/1 at the start of the season, we still haven’t seen Penhill this term although the latest reports from Willie Mullins are positive that he will make to the race. Whether last season’s Albert Bartlett hero can win first time up though makes it a tough ask. Meanwhile, I’m delighted to see that Nigel Twiston-Davies has committed to this route with The New One after taking him out of the Champion Hurdle at the latest forfeits stage. Advised at 14/1, he’s enjoying his best season for years and is no back number.
Penhill 10/1ew (previously advised at 18/1ew)
Yanworth 7/1ew (previously advised at 20/1ew)
The New One 12/1ew (previously advised at 14/1ew)
QUEEN MOTHER CHAMPION CHASE
Altior‘s comeback run after a wind op at Newbury couldn’t have gone much better and Nicky Henderson’s star quite rightly goes into the Champion Chase as favourite to follow in former stablemate Sprinter Sacre’s footsteps in winning the two mile chasing crown after claiming the Arkle the year before. However, he will not have things all his own way with Willie Mullins seemingly planning a twin pink and green coloured attack in the form of Min and Douvan. It is a mouth-watering prospect and if Altior can put the Rich Ricci owned pair to the sword then he truly will deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as his old mate Sprinter.
After a disappointing display at Christmas, the real Min turned up at Leopardstown last month, putting in a scintillating performance to win that Grade 2 by 12 lengths. It still might not be good enough to beat Altior but I think Min is a better chaser than he was a hurdler and will definitely get closer that the seven lengths that separated the pair in the Supreme a couple of years ago. For those of you who took the 12/1 advised here, you’re still sitting on a nice each way price.
Then there’s Douvan, who is even more fascinating. After being ruled out for the season a couple of months ago, he apparently has made a miraculous recovery and the vibes coming from Closutton now are that the old Douvan could well be back. If you think that Mullins has stated before this is the best horse he’s ever trained, then if he is back to the sort of form that saw him unbeaten in 13 races prior to his injury hit run in this race last year this could be a contest that will be talked about for years to come. Available at 4/1 with the non runner no bet concession, he is another that would definitely be shorter on the day, especially if the pick of Ruby Walsh, which you would imagine he would be.
Altior 8/11 (previously advised at 6/4)
Min 11/4 (previously advised at 12/1ew)
Douvan 4/1 NRNB
Despite Mullins’ comments over recent days about running both Min and Douvan in the Champion Chase, Rich Ricci will no doubt prefer the pair to be split up and of the two I think it is Douvan who is the most likely to move up in trip. I actually advised the son of Walk in the Park at 10/1 for this race in my very first antepost piece of the season back in October and rather like the situation with him in the Champion Chase I’d recommend utilising the non runner no bet option and backing him at his current price for this race too.
Mullins obviously has last year’s hero Un De Sceaux here too, while Waiting Patiently is a very interesting contender following his ultra impressive win at Ascot on Saturday. Doubts about his suitability to better ground from connections mean he might not even turn up however and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him at Aintree instead if it came up soft there. Even if he does go to Cheltenham I think Mullins still holds all the aces with a peak form Un De Sceaux and possibly Douvan.
Douvan 4/1 NRNB (previously advised at 10/1)
I don’t think I’ve been more excited about an antepost bet than I am about the 66/1 I have, and which I advised in this blog, about Killultagh Vic. There is little doubt in my mind that had he not taken that crashing fall at the last, Willie Mullins’ charge would have won the Irish Gold Cup last month. If he is none the worse for that spill then he goes to Cheltenham right in the mix of ending Mullins’ quest for national hunt racing’s holy grail. Having won over three miles as a hurdler there are no doubts about the trip and he should have come on again fitness wise. His biggest danger is his jumping but if he gets round I have no doubt he has the class to be a major player at the finish.
I recently had an enjoyable debate with someone about the merits of Killultagh Vic up against his fancy, Might Bite. “Hasn’t got a chance in hell” was his verdict on my pick, whom, in his view, “doesn’t stay” and is “too inexperienced”. The beauty of this year’s Gold Cup is that it is wide open and rife for such discussion. For what it’s worth I have no doubts he will stay – he has a massive engine – and you could have argued that Sizing John or Coneygree were too inexperienced.
One thing we did agree on was that Native River is the most solid each way option in the race. Although he didn’t beat much, his seasonal return at Newbury the other week was very good and should leave him spot on for an assault on the blue riband event. Last year he arrived after a string of tough assignments that must have left their mark. This time he’s been campaigned with this target solely in mind and is the one horse you know for sure will run his race and be staying on well at the finish when others are toiling.
Killultagh Vic 10/1ew (previously advised at 66/1)
Native River 7/1ew