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Unibet International Hurdle runner-by-runner guide

By Andy Stephens@StevoGG
Fri 9 Dec 2022

The bookmakers reckon the Unibet Champion Hurdle crown may as well be gift-wrapped and popped underneath Constitution Hill’s Christmas tree.

Last season’s runaway Supreme Novices’ Hurdle winner was similarly jaw-dropping on his return at Newcastle last month and that, coupled with Honeysuckle fluffing her lines at Fairyhouse on Sunday, means that he is now a general 1-3 to take the spoils at the Festival in mid-March.

But as his trainer, Nicky Henderson, is fond of telling us, a week can be a long time in horseracing. Constitution Hill will need to stay fit and healthy, for starters, and there will be all kinds of other banana skins to avoid over the next three months.

None of the five contenders in the £130,000 Unibet International Hurdle at Cheltenham on Saturday are any shorter than 33-1 to win the Champion Hurdle. And you must go back 20 years to find the last horse (Rooster Booster) to win both races in the same season.

But it’s a prestigious contest in its own right and a couple of relatively new kids on the block, I Like To Move It and Knappers Hill, are among the line-up, provided the meeting beats the cold snap. Here’s a guide to the contenders.

1 KNAPPERS HILL

Official Rating: 153. Sponsor bets: 7-2

Has won nine of his dozen races, with his record on good going, or quicker, being 1111111. Conditions will be in his favour and, moreover, his wins at Chepstow and Wincanton this season suggest he has never been better, albeit he was getting 6lb from Sceau Royal when beating that solid yardstick in the Elite Hurdle last time. On occasions last term it looked like he was crying out for further than 2m but perhaps he just wasn’t the finished article because you don’t get many speedier tests than 1m7f at Wincanton, like he encountered on his latest start. A 6lb penalty heightens his task but this stiffer test will not inconvenience him, plus he’s versatile regards tactics.


2 FIRST STREET

Official Rating: 150. Sponsor bets: 11-2

Nicky Henderson has already won this contest a record six times and he has a strong hand here via this horse and Epatante. First Street was placed in the Betfair Hurdle and County Hurdle (beat all bar State Man) last season before failing to make an impact in Grade One novice company at Aintree. The five-year-old Golden Horn gelding swiftly resumed his progress when scooping the Gerry Feilden off a mark of 146 at Newbury last month, typically showing a good attitude and having no problem with the good going. He’s bang in the equation, on ratings, with the option of sticking to handicap company at Ascot next weekend seemingly resisted.


3 I LIKE TO MOVE IT

Official Rating: 152. Sponsor bets: 2-1

Seeks to give Nigel Twiston-Davies a record-equalling sixth success in this race after his decisive all-the-way success in the Greatwood Hurdle at Cheltenham last month. That was his third win at the track, all gained on the Old Course, but in-between those wins he ran poorly in the County Hurdle, when switching to the New Course, which he will again encounter on Saturday. I doubt we should read too much into that, especially as he looks every inch a strong stayer who should be better served by the demands of the New Course. Two niggles are the ground – his trainer observed he wanted it softer after he won on good to soft last time – and the fact that he was probably helped by hurdles being omitted last time.


4 ZOFFANIEN

Official Rating: 137. Sponsor bets: 80-1

He made little impact in the 2m 1f handicap here on Friday and would have a mountain to climb if making a swift reappearance.


5 EPATANTE

Official Rating: 154. Sponsor bets: 11-10

She’s got seven Grade One triumphs on her CV plus she’s been placed in six more. Won the Champion Hurdle in 2020 and has made the frame in the past two renewals, chasing home Honeysuckle in the latest renewal. She was no match for Constitution Hill, her stablemate, on her return in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle, but that horse does look something out of the ordinary. She’s favoured by the conditions of this race and is versatile regards trip and ground but, rising nine, is potentially vulnerable against younger rivals who are on the up.


VERDICT

A small field but this is unlikely to be run at a dawdle with I Like To Move It and Knappers Hill set to get on with things. Epatante has the best overall form but looks short enough in the betting, with her stablemate, FIRST STREET, getting the nod at the odds on offer. He had I Like To Move It (they meet on the same terms) well adrift when beating all bar State Man in the County Hurdle here in March and impressed at Newbury on his return.

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