Have the stars aligned for Jezki to claim the Champion Hurdle?
Our man takes a look at the Champion Hurdle here – the Tuesday highlight – where Ireland appear to hold all the aces and could well notch a few points in the inaugural BetBright Cup early on!
Faugheen currently heads the betting for Willie Mullins, but can we find value against the hot favourite in the hope of scoring in March?
Stan James Champion Hurdle Preview
Irish-trained horses make up more than half of this year’s Champion Hurdle entries with 12 runners. Willie Mullins is mob-handed with seven, but quite a few of those are ‘back-up plans’ for horses like Annie Power, Un De Sceaux and Vautour.
Faugheen – the current race favourite – appears to lead his hand according to the beating with dual-Champion Hurdler Hurricane Fly and the improving Arctic Fire in behind. We suppose there is no better place to start than with the current unbeaten market leader!
The Main Contenders
In nine career starts Faugheen has yet to be beaten. The son of Germany started his career in Irish point-to-points where he won his sole start by eight lengths before being sold privately to Rich Ricci and shipped to the Willie Mullins yard.
Under the guidance of the Irish Champion Trainer the seven-year-old won his five novice hurdle starts last season – the latter pair coming in Grade 1 company at the Cheltenham and Punchestown festivals.
At Prestbury Park he would dispel any doubts about his free-going and novice jumping tendencies when running out a hugely impressive winner of the Neptune Novices’ Hurdle. An easier task he faced at Punchestown six weeks later when winning by 12 lengths at a price of 1/2.
After much debate over the summer of what route Rich Ricci’s horse would take, a decision was made on the gelding staying over the smaller obstacles with the long-term aim being the Champion Hurdle in March. So far, it’s all gone according to plan as Faugheen is a heavy favourite despite the presence of some quality opposition.
This season started in Great Britain when sent to Ascot for the Grade 2 Ascot Hurdle – the race connections won with Annie Power last year. Under Ruby Walsh, Faugheen received a gift from his competitors as he was allowed to dictate a steady gallop in soft ground.
This made the task pretty straight forward and he duly scored in style beating Blue Fashion and Lac Fontana by three-and-a-half and eight-and-a-half lengths, respectively. Visually it was impressive, but the form couldn’t be deemed Grade 1 worthy given the pace, easy lead he got and horses he beat.
At Kempton the Grade 1 Christmas Hurdle was his next port of call. We’d see a much more competitive run race this time round, however which was a positive in terms of analysing his form. It was nice to see him compete in a proper run race.
While the pace was the polar opposite of the Ascot Hurdle the result was the same; an easy win. Once more under Ruby Walsh the son of Germany would score with plenty in hand – beating Purple Bay and Blue Heron by eight and seven lengths, respectively.
We won’t see Faugheen – all being well – till the big day in March it was announced. Connections have opted to go straight to Cheltenham meaning he will have had just two runs this season in the build-up to the biggest test of his career.
That isn’t ideal – despite this tactic working last season. We always prefer horses to be battle ready come the Cheltenham Festival so this looks a negative going forward, all be it a minor one.
The real undesirable comes in his price, however. Despite Faugheen not beating any Grade 1 standard hurdlers this season he is best-priced 5/4f. The price is wrong on what he has achieved this season.
Champion Hurdle conditions are also something he has yet to experience in his unbeaten career.
How will he handle a fast run race over two miles on spring ground against horses of the calibre of Jezki, The New One and Hurricane Fly? Will his jumping – which was sometimes frail as a novice – stand the test? For us, these questions need answering and 5/4 is a short price to be finding out the answer.
Outright second favourite for this year’s Champion Hurdle is the horse that finished third in the 2014 running, The New One. Looking back at the previous year’s race and the Cheltenham Festival itself, we doubt there were many horses as unlucky.
At the third flight he was badly hampered by the fall of Our Conor which cost the gelding a significant amount of momentum. In races such as the Champion Hurdle – against top opposition – bad luck as such will usually cost you any winning chance, and it did.
To his credit he got competitive again going to the third last hurdle; Sam Twiston-Davies not panicking after nearly being brought-down. Going to the second last, however, he was beginning to look a touch outpaced. The son of King’s Theatre was now called on for full effort which produced a strong response once hitting the Cheltenham Hill.
