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The Unibet Champion Hurdle: The five key questions

By Andy Stephens@StevoGG
Wed 17 Jan 2018

Andy Stephens considers the questions that need answers after 23 entries were on Wednesday revealed for the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham on March 13.

By Andy Stephens

Is Buveur D’Air entitled to be an odds-on chance?:

Yes, although you might disagree if you believe Faugheen is going to bounce back from his flop over Christmas (see next question).

Sometimes it does not pay to look beyond the obvious and the simple truth is that the seven-year-old is the clear form pick, seems at the peak of his powers and will have had a relatively easy time en route to the defence of his crown.

There are two minor niggles for those prepared to get stuck in at cramped odds - Coral and Ladbrokes make him a best-priced 4-6 - and support him to become the first back-to-back winner since Hardy Eustace (2004-05).

One is the possibility of quick ground - although these days Cheltenham’s watering policy almost discounts that - and the second is that he skims so low over hurdles that he is increasingly leaving no margin for error.

Nicky Henderson conceded that at Kempton on Boxing Day after Buveur D’Air had breezed past The New One. “I’d like to get him an inch or so higher,” the champion trainer said.

Buveur D’Air will limber up for Cheltenham in the Contenders Hurdle at Sandown early next month and it will be a shock if he does not win the race for a second time and in the process extend his winning sequence to nine. He’s yet to come off the bridle this term.

Is Faugheen the machine broken?:

Quite possibly. He was in trouble early on at Leopardstown over Christmas and Paul Townend pulled him long before the finish because “it was like flying a plane without an engine”.

Faugheen had impressed on his belated return at Punchestown in November but he was having only his second start in almost two years over the festive period after a series of setbacks.

A bemused Willie Mullins was certain an excuse would present itself but it seems Faugheen has since been turned inside out and upside down with still no clues as to why he ran so lamentably.

Bookmakers remain cautious and none offer him at bigger than 5-1 to become the first 10-year-old winner of the race since the start of the 1980s.

He looks like getting the chance to redeem himself in the Irish equivalent next month but I could not have him on my mind at any price.

Perhaps we are into Istabraq territory. He was a wonderful champion but on what turned out to be his penultimate start he was unimpressive in beating a rival rated 48lb inferior to him in the corresponding Leopardstown race that Faugheen flopped in.

Istabraq, also aged 10, then went to Cheltenham in 2002 seeking a historic fourth Champion Hurdle triumph but he quickly lost his place and was pulled up after jumping only two flights. “It is unlike him not to take me along,” said jockey Charlie Swan.

It sounded uncannily similiar to what Townend had to say.

Has Willie Mullins got any more aces up his sleeve?:

Yes. In addition to Faugheen, the serial Irish champion trainer has entered five others - Melon, Wicklow Brave, Bapaume, Min and Yorkhill.

Among them, Melon and Yorkhill are the most interesting for a trainer seeking a fifth win in the race since 2011, albeit his previous triumphs via Hurricane Fly (twice), Faugheen and Annie Power have been with horses at the head of the market.

Yorkhill seems to be heading in the direction of the Champion Chase but Melon, a general 8-1 chance, has come a long way in a short time and should not be underestimated.

Melon Melon is still open to more improvement (PA)

Some will have reservations about him after short-priced defeats at Cheltenham (second to Labaik in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle) and Punchestown (mugged by stablemate Cilaos Emery) last spring, especially as he again let down favourite backers when a close third behind My Tent Or Yours and The New One in the International Hurdle back at Prestbury Park last month.

However, he was trying to concede 6lb to My Tent Or Yours and there will be more to come from the strong traveller when he gets in a truly-run race on better ground - plus the Old Course at Cheltenham should suit him better.

Has My Tent Or Yours got what it takes to again make the frame?:

Absolutely. The three-time Champion Hurdle runner-up, who was also second in the 2013 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, has had much less racing than the average 11-year-old (only 24 starts) and showed he retains plenty of ability and zest when winning the International Hurdle back at Cheltenham last month.

The New One and Melon were trying to concede him 6lb but the the former, having already run, was entitled to have a fitness edge and the soft ground was far from ideal for the evergreen winner.

Nicky Henderson had made no secret of the fact that My Tent Or Yours had worked with great brio in the build-up to that race and he showed more tenacity than on other occasions to record his first success at the track.

My Tent Or Yours, a general 16-1, beat all bar Buveur D’Air last year, albeit being no match for him, and will turn up fresh on going that is likely to be his liking.

Those who scoff at the prospect of him winning should recall that Sea Pigeon had twice finished runner-up before winning the race as an 10-year-old in 1980. And 12 months later he retained his title.

You’ve got a free £20 bet on the race and must place it today - who do you put it on?:

I’m assuming you don’t get the £20 back if successful, so that rules out sticking it on Buveur D’Air at 4-6 to make a possible profit of £13 or so.

There has to be something coming up through the ranks and it might just be his stablemate, Call Me Lord, who appeals each-way at 40-1 with bet365, who are going non-runner no-bet. If you don’t want the safety net you can get 50s with Coral and Betbright.

None of us know exactly how good Call Me Lord might be but he looked a horse destined for the higher echelons when giving lumps of weight and a beating to the bang in-form Our Merlin at Sandown on his latest start.

That win came off a mark of 143 and he clearly has a way to go before bridging the gap with the best around but if he wins next month’s Betfair Hurdle off a big weight (only Defi Du Seuil has been allotted more) then all of a sudden he will be bang in the picture.

That makes the non-runner no-bet angle interesting on this occasion. If he wins the Betfair Hurdle he will be a genuine contender for Cheltenham and there’s no way he will be 40-1. If he gets beaten we surely won’t be seeing him in the big one and can get our free bet back.

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