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Champion Hurdle preview

Let's get underway, it's Cheltenham time! The sad part about Cheltenham being so brilliant is that jumps racing from New Year's Day onwards is decidedly thin as trainers elect to put some of their charges in bubble wrap rather than risk injury on a racecourse (not as if that can't happen at home anyway - just ask Mullins or Tizzard) or push up their handicap mark. Which doesn't really create the best lead-in to such a great Festival. And that's without mentioning the fun & games of trainers messing around with which race they are aiming at or that not having minimum 48 hour declarations for all races in such a massive event is ridiculous... But, it's the Festival, it's huge and we're only 40-odd hours away from the ROAR to get us underway!

Got several new names contributing to the blog this week, the most prolific of which is probably the astute Stuart Williams, @Jimbo_JumpsMan. Read more of his work, including his daily full card preview during the Festival on his blog. If you think his analysis below is thorough, you're not wrong and I had to chop some out!

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STAN JAMES CHAMPION HURDLE CHALLENGE TROPHY
Grade 1, £400,000, 2m87y (Grade 1)
Cheltenham, Tuesday 1530 local, 0230 AEDT


KEY TRENDS:

▪️Seven of the last 10 winners were aged six or seven.
▪️Only two horses aged nine or older have triumphed this century.
▪️Only one 5-year-old has triumphed this century.
▪️Eight of the last 10 winners were rated 162 or higher.
▪️Eight of the last 10 winners won at least one of their last two starts.
▪️10 of the last 12 winners won their prep race.
▪️Eight of the last of the last 10 winners had run in the calendar year.
▪️Nine of the last 13 winners ran in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton or Ryanair Hurdle at Leopardstown.
▪️Eight of the last 10 winners were previous Grade 1 scorers.

Ideal Candidate:
▪️Aged 6 or 7
▪️Rated 162+
▪️Won at least one of their last two starts
▪️Ran in Christmas or Ryanair Hurdles
▪️Ran this calendar year
▪️Grade 1 Winner

This year's Champion Hurdle looks a very open affair, with both the 2015 and 2016 Champions, Faugheen and Annie Power, sadly on the sidelines having suffered set back on top of set back in an injury plagued campaign for the all conquering Closutton operation of Irish Champion Trainer Willie Mullins.

However the open nature of the race does present us with an intriguing Day 1 puzzle, as strong cases can be made both for and against each of the 12 runners set to face the starter at 3.30 on Tuesday afternoon.

So let's take a closer look at each of the contenders aiming to be crowned king, or indeed queen, of the two-mile hurdling division.

BRAIN POWER:
Trainer: Nicky Henderson
Jockey: David Mullins

Nicky Henderson's rapidly improving Champion Hurdle hopeful brings top class two-mile handicap hurdle form to the party, having landed the Listed Jumeirah Hotels And Resorts December Handicap Hurdle at Sandown, before following up in the Wessex Youth Trust Handicap Hurdle at Ascot two weeks later.

Brain Power, owned by Henderson's great personal friend Michael Buckley, has improved for each experience over obstacles and arrives here boasting a fairly impressive resume, with four wins achieved from just seven starts since embarking on a career over hurdles in November 2015.

Although the son of Kalanisi doesn't possess graded form in open company, to win two highly competitive handicaps in such impressive fashion just two weeks apart is no mean feat, and he certainly commands respect as it's impossible to know where the 6-year-old's progression will stop.

Brain Power has more speed than fancied stablemate Buveur D'Air according to Nicky Henderson, which adds further weight the youngsters claims, especially as he'll be able to make good use of his horsepower on the sound racing surface Prestbury Park is likely to be offering up on Tuesday.

The gelding has become quietly fancied by many shrewd judges in the build up to the Festival, and worked extremely well at Kempton recently, which should have left him absolutely spot on for his biggest assignment to date.

BUVEUR D'AIR:
Trainer: Nicky Henderson
Jockey: Noel Fehily

Buveur D'Air is rather hard to weigh up in this contest having reverted to the smaller obstacles with a facile success in the Contenders Hurdle at Sandown having previously landed a brace of novice steeplechases' this winter.

Purchased by leading owner JP McManus last summer, the talented son of Crillon finished third in what now looks a red hot Supreme Novices' Hurdle 12 months ago, won by his potential superstar stablemate Altior, with Min in second, Tombstone in fourth, Charbel finishing fifth and fellow Champion Hurdle contender Petit Mouchoir back in eighth.

Nicky Henderson's 6-year-old landed Grade 1 honours at Aintree subsequently, beating the re-opposing Petit Mouchoir in a ding-dong battle after the last, with recent deeply impressive Punchestown Listed scorer Limini 8 lengths further back in third. Fourth placed North Hill Harvey, winner of the Greatwood Hurdle at Cheltenham in November, and sixth place Agrapart, winner of the Grade 2 Relkeel Hurdle at Cheltenham on New Years Day add further substance to the form.

It's worth noting that Buveur D'Air has had his attentions switched to this contest despite the presence of Yanworth, who carries the same green and gold bands of JP McManus, who was already prominent in the betting for this valuable prize. An interesting decision, I'm sure you'd agree.

According to Nicky Henderson the idea of aiming Buveur D'Air at this race was floated well before the news of Faugheen and Annie Power's set-backs broke, with the master of Seven Barrows believing the youngster has unfinished business over timber.

His hurdling form looks strong, and Henderson loves a Champion Hurdler. Noel Fehily steps in to take the ride with McManus' retained rider Barry Geraghty currently on the sidelines, which is no negative as the Jockey who won this race on Rock On Ruby in 2012 knows the horse well having been the retained rider for Buveur D'Air's previous owner.