The seven-year-old made up a fair amount of ground on Jezki (winner) and My Tent Or Yours (runner-up) while in the process running on past a weary looking Hurricane Fly. It was a fantastic effort to be placed – given the circumstances.
Since that unlucky defeat Nigel Twiston-Davies’s horse has gone unbeaten. The New One scrapped home at the Aintree Festival at 4/9 over two-and-a-half miles before being put away for the current season.
This campaign has gone quite smoothly; albeit he has yet to come up against a Grade 1 performer.
A Listed win at Kempton, a conditions victory at Haydock and a pair of Grade 2 triumphs at Cheltenham – and Haydock once more – is how his season has gone. His winning starting prices for those four races were 2/11, 1/3, 4/7 and 1/6. That really tells the story of how poor his opposition have been.
Despite not taking on class horses so far this campaign one element of his game that does seem to have improved is his jumping. The New One still couldn’t be considered a slick hurdling type – he has his own way of doing things – but it seems to be more fluent this year.
This maybe because he’s been running in lesser races, though. How will it stand-up in the heat of proper Grade 1 company? It’s hard to say, but the observation can’t be a negative.
In terms of trying something different to win this year’s Champion Hurdle connections have taken a different approach from last season. A clash with Faugheen was avoided in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton; a trip to Haydock three weeks later favoured.
Here he appeared to struggle in beating a 149-rated rival. Although he was giving him 8lbs. The bare form isn’t much to write home about and many have written off his chances of winning at Cheltenham in March on the back of this effort.
We would say that the sharp nature of Haydock really doesn’t suit him, though. The heavy going also played against his strengths and we must remember it was a Cheltenham prep. We can certainly forgive him.
While we remain fans of the horse and his abilities The New One does look a touch short in the betting. He has a fine chance of scoring – especially if avoiding last season’s terrible luck – but whether he deserves to be second favourite on this season’s form, we’re not so sure.
Despite winning last year’s race the current Champion Hurdler is third favourite for the 2015 running at the time of writing. Jessica Harrington’s Jezki has amazingly yet to score this season. Three times the son of Milan has run, and three times beaten – all by the same horse.
The words ‘Hurricane’ and ‘Fly’ are probably not favourites in the JP McManus household, but it’s that very horse – at the age of 11 – that continues to haunt those closest to Jezki. The Harrington’s and McManus are great sports, but they must sometimes think what they have to do to beat the great Hurricane Fly – in Ireland – in his advancing years.
While it’s been frustrating for Jezki’s followers so far this season it’s not all doom and gloom. The very nature of Irish racing doesn’t suit the strengths of Jezki. Good ground and a strong pace are key to the seven-year-old producing his best, and it’s not something he sees that often in Ireland.
On occasions this season he has got one of the above variables, but never both. In the Morgiana Hurdle and Ryanair Hurdle strong paces were evident. However, those two contests were run on soft ground. Last time out in the Irish Champion Hurdle they raced on the best terrain encountered this campaign, but the strong pace required to lead him through the race faltered.
This scenario wasn’t ideal as it left the gelding in front for far too long. His usual strong travelling characteristic meant he was using up valuable energy while giving the rest of the field a toe into the race. He was a sitting duck late, but it was a fine run despite his bad mistake at the final flight which cost him second.
Similar to last season, Jezki now goes to the Champion Hurdle on an extended losing run – a run that exists due to the presence of Hurricane Fly. This didn’t stop the son of Milan from winning last season’s Tuesday highlight, though and we doubt it will this year.
On paper this year’s race actually looks a touch easier with My Tent Or Yours and Our Conor not lining up. Granted Faugheen is a potential stumbling block, but we are more than happy to play Jezki at the prices. Of the front three in the market he looks the value.
Although beating Jezki three times this season, Hurricane Fly currently goes into this year’s Champion Hurdle a slightly bigger price. The great Hurricane’s fans will be miffed by that – and rightly so – but we can understand the bookmaker’s logic.
Though a gritty victor of two Champion Hurdles, Willie Mullins’s stable star has always looked a touch ill at ease at Cheltenham – for whatever reason. The son of Montjeu doesn’t seem to travel as sweetly around the Prestbury Park undulations.
