There are just seven weeks to go until the Cheltenham Festival takes centre-stage once again at Prestbury Park.
The Grade One Unibet Champion Hurdle is the highlight of the opening day of the four-day extravaganza, and the two-mile showpiece boasts a roll of honour which includes the likes of three-time winners Hatton’s Grace, Sir Ken, Persian War, See You Then and Istabraq.
This year’s renewal could see a former champion Buveur D’Air in action, alongside the reigning heroine, Epatante.
We’ve taken an early look at the race following the entry stage, and analysed where the value might lie.
Epatante – the Champion Hurdle Queen again?
Watch how Epatante landed last year's Unibet Champion Hurdle
Epatante was simply electric in the 2020 Champion Hurdle. Always travelling strongly, she quickened up in the style of a superstar to provide Nicky Henderson with an eighth victory in the Grade One contest.
However, arguably her best performance came in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle where she defeated the likes of Sceau Royal with a stunning display on the bridle.
Her cruising speed on that occasion was simply out of this world, and it looked as if she would be unbeatable in this division.
Then came Kempton. The 1-5 favourite for the Christmas Hurdle, Epatante was temperamental before the event and made a bad mistake three out which hindered her chances.
Her conqueror on that occasion, Silver Streak, clearly thrives at the track, but he still registered a comfortable six and a half-length success.
Clearly, Epatante was not at her best that day. She was too fresh and made a litany of mistakes. Come Cheltenham in March on spring ground, the seven-year-old will be a different proposition and it does look easy to forgive that Kempton run, given the circumstances.
Epatante remain the 9-4 favourite for the Unibet Champion Hurdle, and it looks too early to desert her.
Buveur D’Air – an each-way player at 22-1?
Buveur D'Air finished second on his return at Haydock
There’s no denying Buveur D’Air has been a superstar in this division. A seven-time Grade One winner, he boasts two Champion Hurdle wins to his name.
However, having sustained a foot injury in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle, he was off the track for 420 days before his reappearance in the The New One Unibet Hurdle at Haydock on Saturday.
Despite travelling with his usual zest, and also jumping with aplomb, he just seemed to lack that final finishing kick as he trailed home in second behind Navajo Pass.
Clearly, the ten-year-old is bound to improve for that run and whilst Nicky Henderson was magnanimous in defeat, he would surely have to be disappointed that Buveur D’Air could not defeat a rival giving him 3lb and officially rated 14lb lower than him.
It therefore remains to be seen as to whether Buveur D’Air retains his old ability and despite the 22-1 available about a former dual winner of the race, he will need to come on plenty for that reappearance effort.
The rest of the home guard – Silver to Streak to glory?
Watch how Silver Streak floored Epatante in the Christmas Hurdle
One of the most likeable horses in training, Silver Streak finally enjoyed his day in the sun when landing the Ladbrokes Christmas Hurdle at Kempton during the Festive period.
The tight track at the Surrey venue really seems to suit Evan Williams’ charge, but he also boasts plenty of smart form at Cheltenham.
Second in a Greatwood Hurdle, and two International Hurdles, he was arguably an unlucky loser when filling the runner-up position in the International behind Song For Someone in December.
Still only an eight-year-old, there is surely more to come from the Dark Angel gelding, despite him finishing 12 lengths behind Epatante in last year’s Champion Hurdle.
A 10-1 chance for Festival glory, he looks a fair price.
Goshen (20-1) is another fascinating possible runner. Things have not gone to plan ever since his final-flight fall in the Triumph Hurdle. Two runs on the Flat saw him beaten in disappointing fashion at Goodwood and Haydock respectively.
He then returned to hurdles in the International at Cheltenham in December, but was last of the ten runners and found to be suffering from a fibrillating heart.
The five-year-old now has a litany of questions to answer and history tells us how hard it can be for juvenile hurdles stepping into open company as a five-year-old.
However, it’s far too early to be writing Gary Moore’s charge off and his run in the Contenders Hurdle at Sandown in February should tell us more.
