Another piece of the Cheltenham Festival jigsaw fell into place today (Wednesday) when 36 entries were revealed for the Unibet Champion Hurdle.
With Espoir d’Allen tragically no longer with us and two-time winner Buveur D’Air on the sidelines, a new king is waiting to be crowned.
Who will run? Who will win? Below are eight questions, and answers, that may shed a little more light on the showpiece race of the opening day.
1. How unusual is it that there will be no former Champion Hurdle winners in the race?
In the past two decades, there have been only three instances when a previous Champion Hurdle winner has not been in the line-up and two of those, in 2016 and 2017, happened quite recently. The other occasion was in 2011.
During the same period, two or more previous winners have lined up eight times. In 2009, no fewer than four past Champion Hurdle victors – Katchit, Hardy Eustace, Sublimity and Brave Inca – were in the field but none finished closer than sixth.
Sadly, last year’s brilliant winner Espoir d’Allen lost his life after a freak injury on the gallops last summer, while two-time winner Buveur D’Air is recuperating after picking up a hoof injury at Newcastle in November
2. Is Epatante a worthy favourite at a best price of 7-2?
That price looks extremely skinny for a horse who bombed out badly at the Cheltenham Festival last year when a hot favourite for the mares’ novices’ hurdle.
In a media visit to the yard of Nicky Henderson in the build-up to the Festival 12 months ago, the trainer’s enthusiasm for the JP McManus-owned mare was infectious but her previous wins had been more about style, than substance, and she finished only ninth.
Equipped with a first-time hood, Epatante stalked the leaders travelling strongly but she was unable to pick up from the second last.
The Verdict: watch what our experts made of Epatante in the Christmas Hurdle
Her jumping lacked a bit of fluency but she never lost much momentum and it was definitely not the difference between her winning and finishing among the pack in a race that looked weakish beforehand and has not really worked out.
To my eye, she lacked extra gears when she needed them climbing the hill, lending some credence to the theory that she may always be best served by flat tracks.
And why was she wearing that hood? Perhaps Henderson was worried about the occasion getting to her, maybe he was trying to counter-act her tendency to race a little with the choke out – not unlike his perennial Champion Hurdle runner-up My Tent Or Yours, who raced in the same colours.
I’m always wary of backing any horse at the Cheltenham Festival who has not got some solid form at the track, let alone one that has disappointed there on his/her only previous start.
Epatante has looked good this term, although she was running off a mark of 137 when winning her Newbury handicap and you can pick holes in her Christmas Hurdle success at Kempton, for all she was impressive.
Since 2009, only one winner has been rated lower than 162 going into the race (Buveur D’Air was on 157 before his first win in 2017) and she’s on 159. Several other entries are officially rated higher and plenty are within 5lb of her mark.
Also, she's had just five runs over hurdles. The last to have that few before winning was Sublimity in 2007.
All in all, there is little value left in her odds and it is difficult to imagine she will shorten markedly between now and the big day.
3. What about the rest of the Henderson team?
Pentland Hills won the Triumph Hurdle and was to follow up at Aintree
The master of Seven Barrows has a record seven Champion Hurdle triumphs on his CV, and Epatante is far from his only hope.
Given he only looked ordinary on the Flat, it was a surprise that the syndicate-owned Pentland Hills emerged as last season’s top juvenile.
Katchit (2008) was the last Triumph Hurdle winner to win the Champion 12 months later but Pentland Hills (8-1) needs to raise his game, for all he shaped well under a penalty when fifth to his stablemate, Call Me Lord, on his return in the Unibet International Hurdle at Cheltenham in December.
Call Me Lord (16-1) had plenty going for him that day but, proven over further, did not get the credit he deserved for grinding out a neck win in what was a muddling contest. He will be be suited by a truer pace and the softer the ground, the better his chance will be.
By contrast, Verdana Blue (33-1) wants a rattling quick surface and she’s never going to get that on day one of the Festival with the course executive anxious to start the meeting on going no faster than good to soft.
Fusil Raffles (25-1) looked exciting last term but he scrambled home on his return at Wincanton and then ran a stinker at Kempton over Christmas. He has questions to answer.
4. How strong is the Willie Mullins squad?
John O'Connell and Angus McNae put the Morgiana Hurdle under the spotlight
He does not have a Hurricane Fly, Faugheen or Annie Power in his pack and his three principal contenders - Saldier, Klassical Dream and Sharjah – each have question marks hanging over them.
All three met in the Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown in November, when Saldier (8-1) overcame a year off to take the spoils. He has since suffered another setback and is evidently not the easiest to train, plus memories of the way he faded to finish fifth in the 2018 Triumph Hurdle linger.
Klassical Dream (10-1) was brilliant when winning the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle last year but also has chinks in his armour. He was too keen for his own good when third in the Morgiana and exuberance, plus a bad early blunder, were factors in his heavy defeat in the Matheson Hurdle last time.
Unless he calms down, his race at Cheltenham could be over before it has started. Remember, too, he caused a false start to the Supreme last year.
Sharjah (10-1) probably has not got the credit he deserves for his three Grade One wins and he won the Matheson Hurdle with great authority last time, when putting up a fine exhibition of jumping. Aramon (100-1), the weakest link in Mullins' team, trailed home fourth.
He simply seems a different horse to the one who finished mid-division in the 2018 Supreme but he needs decent ground to show his best. If the word “good” is somewhere in the going description, then don’t rule him out.
