All you need to know about the Randox Health County Handicap Hurdle at Cheltenham Racecourse on March 15.
Bridget Andrews talks about victory in last year's running
When and where can I watch the County Hurdle? 2.10pm, Cheltenham Racecourse, Friday, March 15, live in stunning HD on Racing TV, Sky Channel 426, or at Racingtv.com/videos.
What Grade is it? Grade Three. What course is the County Hurdle run on? New Course
What distance? 2m 1f (8 hurdles). How much prize-money? £95,000
Ages: For 5yo+. Weights & Allowances: Handicap
Sponsor: Randox Health
Key Statistics and Trends:
Key age group:
Since 1998, a five-year-old has won this race on ten occasions.
This race has a history of going to lesser fancied runners, with only one horse (Superb Story in 2016) justifying a single-figure price in the last eleven years. Seven of the last 11 winners were 20-1 or bigger.
Six of the last 12 winners were trained by a member of the Mullins family (Willie x 4, Thomas x 1 and Tony x 1).
Up and coming talent:
Fifteen of the past 16 winners were either a novice or a second-season hurdler, with 2017 winner Arctic Fire the exception.
Lack of Festival experience not a barrier to success:
Twelve of the last 18 winners were running at the Festival for the first time. To underline this, previous success at Cheltenham is not an issue as 17 of the last 18 winners had never scored at Cheltenham.
Horses making their handicap debut in this race do not fare well.
Frustration for Hobbs:
Philip Hobbs has had a frustrating recent time in the County Hurdle, hitting the frame on seven occasions in the last 11 years. On five of those occasions his runners were priced at 33-1 or bigger (50-1 third in 2017).
Nicky Henderson drought:
Surprisingly, Nicky Henderson has a dismal recent record in this race, with just one of his 17 runners in the last 11 years making the frame.
Randox Health, the largest diagnostics company in the UK, began sponsorship of the County Handicap Hurdle in 2017.
The contest, run over two miles and a furlong, was previously run in honour of Vincent O’Brien, who recorded 23 victories at the Cheltenham Festival, including four Gold Cups, three Champion Hurdles, ten Supreme Novices’ Hurdles and a flurry of supporting races.
The first County Hurdle was run in 1920 and won by Trespasser, ridden by George Duller, who until 1973 also had a race named after him at Cheltenham’s premier meeting.
The Mullins family have an exceptional record, with brothers Tony (2007 Pedrobob), Willie (2010 Thousand Stars, 2011 Final Approach, 2015 Wicklow Brave and 2017 Arctic Fire) and Tom (2012 Alderwood) all having trained recent winners of the race.
2017 winner Arctic Fire was the first horse to carry topweight to victory since Albergo in 1960.
Last six winners and replays:
2018 - Mohaayed
The six-year-old prompted one of the scenes of last year’s meeting in a family triumph for the Dan Skelton team and a first Festival winner for 3lb claimer Bridget Andrews.
The victory was almost plain-sailing despite a price of 33-1 in a 24-runner field, Mohaayed prominent on the outside, taking closer order down the back and upsides after the second-last before finding best up the hill for his jockey. Andrews was mobbed by partner Harry Skelton after the line, the rider of stablemate and fifth-placed finisher Spiritofthegames.
“I can’t believe it,” said a tearful trainer. “I’m a professional and I shouldn’t be crying but Bridget has just won a race at the Festival.
“She works so hard, she’s the epitome of our sport.”
2017 – Arctic Fire:
Arctic Fire, despite being beaten off a 17lb lower mark in this race two seasons earlier, posted the best weight-carrying performance in the race since 1960 by defying topweight in this traditionally ultra-competitive handicap hurdle. It was also his first start for 418 days.
Paul Townend, winning the race for the second time in three seasons, angled his mount towards the stands’ rail as he improved from well off the pace, before producing a stirring effort up the hill to get up in the final 50 yards.
“It is some training performance by Willie to get Arctic Fire back after such a long absence,” Townend said.
“He had top-weight in the race, but he had it for a reason. He is a class horse. I went out with the mind-set of riding him like the best horse and thankfully it has paid off.
“To carry all that weight on the back of a big absence was some effort.”
It was a victory that continued the dominance of Willie Mullins, who has now won four of the last eight renewals.
2016 – Superb Story:
Superb Story became just the second horse to win at single-figure odds since 2006 when powering to success for team Skelton.
The five-year-old had been laid out for the race since his Greatwood Hurdle second at the course in October of that season and Dan Skelton’s preparation of the horse proved immaculate as he dominated the race up the straight.
Skelton said afterwards: "You need a plan and you need to have a bit in hand. When Paul's horse (Old Guard) did what he did after winning the Greatwood I knew I had to be patient.
“I nearly ran Superb Story at Taunton three weeks ago, but the ground was bad, and I've learned a lot from this meeting and I think you have got to have them super fresh."
2015 - Wicklow Brave:
Wicklow Brave has been one of the most talented dual-purpose horses in training in recent years, as top-flight victories in the Irish Champion Hurdle and Irish St Leger testify, and his mark of 138 for the 2015 County Hurdle proved grossly inadequate.
His eight-length demolition job, in what is traditionally one of the most competitive handicap hurdles in the calendar, was one of the performances of the 2015 Festival, in a renewal dominated by Irish runners (four of the first six home were trained by Willie Mullins).
Wicklow Brave provided Paul Townend with his third victory at the 2015 Cheltenham Festival.
“It wasn’t my plan to be in front on him too early, and going to the last he was looking around, which is why he made a mistake, but I couldn’t believe how well I was going at the second-last and had to go.” Townend said.
“It’s an incredible week – I would have settled for one winner, so three is magic.
“Willie is a genius of a man to turn them up at places like this. I was there about three furlongs too soon but thankfully it didn’t matter. He has loads of ability and handled the ground better than I thought he would.”
2014 – Lac Fontana:
Paul Nicholls was a major force in the County Hurdle from 2004 to 2014, winning the race four times. His Lac Fontana proved more than capable of defying a rating of 139, although his supporters would have been fearing the worst when the five-year-old novice lost his position after the third last.
He rallied to the cause under a determined Daryl Jacob to lead close home and confirm how well suited he was to a strongly-run race over this sort of trip.
A relieved Nicholls was quick to praise his jockey and said: “Daryl has been a bit down, but all you need is a bit of luck – he’ll be a totally different guy now.
“I’m chuffed for him – he needed a winner. We’ve been unlucky but that’s just the way it is here. Little margins can go wrong, and you don’t end up on the scoreboard, but we’re on it now and so we’re happy.
“I knew Lac Fontana would gallop all the way to the line, but the way things have been going I feared we would be beaten in a photo finish, but that was just what we wanted.
Lac Fontana also confirmed he was firmly on the rise when he followed up in the Grade One novice at Aintree the following month.
2013 – Ted Veale:
Ted Veale had been undone by heavy ground when failing to land a gamble on handicap debut at Leopardstown two months earlier and the rain that had got into the Cheltenham ground by the opening race on the final day was a real concern for his supporters.
They need not have worried though, because Tony Martin’s improving novice cruised through the race and was still cantering away like he had just joined in approaching the last, as he closed in on long-time leader Tennis Cap.
There was more than enough in the tank to assert up the hill and make amends in some style for his Leopardstown defeat.
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