Sharjah the pick of the Mullins brigade
Sharjah once again ruled in the 2020 Matheson Hurdle
Closutton maestro Willie Mullins is no stranger to Champion Hurdle success with four victories in the contest. Whilst his team arguably lacks a superstar, he does have strength in depth.
Sharjah (7-1) looks the pick of the team at this point. He produced a stunning performance to win a third Matheson Hurdle at Leopardstown over Christmas, and he also finished an excellent second to Epatante in last year’s Champion Hurdle.
Patrick Mullins clearly gets a good tune out of him and it will therefore be interesting if Mullins, as an amateur, will be allowed to ride in the race, given the current restrictions banning amateurs from riding under Rules at present in England.
Versatile regards the ground, he looks sure to run well.
Saint Roi (10-1) was the Champion Hurdle hype horse for Mullins at the beginning of the season, but he has questions to answer after a poor performance behind Sharjah at Leopardstown.
Fourth in that race, he never looked like landing a blow and despite boasting winning form at Cheltenham, punters should maybe wait until he runs at the Dublin Racing Festival before deciding whether he is a legitimate Champion Hurdle contender.
Concertista (16-1) would have every chance if lining up in this race, but looks booked for the Mares’ Hurdle, which leaves Saldier as part of Mullins’ likely triumvirate.
He was arguably in need of the run when well-beaten behind Sharjah last time out and it is clear that the Mullins team still retain plenty of faith in his abilities. He may be a lively outsider at 25-1, but has more questions to answer.
The rest of the Irish challenge
Honeysuckle (16-1) would have clear claims if lining up in the Champion Hurdle, but connections look keen to retain their crown in the Mares’ Hurdle.
That leaves Henry de Bromhead relying on Aspire Tower (12-1) who has been solid in two runs this season. Successful at Downroyal in October, he was then not disgraced when an excellent second to Sharjah on his latest start.
Second at Cheltenham in the Triumph Hurdle last season, he has arguably bucked the trend about juvenile hurdlers going onto struggle in all-age contests.
He looks sure to run his race and could be joined by stable companion Jason The Militant (33-1) who has not been seen since finishing third in the Morgiana Hurdle.
Abacadabras (14-1) is another enigma. He defeated Saint Roi with a thrilling win in the Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown in November, before finishing a disappointing fifth in the Matheson Hurdle.
Gordon Elliott revealed that his horses were under the weather over the Christmas period and it could therefore be conceivable to forgive that effort from the seven-year-old.
Second in the Supreme last season, he is certainly a player, but his finishing effort remains a concern, and others are preferred.
Verdict – "You can tell everybody, this is your song"
Song For Someone defeated a useful field in the International Hurdle
The one horse in the market we haven’t mentioned is Song For Someone and he could well turn out to be the surprise package in the race.
Last season, his campaign culminated with victory in the Kingwell Hurdle.
However, he has taken his form to a new level this season. A smart winner at Ascot on his seasonal reappearance, he showed a cracking attitude to land the International Hurdle at Cheltenham last time out when he was clearly not suited by the hurdles being omitted in the home straight due to low sun.
That performance showed that he handled Cheltenham, and his jumping had held up in a competitive contest featuring some of Britain’s top two-mile hurdlers.
He will again have to take a step up and this will be only his second run in Grade One company.
However, they key fact of Tom Symonds’ charge is his progression. Still only a six-year-old, there’s more to come from this son of Medicean and 20-1 looks too big a price to ignore.
Epatante is clearly the horse to beat and it would be no surprise to see her retain her Champion Hurdle crown.
However, 9-4 remains a skinny price at this stage, and with proven form over the track and a progressive profile to match, Song For Someone may be able to hit the right note from an each-way perspective at Prestbury Park.Bring home the Jumps with a free month of Racing TV! Watch full coverage of the best British and Irish meetings. Start your free month at racingtv.com/freemonth!
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