The 2016 Champion Hurdle picture was given a shake up early into the season when the current Champion Hurdler Faugheen was beaten on his 2015/16 debut.
Previously undefeated, a two-time Cheltenham Festival winner and trained by the man (Willie Mullins) bookmakers fear most come March, the aura of invincibility that shrouded Rich Ricci’s gelding is not as strong as it once was.
With the Cheltenham Festival fast approaching, our man Declan Rix gives you his ante-post thoughts on the 2016 StanJames Champion Hurdle.
Champion Hurdle ante-post preview
Despite suffering his first and only career defeat, at the time of writing, Faugheen is still very much the horse to beat in the 2016 Champion Hurdle.
At a current price of 4/7, however, he is easily passed over where this piece is concerned. The son of Germany is not a value bet option and while still the horse they all must topple, we don’t think he’s the cast-iron certainty the price suggests.
Willie Mullins’s inmate is a brilliant racehorse, there is little doubt about that, but it must be said he has lead a charmed life on many occasions. His front-running tactics often see him pinch easy early leads and while he often goes a sound gallop, the lengths Ruby Walsh steals at the start of races haven’t gone unnoticed.
The one time Rich Ricci’s eight-year-old has been taking on for the lead by a horse with proper Champion Hurdle ability (Nichols Canyon) he has tasted defeat. A lack of race fitness certainly played its part, although the final half-length distance beaten does flatter him given Nichols Canyon was slowed down dramatically before jumping the last flight in the Grade 1 Morgianna Hurdle.
No doubt Faugheen will strip fitter when they met again, but the above is fact: the one time Faugheen was tackled for the early lead by a good horse, he was beaten. Period.
Having gone to the 2014 and 2015 Cheltenham Festivals on the back of extended lay-offs, connections have decided to give Faugheen a race closer to March this season. Given Faugheen has won at the two previous Festivals, some may think this is a bold move, changing a winning strategy, but for us, it’s the correct decision.
Still lightly-raced and a horse of great stature, Faugheen’s next run in the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown will have him firing on all cylinders come March.
The race will be another pivotal moment in the 2016 Champion Hurdle picture given the strapping bay takes on his two biggest rivals where the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham is concerned.
The horse bookmakers feel Faugheen and his loyal followers have most to fear is Nichols Canyon, the stablemate who handed him his first ever career loss.
Graham Wylie’s charge lowered the colours of the current Champion Hurdler when winning the Grade 1 Morgianna Hurdle at Punchestown back in November. It was a race and a victory that shook up the National Hunt world.
Looking at the race in black and white there was no fluke about victory. Post-race sentiments suggested Faugheen needed the outing more than his stablemate; a theory we can see given Nichols Canyon is a much smaller horse than Faugheen and so, probably easier to get fit.
While the case, however, Nichols Canyon was value for more than his half-a-length triumph and being two years Faugheens junior means he is probably open to more latent improvement than his stablemate.
Willie Mullins would send Nichols Canyon to Leopardstown over Christmas for his next start. In beating an improving Identity Thief by two lengths in the Grade 1 Ryanair Hurdle the son of Authorized didn’t set the racing world alight.
At 2/5 he was expected to win, but the manner of his victory was workmanlike. In fact, it was possibly a touch disappointing, but on very holding ground, conditions that blunt his class, we are not sure many horses would’ve impressed.
We are certainly going to give Nichols Canyon the benefit of the doubt. He did at least show a fantastic attitude to get back up and win.
It’s this gritty nature, among other characteristics, that sees us have huge respect for Nichols Canyon. A durable former flat-racer, he has an abundance of class. Rated 111 on the flat for John Gosden before joining the Closutton team, Nichols Canyon is now a six-time top-level winner over hurdles.
Proper soft winter ground blunts his class and we are sure we’ll see a better horse on spring terrain. This will allow his free-going early speed and slick, aggressive jumping come to the fore. With proven stamina over further, it’s a potent mix and if allowed to attack races early under the above conditions over two miles, he will test even the mighty Faugheen.
Arctic Fire was the only horse that came close to resembling a test for Faugheen in last season’s Champion Hurdle when going down by a closing length-and-a-half.