5. Will Honeysuckle be diverted away from the Mares’ Hurdle?
I would not be surprised, would you?
Her connections have been adamant that the Mares’ Hurdle is her most likely objective, but her next assignment is set to be the PCI Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown on February 1 and if she were to preserve her unbeaten record in that contest then the temptation to run in the big one at Cheltenham will surely be difficult to resist.
It's not just the money, it's the prestige. Although on the subject of cash, first prize in the Mares Hurdle is about £70,000, whereas the winner's purse in the Champion Hurdle is £253,000, and the runners-up pick up almost £100,000.
Six runs have brought six silky wins for Honeysuckle. She’s barely made a semblance of a mistake, has run on all types of ground and not been extended in any of her races, including last time when smart opposition were brushed aside in the Grade One Hatton’s Grace at Fairyhouse.
Honeysuckle (11-1) needs to show she can cope with dropping back to two miles and has only raced right-handed, but she’s been faultless and none of us know exactly how good she might be.
Speed does not look an issue and plenty of previous Champion Hurdle winners have shown their effectiveness over 2m4f. In fact, I’d say that proven stamina is another tick in her box.
A minor setback prevented her running in the mares’ novices’ hurdle last year. She would almost certainly have gone off favourite, had she run, and she subsequently easily beat the winner of the race at Fairyhouse in the spring.
Honeysuckle is 9-2 with SkyBet, who offer a non-runner-no-bet concession, but she’s 11-1 with Unibet and William Hill, who do not offer a safety net.
6. Do you think the connections of Envoi Allen will be tempted to go for gold?
Gordon Elliott says his outstanding novice is most likely to run against his peers but the final decision will no doubt rest with David Thompson, his owner, who at 83 knows better than most that opportunities in racing have to be grabbed when they are present themselves because, tomorrow, they might not be there.
“We'll see how the horse is and discuss things with Gordon and his team and Mr and Mrs Thompson nearer the time,” said Chris Richardson on behalf of the owners after Envoi Allen’s latest emphatic Grade One success in the Lawlor's Of Naas Novice Hurdle
"We'll assess all the options. The sensible thing would be to stay against novices, but we'll let the horse do the talking."
Envoi Allen (16-1) has already had plenty to say for himself.
Impressive in his only point, he then won each of his four bumper races – culminating in his game Cheltenham Festival success in March.
Since switching to hurdles he has continued to set the pulse racing by winning each of his three starts, two of them achieved in Grade One company, with plenty to spare. He’s no bigger than 6-4 for the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle and would no doubt be even shorter if that race was confirmed as his target.
Gordon Elliott told us more about Envoi Allen after his latest Naas success
How good is his form? His official rating is 152 and, in a non-vintage year, that suggests he is within 10lb of the best of the other entries with any amount of improvement still to be unlocked.
Novices running in the Champion are a rarity but Alderbrook famously landed the 1993 renewal having had only two previous runs over jumps, the best part of three years apart. He lined up with plenty of Flat experience under his belt but most folk forget he was also an entire when running and, in those days, had 12st to hump.
Envoi Allen might run next at the Dublin Racing Festival but, if he doesn’t, will go to Cheltenham having had three runs over hurdles, although that is only two less than Epatante and, overall, he's had the same number of races as her.
Don't forget, too, that he is a six-year-old. Nobody bats an eyelid at five-year-olds running in the race (two have won since 2008) and four horses of his age – Punjabi, Binocular, Jezki and Buveur D’Air – have triumphed since 2009.
Buveur D'Air started the season running over fences and had run only once over hurdles outside of novice company when winning in 2017.
So whether Envoi Allen runs or not comes down, chiefly, to sense of adventure.
I fancy the Thompsons and Elliott will take stock closer to the Festival, when they know exactly what they will be up against and what kind of form their own horse is in at home. It would be a bold decision to let him run, but a far from reckless one.
He’s 5-1 with the firms going non-runner-no-bet.
7. Tell me something I might not know
The past five winners have all been unbeaten that season heading to the Festival, having had between one run and four runs beforehand.
That augurs well for such as Epatante, Saldier, Envoi Allen and Honeysuckle, who all boast unblemished records this term.
Since 2009 the winners, going into it, have had official ratings of 163, 163, 167, 165, 172, 165, 169, 162, 157, 169 and 162. The highest-rated British entry this year, Call Me Lord, is on a mark of 160, which tells you something.
Look out for runners equipped with first-time headgear come the day of the race.
Hardy Eustace was wearing first-time blinkers when winning at 33-1 in 2004, while Jezki was sporting a first-time hood when scoring at 9-1 in 2014. And last year, Melon had first-time cheekpieces on when runner-up at 20-1.
8. You’ve got a free £20 bet for the race – who do you put it on?
She might not show up but Honeysuckle looks the bet to me at 11-1 with Unibet and William Hill.
The top two-mile hurdlers look a far from vintage bunch and you can find chinks in most of them.
By contrast, Honeysuckle has been flawless and if she wins the Irish Champion Hurdle, as I expect she will, then I fancy she will get the green light to take part.
If that scenario does come to pass, then the top-class Benie Des Dieux, available at 2-1, would have the Mares’ Hurdle at her mercy.
The Honeysuckle/Benie Des Dieux double is 35-1 with William Hill. I'll have worse ideas.
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