It’s a testament to his class and will to win that he has bagged two of hurdling’s greatest prize. We will surely never see the likes of Hurricane Fly again. Two Champion Hurdles, five Irish Champion Hurdles and a total of 22 Grade 1 wins. He’s had an exceptional career and isn’t finished just yet.
While his reputation can’t be rivalled it still looks a tall order in winning his third Champion. While signs – if any – of him slowing down are minimal you can’t hide the fact that he comes to his least favourite track, under his least favoured conditions (probable) at the age of eleven.
Two of this year’s field – Jezki and The New One – finished ahead of him in the 2014 Champion Hurdle. The market suggests that will be the case this season and we agree. You can never discount Hurricane Fly, but the fact remains Cheltenham – in March – is the time he is most vulnerable.
There are a number of theories on this, but for us, it’s the quicker ground that he races on that just catches him a touch off guard. He handles good ground fine, but when added to a strong gallop on an undulating and slightly sharp course he struggles to lay up with the mid-race pace.
In his first Champion Hurdle win he got away with the above scenario due to the slow run nature of the event. In his second Champion win he looked beaten a long way from home before the horses ahead struggled up the hill due to their early strong fractions.
To be fair, he travelled well in last year’s running, but was nicely held in the end, although he didn’t appear to finish his race well. He again looked out of sorts at Punchestown on decent ground, but being the champion he is he bounced back this season.
Will that bounce back be enough win his third Champion? We don’t think so unless the ground comes up soft or heavy.
Of the remainder of the field entered, only one more horse is worth plugging in terms of it not being a complete shock if he won. He hasn’t got the reputation of those ahead of him, but Arctic Fire has taken his form to another level this season.
Now don’t get us wrong, he needs to improve hugely to win a Champion Hurdle this year – and while that is highly unlikely – we could easily see him finishing in the first four, and depending on how things go on the day maybe even grabbing a place.
Since the start of the season the son of Soldier Hollow has improved 15lbs in the official handicap ratings now leaving him on a rating of 162. He was a classy early season novice last season before developing into a solid open-grade handicapper.
The six-year-old’s run at last season’s Cheltenham Festival when second in the County Hurdle was a fantastic effort in one of the most fiercely competitive handicaps of the year. That run showed his ability to handle the track at Cheltenham while giving him sound Festival form.
Technically he will be running on a different track given the County Hurdle is always held on the New Course, and the Champion Hurdle is a race for the Old track. That switch may concern some, but it will be a positive on the day.
Why? Because Arctic Fire is a horse with a huge cruising speed. In fact, sometimes he travels too well and can be a bit keen, but as he has got older he has learned to settle better. It’s this very reason why the nature of a competitive Cheltenham Festival race suits him; he needs a strong gallop to chase.
While you can never be sure of getting this scenario on the day of a race he should get at least a fair gallop to chase. JP McManus should ensure there is a strongly run race for Jezki while Faugheen won’t want to be too far back given his stamina. The New One is another who won’t be too far off the gallop.
If Willie Mullins’s inmate gets a strong gallop on decent ground he will be bang there as the field swing for home. The form of his last two runs behind Hurricane Fly now show him to be a top-class hurdler.
The Ryanair Hurdle run at Christmas was proved to be no fluke when he ran second in the Irish Champion Hurdle. Many will ask how he couldn’t win this year’s Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle? We’d say the ground was probably too soft for him to show his best.
It’s a tall order for Arctic Fire to win this year’s Champion Hurdle, but he has every chance of hitting the frame granted decent ground and a strong pace.
Best of the Rest
Paul Nicholls’ Irving looks best of the remaining entries, but it still looks like he has a fair way to climb to trouble to judge in this year’s Champion Hurdle.
His best form comes on flat speed tracks and he failed to fire when fancied in last season’s Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. Soft ground also shows him in a good light and he may not get that in March.
Diakali is a young classy horse but has had his problems this season and hasn’t been seen. The remainder really don’t look good enough and will make up the numbers.
The BetBright Verdict
Five horses look like winning the Champion Hurdle this season. Arctic Fire, Faugheen, Hurricane Fly, Jezki and The New One.