Under the circumstances it was an excellent run by a young, improving hurdler. With Faugheen allowed an easy lead to dictate early proceedings, Arctic Fire was fighting a losing battle from the get-go given he was held-up, having to concede ground. All in all it was a fine run.
Connections looked for compensation at Aintree a month later in the Grade 1 Aintree Hurdle over two-and-a-half miles, but a last flight fall when appearing to have the race at his mercy saw connections dealt a sickening blow.
Three or so weeks on, another match-up with Faugheen played out in the Grade 1 Punchestown Champion Hurdle, but the son of Soldier Hollow was duly put in his Cheltenham conqueror.
A length-and-a-half defeat at Cheltenham was turned into eight here, but it was another case of Faugheen being allowed an easy early lead to dictate and the small four-runner field didn’t play to Arctic Fire’s strengths.
And that’s the problem with this Willie Mullins horse, he rarely gets his ideal conditions to show his best; Arctic Fire needs an end-to-end gallop on good ground with plenty of early cover.
In a division which often sees small fields a regular, it just doesn’t suit him. Being trained in Ireland must sometimes count against him too, he often has to race on ground far from ideal to show his true worth.
Such is Arctic Fire’s raw ability, however, he has manged to win two of his three races this season despite conditions not suiting. The seven-year-old won the Grade 2 Lismullen Hurdle at Navan to kick-off his 2015/16 campaign.
Next time out, again over two-and-a-half miles, he bagged his maiden Grade 1 in the Hatton’s Grace Hurdle and did so in style against a moderate field.
However, a disappointing run over three miles on bad ground followed over Christmas when well-beaten. That’s an easy run to forgive, though; essentially, connections got it all wrong, it’s not a race he should’ve run in. He needs to bounce back, but over a more suitable trip on better ground, it’s easy see that happen.
Nicky Henderson’s Peace And Co is another horse that needs to bounce back from a poor run.
Last season’s classy Triumph Hurdle winner completely blewout on his 2015/16 seasonal debut at Cheltenham. Sent off a 4/5 shot in the International Hurdle, Peace And Co was far too keen and on soft ground simply had nothing left to give in the latter stages of the race.
It was a poor run, there is no getting away from that, but youthful exuberance on his first start of the season was the obvious blame. A lack of ability certainly wasn’t the cause for his defeat. With this being the case, the five-year-old very much seems a forgotten horse.
Not so in these quarters, however; a quick rewatch of his smooth 2015 Triumph Hurdle success serves as a reminder of this horse’s ability and potential for improvement. Given the son of Falco’s sizeable and scopey frame, physically, more can be expected of Peace And Co this season.
Granted, it hasn’t played out this thus far, he’s only had one run after all, but looking at the form of that 2015 Festival success, he is by no means a back number in the Champion Hurdle picture. Peace And Co only beat his stablemate Top Notch a neck in the 2015 Triumph, but he was value for much more.
Top Notch was second in this season’s Grade 1 Fighting Fifth Hurdle, form that ties him in closely with second-favourite Nichols Canyon.
A further four lengths back and easily held in that Triumph was Hargam who has since ran a promising race behind Faugheen in the Grade 1 Christmas Hurdle at Kempton. Hargam was nicely held by the current Champion Hurdler, no doubt, but he was by no means disgraced.
Given we feel there is more to come from the Seven Barrows inmate this season, with the above form in mind, he is capable of running well in a Champion Hurdle.
The problem with him, however, is he struggles with the same problems Arctic Fire encounters. Like that Mullins horse, Peace And Co needs a strong gallop, cover and to race on good ground.
It’s the above scenario not playing out in a division constantly shaped by small field, slow-run races that will play against Peace And Co. While he also needs to improve officially to trouble the likes of Faugheen, under ideal conditions, we will see a much better horse showing himself. The problem is, will he get those conditions in this division?
The final horse worth serious consideration for this piece is Identity Thief, Henry De Bromhead’s rapidly improving six-year-old. This horse threatened to be one of last season’s leading novice hurdlers after winning at Leopardstown’s Christmas fixture, but for whatever reason, simply didn’t go on.
A summer’s grass has seemingly turned the son of Kayf Tara inside out. Having started the campaign officially rated 137, Identity Thief now sits on 158. From somewhere he has manged to improve 21 pounds in the handicap and after just three runs this campaign, eight in career totality, there is every chance he may improve further.
