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Kevin Blake considers the Champion Hurdle claims of Cilaos Emery after the Willie Mullins-trained eight-year-old reverted to smaller obstacles in the Red Mills Trial Hurdle at Gowran Park.

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Is Cilaos Emery the answer?

We are starting to run out of weather-related euphemisms to describe this year’s Unibet Champion Hurdle division. Windy, cloudy, gloomy, dull, murky, foggy, they’ve all been wheeled out at some stage. Building up to every seemingly meaningful Champion Hurdle trial in the hope that a proper contender will emerge from it has proven to be an exercise in self-flagellation. The process has given us all an insight into how it must feel to be a Mayo football supporter (for the benefit of non-Irish readers). It’s the hope that kills you.

With the race now less than three weeks away, the scope for such a contender to emerge has all but passed, but we did have one last combatant enter the fray last weekend in the shape of the Willie Mullins-trained CILAOS EMERY.

The thought that Mullins might revert one of his chasers to hurdling in light of such an open Champion Hurdle picture has been floated in this space for many months, with Melon having traded at odds-on with BlakeBet at one stage. However, after a first-fence fall at the Dublin Racing Festival brought Cilaos Emery’s unbeaten run over fences to an abrupt end, it is he who Mullins selected to make the reversion to the smaller obstacles.

Mullins couldn’t have hoped for a more suitable opportunity to get Cilaos Emery back into the hurdling groove than the Red Mills Trial Hurdle at Gowran Park last Saturday. He faced just one meaningful rival in Darasso who had to concede 7lb to him despite being rated 5lb his inferior. Heavily backed into 1/4 close to the off, Cilaos Emery duly got the job done by 9½ lengths, but was it the performance of a Champion Hurdle winner in the making?

Cilaos Emery
Cilaos Emery defeated Darasso by 9½ lengths at Gowran Park on Saturday.

Cilaos Emery only really had to run to up to something like the form we know he is capable of both over fences and hurdles to take advantage of this gilt-edged opportunity and he did just that. Just how strong a performance it was is open to interpretation, but Darasso gave every impression of having run to something like his previous best, which puts Cilaos Emery’s performance (including credit for more than the bare winning margin) up around the high 150s. In most seasons, that wouldn’t be enough to attract a second look from the leading Champion Hurdle contenders, but with the main players in this year’s race being as insecure as they are, any potential rival warrants full scrutiny.

In terms of the pace he has, Cilaos Emery has always looked good and strong at two miles in stamina terms and has never looked shy of pace at the trip either. In that regard, he ticks the right boxes for a Champion Hurdle.

However, given his profile of having reverted to hurdling from chasing, how he jumped at Gowran Park was always going to be a point of focus with a view to his Champion Hurdle prospects. In summary, his jumping wasn't nearly as good as his supporters would have been hoping. He showed himself to be an inconsistent jumper of a fence earlier this season and there was a lack of consistency over the smaller obstacles here too. As well as being bit chasery in places, he was also disorganised at a couple. After a chancy leap at the fourth, Paul Townend elected to come off the rail and give him a clear view of his hurdles on the outside. This led to him starting to jump a bit to his left, with him going notably left and getting in too tight to the third-last flight. Having been brought across to be hard up against the outside rail, he jumped the last two hurdles a bit better.

In short, it wasn’t an inspiring round of jumping with a view to the Champion Hurdle. That he produced such a round in a low-pressure environment of a below-average pace with ample space throughout the race doesn’t bode particularly well for how his jumping will hold up in an infinitely more competitive situation in the Champion Hurdle.

If one wanted to be optimistic, some are likely to take the view that his jumping might well sharpen up for what was his first start over hurdles after a spell over fences. However, there is no place for optimism in this space. Buveur D’Air is the most recent poster boy for horses reverting to hurdling from chasing to be top-class over the smaller obstacles, but it is worth remembering that when he made that reversion his hurdling technique was immediately on point.

To conclude, I’m still not quite sure what the answer to the Champion Hurdle conundrum is, but I don’t think Cilaos Emery is the one.

The Flip Side