At the prices Faugheen is the horse we are really gunning for. There is no doubt about it; he is a hugely talented and exciting equine with a big future; there is even a touch of a freakish quality to him, but 5/4 is short on the evidence we have seen. The son of Germany’s two wins this season have impressed to the eye, but lack substance in terms of form.
At Ascot he was granted an easy lead in soft ground and beat a field of stayers. Blue Fashion was second, but was having his first run of the campaign and looks an out-and-out underdeveloped
chaser for the future. He now looks World Hurdle bound; a race to be run over three miles. Lac Fontana was third, but despite being a Grade 1 winner on paper he looks more of a high-class handicapper at the moment and is another who will be better over fences in time.
The form of his Grade 1 Christmas Hurdle win also underwhelms. Once more he mesmerised visually, but beating a horse of Purple Bay’s elk – who looks substantially overrated with an official figure of 159 – is not two mile Champion Hurdle form.
Connections are also set to send him straight to Cheltenham meaning he won’t have run in 74 days. Will Faugheen be rusty off this extended lay-off and so affect his jumping – which has never been of champion hurdle quality anyway?
This will be put under the microscope in a strongly run two mile race which will take place on quick ground (probably) and a sharpish track.
He’s an exciting horse and holds an outstanding chance of winning the Champion Hurdle, but he’s very much the wrong price on what he’s achieved.
Last season’s Champion Hurdle third was The New One and similar sentiments apply to him. His price of 3/1 doesn’t offer value at this stage. While he’s looked good – for the most part – this season, the son of King’s Theatre odds suggests his unlucky run in last season’s race is being a touch overplayed.
No doubt he was unlucky, that is obvious, but it was a worry how he was out-paced coming down the hill before running on strongly. Given the hot early pace Jezki chased in comparison to The New One he was entitled to finish like he did under Sam Twiston-Davies.
We can just see the Old Course finding him out once more. If the Champion Hurdle took place on the New Course there is even a case to be made for him being favourite now. It doesn’t, however, so unless the ground comes up soft he may struggle coming down the hill before running on strongly again. The race may be over by then, though.
At the age eleven, we just can’t see the great Hurricane Fly winning back his crown and becoming a three-time winner. The son of Montjeu has always looked vulnerable at Cheltenham as we discussed in more detail above. It would be fantastic to see, but unless we get very soft or heavy ground he way struggle to lay up with some speedier and younger rivals.
At opposite ends of the market we’re interested in Arctic Fire and Jezki. Currently, the former is a best priced 20/1 play while the former is a general 6/1 shot. As the odds suggest the current champion hurdler holds the best chance of scoring.
Arctic Fire, however, is a much bigger price so we are left with a conundrum. Do we get greedy and go for a bigger price or play a solid horse in the current champion?
In terms of value – in winning the race – we are going to side with JEZKI. He’s a horse still being underrated by the current market simply because he hasn’t won a race this season. Don’t forget it was a similar story last year and it didn’t stop him from convincingly turning around that Hurricane Fly form at Cheltenham.
Hurricane Fly – for whatever reason – still hasn’t captured the imagination of many in national hunt racing and it may well be people are underplaying Jezki’s form because it revolves around the five-time Irish Champion Hurdler. Hurricane Fly is dual Champion Hurdler and 22-time Grade 1 winner; Jezki’s form with him is sound.
This sound form has also come under conditions Jezki struggles to show his best form in. Quite simply the key to Jessica Harrington’s inmate is good ground and a strong pace. He never gets those conditions in Ireland, but there is a fair chance he will at Cheltenham in March. If so, we are sure the real Jezki will stand-up and serve it up to the hot favourite, Faugheen.
Willie Mullins’ Arctic Fire should also not be discounted lightly. He easily has the ability to run third or possibly better depending on what happens on the day. Good ground, a strong pace and back on the Old Course; he may surprise one or too.
Hopefully connections can secure the services of a top jockey on the day. With all due respect to David Casey and Danny Mullins a bigger name can be obtained on the day. Maybe Bryan Cooper or Barry Geraghty may be available depending on what happens with their respective owners and trainer.
3pts each-way JEZKI @ 6/1