Few races can match the Champion Hurdle when it comes to prestige and drama and we can once again look forward to a thrilling race in five weeks time when the tapes go up on the first day feature at the Cheltenham Festival. There is no finer sight in the sport than the fastest hurdlers in the game galloping past the stands at Prestbury Park and the anticipation ahead of this year's renewal is as high as ever.
The Champion Hurdle is the latest race under our ante-post microscope today as we look to find the value punt of the race. Can Faugheen be beaten? Is there a bigger priced piece of value lurking further down the market? Well. let's find out.......
Fabulous Faugheen Expected To Bound Clear Of the Field
Faugheen was the brilliant winner of the Champion Hurdle last year and his price for this year's race suggests he is all but certain to become the first horse since Hardy Eustace to follow up that with a second win on the bounce.
The Willie Mullins trained in-mate tasted a shock defeat behind Nichols Canyon in the Morgiana Hurdle back in November but he was clearly unfit that day and he has bounced back in no uncertain terms since. He looked very good when slamming The New One in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton on Boxing Day before he produced an even more stunning display most recently to win the Irish Champion Hurdle.
Nichols Canyon was allowed to race Faugheen in the Irish Champion Hurdle and he paid the price as he was beaten very early on to clear up the form of Faugheen in no uncertain terms. That November defeat was no more than a mere blip in the form of Faugheen and he proved in winning the Irish Champion Hurdle by so far that he is a sensational horse when fit and with a little bit more improvement likely to come in March, like most of the Mullins horses, it is hard to argue with his current price of 2/5 with Paddy Power for a second win in the race.
Not too many horses win back-to-back Champion Hurdles, just ask Hurricane Fly, which would always be a slight worry but the depth of the race looks weak this year and that coupled with Faugheen looking back to his fabulous best at Leopardstown means the rest of the field face a mammoth task to even get within a couple of lengths of him in March.
Best Of The Rest?
Ok, so it is going to be very hard to get Faugheen beaten this year so where is the bet in the Champion Hurdle this year?
The biggest challenge to Faugheen could well come from within his own stable, if the betting is anything to go by at least. Arctic Fire and Nichols Canyon are both on target for the Champion Hurdle are both are top class hurdlers in their own right.
Arctic Fire produced a career best to chase home Faugheen in the Champion Hurdle last season and there is every chance he could do something similar again if everything falls into place for him. He will be ridden for a place which should see him pick up a few horses on the run-in and we know he acts up the hill which is another bonus on his side.
The worry about Arctic Fire (8/1) would be his slightly below par form so far this season with an aborted attempting at a step up in trip at Christmas followed up with his 2nd place in the Irish Champion Hurdle last time out. Faugheen gave him a 15 length beating at Leopardstown and on that bare form, you have to think a couple of horses other than Faugheen will finish ahead of Arctic Fire in March.
Similar comments apply to Nichols Canyon who will be ridden for a place after being blown away when trying to take on Faugheen last time out, as we have already discussed, and there is no doubt he is a proven Grade 1 horse. He was a multiple winner at the highest level as a Novice and looks a good price for a place here on that basis although he did slightly disappoint at Cheltenham last year when 3rd in the Neptune when a warm favourite.
Nichols Canyon is still only six and although he has shown he is no match for Faugheen, ridden patiently at Cheltenham he makes much more appeal than Arctic Fire from an each-way perspective of 12/1 with Paddy Power.
Nichols Canyon has crossed paths with Identity Thief already this season and the Henry De Bromhead horse is another one for the each-way short-list. The Gigginstown owned horse might be a chaser for the future but he has been a massive improver this term over the smaller obstacles and he might be capable of more in March on better ground that should suit.
Identity Thief won the WKD Hurdle at Down Royal last October before coming over to England to win the Fighting Fifth Hurdle ahead of Irving who is a decent yard stick. He was narrowly beaten by Nichols Canyon in the Ryanair Hurdle over Christmas thanks to a likely career best on ground that was very testing.
Still just six, the Champion Hurdle will just be Identity Thief's eighth start over hurdles and there should be loads more to come from this horse, which means he is more than open to the improvement he will need to mix it with the likes of Arctic Fire and Nichols Canyon.
Any Chance Of A British Contender This Year?
In short, the answer to this question is a resounding - No.
The New One (20/1) has been a good horse in his time, a former Neptune winner indeed, but his form recently isn't good enough and he should be running in the World Hurdle instead of connections being happy for their horse to finish in mid-table in a Champion Hurdle. Thanks, but no thanks.
Peace And Co (33/1) was meant to be the shining British hope this season after his Triumph Hurdle win but he has been beaten twice this season at odds on and that coupled with the shocking record of 5-year-olds in the Champion Hurdle means he is best avoided, this season at least.
Nicky Henderson could also throw My Tent Or Yours (25/1) in for another try but he has been off the track for so long now it is hard to see him coming back to his best, which was good enough for 2nd behind Jezki in the 2014 Champion Hurdle. Seven Barrows could also send Top Notch (40/1) and Hargam (40/1) but like Peace And Co, they are five which would rule them out and in any case they don't look good enough at this level.
Identity Thief The Bet This Season
Faugheen will win the Champion Hurdle as long as he stands up in the race but given that his price is so short we are of course looking elsewhere when adding to our ante-post portfolio.
Nichols Canyon and Arctic Fire are solid each-way contenders but Identity Thief is a bigger priced alternative than both of them and he will be carrying our money here. The 6-year-old is lightly raced and has loads more improvement to come, he has been given a well-deserved rest after his tough race at Christmas and should be seen to good impact on decent ground in March.
The Fighting Fifth has produced three winners and five placed horses in the Champion Hurdle in recent years which is another boost for Identity Thief who also has the brilliant training of Henry De Bromhead on his side, who is sure to get every inch out of this horse as humanly possible.
Tip - Identity Thief Each-Way @ 14/1 with Hills or bet365