Cheltenham - At The Races

Sectional Spotlight: Champion Hurdle

    Sectional timing expert Simon Rowlands has analysed the performances of the leading players in the key races ahead of day one’s feature contest, the Champion Hurdle.

Judged by some of the responses to my remarks about Samcro in a preview of the Cheltenham novice hurdles elsewhere on this site, not everyone appreciates the concept of dealing in evidence when considering short-priced fancies.

That evidence included that Samcro had run neither especially fast overall nor especially fast sectionally when landing the Deloitte Novice Hurdle at Leopardstown a couple of weeks ago. That he won with something to spare was also mentioned.

Samcro is a promising horse, of that there is no doubt. But the boxes required to be ticked by an odds-on shot (he is around 4/5 for the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle) are inevitably greater in number than those for a horse that is an outsider.

That is something to bear in mind when considering the credentials of Buveur D’Air for the Unibet-sponsored Champion Hurdle Challenge Trophy in a few weeks’ time. Buveur D’Air looks likely to go off at one of the shortest prices ever in the race, and is currently 2/5 in some places.

Only five horses have gone off at shorter at the whole of the Cheltenham Festival in the last decade. Four of them won, but one – Douvan, the shortest of them all at 2/9 in last year’s Queen Mother Champion Chase – did not. Over the same timescale, 12 of 29 odds-on shots have been beaten to show a small loss at level stakes.

It is difficult to see what might beat Buveur D’Air, but not impossible. Besides anything else, unexpected things can happen in horseracing, and in jumps racing in particular. Here are some of the timing facts regarding Buveur D’Air, most of them favourable.

Buveur D’Air proved not only that he could win a Champion Hurdle 12 months ago but that he can run a Champion Hurdle-standard time. He was 1.7s quicker than the winner of the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle (Labaik), despite carrying 3 lb more, and got a 168 timefigure from me. That makes the fact that he has not run (nor needed to run) a fast time since of less concern than it might be. Easy wins at Newcastle, Kempton and Sandown this term have been against mostly much lesser opposition, and along the way Buveur D’Air has shown that he can make the running if needed.

Race replay: Fighting Fifth Hurdle, Newcastle, December 2017.

The one serious rival to him in that time was The New One in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton, but The New One was ridden for speed (the early sectionals were slow and the closing sectionals fast) and was, unsurprisingly, swamped when the chips were down. Buveur D’Air was several lengths quicker than the other hurdling winners on that card from the second-last.

If anything, things have been too easy for Buveur D’Air of late. He looks like he could still do to good horses what he has been doing to not-so-good horses, but we don’t really know. He has had a total of nine rivals in three races this campaign.

A peak-form Faugheen would give even Buveur D’Air a headache. His 2015 Champion Hurdle win came in an identical time to Buveur D’Air’s win two years later but was on less-testing ground and amounts to just a 139 timefigure as he got the run of things up front.

However, Faugheen’s Irish Champion Hurdle win at Leopardstown in 2016 was worth a 176 timefigure, and his Morgiana Hurdle win at Punchestown just a few months ago stacked up very well indeed, on both overall time and on sectionals, against a handicap run over the same distance earlier on the card. A figure of 167 can be considered to be conservative.

On that day, Faugheen went fast and then went faster still, at one stage more than half a furlong ahead of the leader in that handicap and passing the post 7.7s to the good. He carried 2 lb more than that handicap winner, Top Othe Ra, who ran to about 136. Faugheen slammed Jezki by 16 lengths.

Race replay: Morgiana Hurdle, Punchestown, November 2017.

The problem is that Faugheen has since been pulled up then finished second to the Stayers’ Hurdle fancy Supasundae at Leopardstown (with Jezki several lengths closer to him on this occasion), form which would not be good enough to regain him the Champion Hurdle title.

If you are looking for something to grab from that latter performance – a straw or possibly a lifebelt – then it should be pointed out that Faugheen set nothing like so strong a pace as he had in the Morgiana and stuck to his task when headed.   

My Tent Or Yours is not good enough to win an up-to-scratch Champion Hurdle. He has been second three times in the race (beaten four and half lengths by his stable-companion Buveur D’Air 12 months ago), the 2014 running of which was substandard.     

He won a rather falsely-run International Hurdle at Cheltenham in December from The New One but was favoured by the weights. Third-placed Melon went best of all that day, trading at odds on in the run before finding little.

But Melon found even less when hooded and fifth to Supasundae and Faugheen in the Irish Champion Hurdle since, and the obvious conclusion is that he is good but not that good.   

That probably applies also to the third in the Irish Champion, Mick Jazz, who had previously won a Ryanair Hurdle at the same course in which Faugheen proved that even 2/11 shots sometimes get sunk.

A late candidate for Champion Hurdle honours was revealed in the Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton recently in the form of Elgin, who gave 4 lb and a beating to Ch’Tibello and Call Me Lord. But Flying Tiger – beaten twice in handicaps this term – was hot on their heels, and the form looks some way removed from what will be required. A 149 timefigure and merely respectable sectionals are other reasons to think that Elgin will do well even to place in the big one.

Barring unforeseen developments, this year’s Champion Hurdle arguably comes down to whether you are happier backing Buveur D’Air at 2/5 or Faugheen at around 6/1. The latter is more enticing, even with two disappointing efforts by Faugheen, for the clock suggests that the Faugheen who won at Punchestown in November was the Faugheen of old. 

It should be some showdown if the “right” Faugheen turns up!

Verdict: win back FAUGHEEN