Henderson again holds Champion Hurdle key

Bar One Racing broadcaster Kieran Burke discusses this years Cheltenham Champion Hurdle.

In our latest Cheltenham festival ante-post betting piece, Bar One Racing broadcaster Kieran Burke examines this year’s Champion Hurdle which has divided views among racing fans & pundits alike. You can also read Kieran’s piece on this year’s Ballymore & Supreme Novices here

They’re describing it as the “weakest Champion Hurdle in years” but I prefer to look at with a glass half-full point of view and label this year’s race as “wide open”.

This is a race Nicky Henderson has dominated in recent years winning two of the last three renewals (Buveur d’Air 2017 & 2018) and the Seven-Barrows handler holds the ace once again this year with ante-post favorite Epatante (3/1).

The JP McManus- owned mare stormed the Champion Hurdle favoritism when romping home in the Grade 1 Christmas Hurdle at Kempton on Boxing Day and is a relentless winner, scoring in six of her eight starts under rules (four of five under Henderson).

With Buveur d’Air as good as ruled out following an unusual yet, equally, nasty splinter injury picked up in the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle, Nicky Henderson’s Champion Hurdle dreams could have easily been left in tatters, that was until Epatante rammed home her credentials at Kempton last time.

Epatante

The only mark against the mare while she has been under Henderson’s watch was a disappointing effort at last year’s festival but her trainer feels she is now much better equipped to run to her true level at racing’s showpiece event in March.

“She’s much more mature now, mentally, and she travelled like a dream there. Last year we went to Cheltenham with a very young horse, but we had the prep at Newbury and today was just perfect.” (quotes via the Racing Post).

Silver Streak was 5 lengths behind Epatante at Kempton and re-opposes well down the order at 25/1 for Evan Williams but it’s the Willie Mullins trained Saldier who was closest to Epatante in the betting at 13/2 until the weekends developments in the mares division (more on that to follow in a moment).

Saldier has been a complicated puzzle for connections, sitting on the sidelines for over a year after falling in the Fishery Lane (Grade 3) at Naas in November 2018 but everyone will have enjoyed the geldings triumphant Punchestown return as Danny Mullins guided Saldier past Petit Mouchoir and with it Morgiana Hurdle success (a second Grade 1 win, both at Punchestown).

Accounting for fellow Champion Hurdle entries Petit Mouchoir, Klassical Dream and Sharjah on his seasonal bow at the end of last year, Saldier looks set to head straight to the festival after skipping Leopardstown over Christmas.

“Saldier is progressing slowly but nicely after his hold-up,” said Willie Mullins, “I don’t plan to run him before Cheltenham and the Champion Hurdle remains the plan.”

When you compare the two in the betting, there is no doubt Epatante has had the more straight forward preparation and may be less exposed than the Willie Mullins gelding.

Henry de Bromhead has remained coy on Honeysuckle’s Champion Hurdle chances.

Honeysuckle is the rabbit in the hat here with Henry De Bromhead’s sensational mare also holding an entry in the race involving her own sex but crucially the Waterford trainer has revealed Honeysuckle’s performance in the upcoming Irish Champion hurdle will play a large outcome in his decision over where to aim the mare at the festival.

Unbeaten in six starts under rules, Honeysuckle took everyone’s breath away when breezing by Bacardys to land the BarOneRacing.com Hatton’s Grace Hurdle at Fairyhouse on December 1st.

The form of that result had since been boosted further with Apples Jade returning to her brilliant best in the Frank Ward at Leopardstown having been a long way behind Honeysuckle previously, but sadly Gordon Elliott’s mare was pulled up at Gowran Park last week and she doesn’t appear to have many races left in her.

A 6/4 ante-post favorite for the Irish edition, De Bromhead was recently asked if it would be near on impossible to sidestep the Cheltenham edition should his star mare get the job done in Ireland.

We’d have to assess everything. At the moment we’ve said we’re going to the Irish Champion Hurdle, then the mares’ hurdle.

“It’s a good question but quite a hard one at this stage, and we have to take a lot of things into account. It depends on the performance on the day, then what’s turning up in the race, where do Apple’s Jade and Benie Des Dieux turn up – they’re two formidable mares among plenty of good mares.

“If she did win it’d be a decision we’d be leaving until much nearer the time, and it wouldn’t just be on her performance. There’d be a lot to weigh up.”

Benie Des Dieux’s triumphant return at Gowran Park on Thursday has flipped the mares division on its head and with it the Champion Hurdle picture writes Kieran Burke.

Despite all of that, Benie Des Dieux’s demolition job in the Galmoy on Thursday may well have forced De Bromhead’s hand in regards to Cheltenham and I think that makes Honeysuckle a good bet at 6/1 to win the Champion Hurdle.

Willie Mullins wonderful staying mare is 4/5 favorite for a mares hurdle that is threatening to turn into one of the best races at this years festival with Stormy Ireland sweeping away the opposition in the Grade a Grade 3 at Naas yesterday as Mullins claimed a four-timer at the County Kildare track.

Elsewhere, Sharjah also entered the Champion Hurdle picture by bouncing back to win the Matheson Hurdle at Leopardstown over Christmas, spoiling the party for stablemate Klassical Dream in the process after that rival blundered badly late in the day before tailing off badly. Stormy Ireland is now 7/1 to land the mares hurdle at Cheltenham.

Sadly, former Supreme novices runner-up Thomas Darby looks unlikely to run despite a 25/1 quote after Olly Murphy’s charge went back over hurdles after failing to take to fences, delivering an eye-catching display when landing the Grade 3 Holloway’s Handicap Hurdle at Ascot latest.

Instead, Aintree seems to be where Thomas Darby will be aimed next according to his handler:

“I thought it was a very good performance off top weight and a mark of 151 on his first run in a handicap,” Murphy added. “He didn’t surprise me as I’ve expressed I thought he was very smart, but I was surprised with how he put it all together.

“My immediate gut feeling is I’m going to miss Cheltenham. His main aim will be the two and a half mile Grade 1 at Aintree, and we may well look at going to Fontwell for the National Spirit, which is a very valuable race.

On top of Darby you’ve also got the likes of Envoi Allen who hold unlikely entries which is part of the excitement of looking through the ante-post betting.

However, when you drill down in to it all, whether or not you feel the quality of the 2020 Champion Hurdle is as strong as previous editions some things never change and Nicky Henderson’s seven Champion Hurdle successes tell you all you need to know and with the trainer recently keen to stress that punters shouldn’t be quick to write off Pentland Hills, despite Ballyandy turning him over recently, then it is clear Henderson once again holds the key to this years Champion Hurdle.

Despite all of that, my vote goes the way of the unbeaten mare Honeysuckle at 6/1.



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*Odds were correct at time of publishing the article