The Gigginstown-owned horse started the season in good style winning a Grade 2 at Down Royal before heading across the Irish Sea to Newcastle for their Grade 1 Fighting Fifth Hurdle.
Going into the latter race we felt Identity Thief needed to improve significantly from his seasonal debut victory to win. He did just that, proving us wrong, and in beating Top Notch a little snuggly by a neck, it was the first suggestion yet his connections may have a potential Champion Hurdle contender on their hands.
His potentially live Champion Hurdle contender status was cemented with an excellent second to Nichols Canyon in the Grade 1 Ryanair Hurdle at Leopardstown over Christmas.
It was a huge run and for large parts of the closing half mile, it appeared he had the measure of the current Champion Hurdle second favourite. Alas, nearing the finish line after a titanic duel, he had no more to give and went down by a gallant two lengths.
From Leopardstown Identity Thief will head straight to the Champion Hurdle while many of his closest rivals do battle in the interim.
This is not strategy we are fond of, but at least he will arrive at Cheltenham a fresh horse. Renewed in wellbeing and with potential scope for improvement, Identity Thief is a horse worth considering despite his lack of Cheltenham Festival experience.
A lack of form on spring terrain is another small concern, but overall, he is a horse worth serious consideration.
Best of the Rest
The New One, at the age of eight, has come up short in two previous Champion Hurdles and we see no reason why he should go close at the third attempt.
He’s a horse who has had problems in the past and the way he jumped in the Christmas Hurdle behind Faugheen suggested he may not be entirely over them.
Connections of Top Notch look to have better hopes in Peace And Co and he may not even run here. Hargam, on nice ground is capable of performing well, but ultimately doesn’t look anywhere near good enough.
The same can be said about an improver in Old Guard while the former classy My Tent Or Yours is hard to recommend on the back of an extended injury run.
The BetBright Verdict
A race, where realistically at this stage, we can only see four possible bets; Arctic Fire, Identity Thief, Nichols Canyon and Peace And Co. The shape of the race come the opening day will, as always, be critical.
Even this far out, it’s hard to envisage a double figure field lining up, meaning the likes of Arctic Fire and Peace And Co could possibly be hindered by a potential pace bias.
As stated above, we really feel decent-sized fields and especially strong run races are needed to show their best. While the case, however, with the likes of Faugheen, Nichols Canyon and Identity Thief in, there is evidence for suggesting a fair gallop will be on.
The horse with most to prove, and with no 2015/16 form to recommend him on, is Peace And Co. He is one we like, we are sure he is capable of better, but to advise him on current wellbeing would be a touch naïve. This, coupled with the negative record five-year-olds have in Champion Hurdles means he is passed over.
On the contrary, the horse with least to prove is Arctic Fire, where a Champion Hurdle is concerned, based on his excellent second in the 2015 running.
The problem with this Willie Mullins inmate is, on all known form, he is not good enough to beat Faugheen. Granted, on the two occasions they have faced, Faugheen has had everything go his way, but not for a single stride did Arctic Fire ever look like beating his stablemate in either outing.
Nichols Canyon has (beat Faugheen), however, and while fitness probably played a key role in that Morgianna victory, Graham Wylie’s charge has at least achieved something Arctic Fire, and any other horse, couldn’t.
The current market has his price about right now, though, meaning the value bet to be had at this time is IDENTITY THIEF who for some reason is twice the price of Nichols Canyon despite giving him an almighty scare in the Ryanair Hurdle.
Time may show that run to be a fluke given it came on proper holding terrain, but at the prices he is the horse to play each-way.
Henry De Bromhead’s charge has no Cheltenham Festival experience which is a concern, none of his recent efforts have come on anything like spring terrain either – another worry – but if improving on what is likely to be ‘good to soft’ ground in March, he is capable of hitting the frame.
The ease at which he travelled past Nichols Canyon in the Ryanair Hurdle, before being outstayed, was eyecatching. On better ground and on a sharper course, Identity Thief may see out his race that bit better. If he does, on the back on further potential improvement, he is guaranteed to be in the mix.
1pt each-way Identity Thief @12/1
Odds are provided at time of writing, please check your betslip to confirm they have not changed before betting.