Today marks eight weeks to go until the 2015 Cheltenham Festival and that means our countdown cranks up another notch with the start of our in-depth race previews and tips. The first race to fall under the microscope today is the World Hurdle and it is shaping up to be a cracking renewal once again with the ante post market a fascinating one with just two months to go. The stayers hurdle championship over the past decade or so has been dominated by the likes of Baracouda, Inglis Drever and Big Buck's and it will be fascinating to see if any of the current crop can get anywhere near to emulating those legendary names.
Main World Hurdle Contenders
The only place to start when analysing the World Hurdle this season is with More Of That with the defending champion and his connections looking to join that elite list of multiple winners. The seven-year-old was the slightly surprise winner of the World Hurdle last year as he pulled clear of Annie Power on the run in and at that stage, it looked as though this was the horse to dominate the division for some time to come.
That could still be the case of course with More Of That still right at the top of the ante-post market for the race but this season we have seen the first chinks in his armour with his unbeaten record now a thing of the past. He went to Newbury in November for the Long Distance Hurdle on his first start since the Festival but he bombed out at odds-on to raise doubts about his form this season.
Jonjo O'Neill admitted after that run that the ground was far too soft for him that day but even taking that into account, More Of That was beaten very early and that has to raise some doubts in the minds of some punters. There is however no doubt that More Of That is the one to beat if he can repeat his 2014 form but that poor run at Newbury does nag at the back of the mind given his relatively short price in the current market.
More Of That is currently a best price of 4/1 for the World Hurdle and at the time of writing he remains the only horse with a single figured price for the race. There are a whole host of talented horses in behind the favourite around the 10/1 or 12/1 mark and the real task here is to find which one of those is the most likely to put it up to the jolly at the Festival.
The main piece of form as far as the Irish contenders are concerned came over the festive period at Leopardstown with Lieutenant Colonel (10/1) winning the Christmas Hurdle. The Sandra Hughes trained in-mate picked up his second Grade 1 of the campaign with another gutsy performance on soft ground and it is hard to argue with this horse in terms of jumping or stamina.
Jetson (25/1) was once again in behind Lieutenant Colonel and ran a big race as he gave everything and both of these two horses deserve respect at Cheltenham. Lieutenant Colonel is the one of the two with a real chance though given the fact he has just turned six and there is likely to be plenty more improvement to come which ensures that he is not without possibilities at 10/1 in the World Hurdle Betting.
At Fishers Cross (25/1) once again ran below his best form in that Christmas Hurdle in Ireland and although he finished third in the World Hurdle last season, his spark appears to have gone for the time being which makes him hard to have on the mind. One other note to take out of that Christmas Hurdle was the return of Monksland (16/1) who was having his first run for two years and he ran a big race to finish a reasonably close up third. We still don't really know how good this horse is given his injury problems but he might have more improvement to come which does give him some each-way appeal at the prices.
The home team is also looking strong this season with regards to the World Hurdle with two former Cheltenham Festival winners over two miles of interest to many people. Zarkandar and Rock On Ruby are former winners of the Triumph Hurdle and the Champion Hurdle respectively and both are stepping up in trip as their careers progress which is always interesting.
Rock On Ruby is now ten but he won the Relkeel Hurdle (the same race More Of That won last season) before Christmas and followed that up another very good win at Cheltenham on New Year's Day. The Harry Fry trained horse loves Cheltenham and retains his old enthusiasm but punters backing him will need to take his stamina on faith although that is factored into his current price of 12/1 with Ladbrokes.
Paul Nicholls knows a thing or two about training World Hurdle winners and he is confident that Zarkandar can run a big race this season. He has been mixing it in top company for many years now and ran a big race in the World Hurdle last season when fourth on his first start over three miles. Zarkandar (10/1) returned this season to win a 3m Grade 1 on bottomless ground over in France and this a rock solid horse who is now a guaranteed stayer which has to put him in the frame in March on almost any ground conditions.
The Willie Mullins trained Annie Power is currently available at anywhere between 4/1 and 12/1 for the World Hurdle with the bookmakers clearly at odds with each other. She could only manage second when favourite last season and she is far from a certain runner in the race in March which is a warning to punters. Annie Power is yet to be seen on the racecourse this season and is more likely to go to the Mares Hurdle so the advice for her fans is to back her Non Runner, No Bet.
Hurricane Fly is also in the World Hurdle market for Mullins but he is likely to stay over two miles, while Briar Hill (16/1) has been a top horse during his career but his first run this season was so bad it was untrue which makes him a tough betting prospect.
It would be foolish to ignore Reve De Sivola (25/1) at a big price given his win in the Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot before Christmas although, as always, he will only have a chance if there is plenty of cut in the ground so one to watch rather than back.
Beat That was a dual Grade 1 winning novice last season at both Aintree and Punchestown and has plenty of talent but he was well down the field behind Rock On Ruby on New Year's Day on seasonal debut and he will need to run better before the Festival if he is to prove himself at this level, which is not out of the question given his undoubted talent.
This betting does rightly revolve around More Of That and he is the clear favourite for a second win in the race given his performance last season but he is by no means bomb proof. His run at Newbury was a shocker but there were excuses with fitness, ground and the form of Jonjo O'Neill all going against the horse at that time. We know More Of That stays well and has the class which ensures he is the most likely winner if he is at his best but there is value to be found elsewhere, especially at an each-way price.
Lieutenant Colonel is rock solid and could have improvement to come so punters can expect him to run a big race but there are nagging doubts about whether or not he quite has the class to actually win a World Hurdle in this company.
That certainly doesn't apply to Zarkandar who has won a Triumph Hurdle and been placed in a Champion Hurdle and with stamina now on his side he is our World Hurdle selection this season. He was narrowly beaten by a 100% Reve De Sivola before Christmas after idling when in front too soon but Zarkandar will be better on decent ground in March and he looks like a nice addition to our ante-post portfolio at this stage. He was a staying on fourth in the race last season and with doubts about the three that finished in front of him that day, Zarkandar has to be the bet at an each-way price.