Connections will be hoping there is enough give in the ground for Buveur D'Air to be seen to best effect. And if there is, he would be rate a very strong contender here.

CH'TIBELLO:
Trainer: Dan Skelton
Jockey: Harry Skelton

The Dan Skelton trained Ch'Tibello rates an interesting outsider, with last season's Scottish Champion Hurdle winner likely to relish the decent underfoot conditions on Tuesday.

The Sageburg gelding beat the talented Cloudy Dream (second) and subsequent Galway Hurdle winner Clondaw Warrior (third) at Ayr, and has posted three decent efforts over timber this term. He landed the Class 2 Betfair Price Rush Hurdle at Haydock in November, before recording placed efforts behind Yanworth in both the Grade 1 Christmas Hurdle at Kempton and Grade 2 Betway Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton, form which justifies his inclusion here.

Skelton has often pointed to Ch'Tibello's fluent hurdling technique and impressive turn of foot as major assets, with both seen to best effect when the gelding encounters his preferred decent ground. In such an open year, the 6-year-old could run a big race for team Skelton.

CYRUS DARIUS:
Trainer: Malcolm Jefferson
Jockey: Brian Hughes

Malcolm Jefferson's talented 8-year-old looked a potential star when storming to success in a Grade 2 contest at Aintree in April 2015. Indeed the shrewd northern trained saw the son of Overbury as a potential Champion Chase horse in time, before having his novice season curtailed after just one start, with a tendon injury keeping the gelding off the track for the best part of 14 months.

Cyrus Darius returned to the track with a distant fourth placed effort behind The New One in the Grade 2 Champion Hurdle Trial at Haydock in January, before showing the fire still burns with success in the Class 2 Morebattle Hurdle at Kelso last month.

Brian Hughes, who has enjoyed a superb season in the saddle thus far (130 winners at the time of writing), will take the reins, and it's possible Malcolm Jefferson's stable star will strip even fitter for his Kelso victory last month.

FOOTPAD:
Trainer: Willie Mullins
Jockey: Ruby Walsh

Footpad is one of two runners for both trainer Willie Mullins and owners Simon Munir and Isaac Souede. Mullins, of course, has won the last two renewals of this prestigious prize, and has elected to run last season's Triumph Hurdle third here rather than wait for the 3 mile Championship, the Stayers Hurdle, on Thursday.

The talented son of Creachadoir finished a close second to fellow Champion Hurdle contender Petit Mouchoir in the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown in January, and Mullins clearly feels that piece of form warrants the 5-year-olds participation in the Day 1 showpiece.

The French import returned to his native country to take Grade 1 honours in June last year, and confirmed his ability to act on decent ground at Leopardstown in January.

Daryl Jacob has elected to ride the same owners Sceau Royal over Footpad, but no doubt Mullins will secure a top Jockey for his challenger here.

MOON RACER:
Trainer: David Pipe
Jockey: Tom Scudamore

It's some statement to the regard in which Moon Racer is held by connections that David Pipe has given the green light for the unbeaten novice to contest the main event on Day 1, especially considering the 8-year-old would have been short order for the Festival curtain raiser, The Supreme Novices' Hurdle, had connections decided to stick to the novice route.

The former Champion Bumper winner is clearly fragile, having only made it to the track three times since his Festival success in 2015. And although he's only had two starts over timber, he does boast two victories over the impressive Betfair Hurdle winner Ballyandy, including a course and distance Grade 2 success in November.

Unbeaten in three starts at Prestbury Park, the Saffron Walden gelding goes particularly well fresh, which is bonus considering he hasn't been seen on the track since that Grade 2 victory at Cheltenham's Open Meeting. That said, it's still some ask to win a Champion Hurdle after the best part of four months off the track, but as we all know, the Pipes can ready one at home, and the gelding did have a school over hurdles at Wincanton last week.

Some will no doubt disagree with the decision of connections to sidestep the novice event, however it rather mirrors the decision of the Bradstocks when they allowed Coneygree to tackle the Gold Cup in 2015. When you have a fragile horse, you have to run them while they're fit. And with Moon Racer already an 8-year-old and the race appearing to be wide open, you can't blame connections for going for gold while they have the chance.

MY TENT OR YOURS:
Trainer: Nicky Henderson
Jockey: Aiden Coleman

Nicky Henderson's third and final Champion Hurdle candidate is My Tent Or Yours, who will be hoping it's a case of third time lucky after playing the bridesmaid to Jezki in 2015, and again to Annie Power 12 months ago when running a stormer after the best part of two years off the track.

The JP McManus-owned gelding has always been his own worst enemy, pulling out the arms of any jockey to ride him in a race and therefore emptying his tank before reaching the business end of the contest.

However there have been signs that the Desert Prince gelding is learning to settle better in his races since his lengthy layoff, which would have to give him a small squeak here given the open nature of the race.

A second-placed effort behind The New One in the International Hurdle preceded a third-placed finish behind Yanworth in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton, and the 10-year-old could easily run another big race if Aidan Coleman can settle the experienced campaigner in the early stages of the race.

PETIT MOUCHOIR:
Trainer: Henry De Bromhead
Jockey: Bryan Cooper

Henry De Bromhead's Petit Mouchoir is the shortest priced Irish trained contender for the 2m Championship event, having confirmed the promise of his Aintree Grade 1 second last spring by becoming a dual Grade 1 winner this winter. With the Irish Champion Hurdle forming the second part of his top flight double.

The Gigginstown House Stud owned grey has lowered the colours of multiple Grade 1 winner Nichols Canyon, last season's Triumph Hurdle victor Ivanovic Gorbatov and Willie Mullins' Grade 1 winner Footpad already this term, and will be looking to add to that list when he enters Prestbury Park on Tuesday afternoon.

Petit Mouchoir went some clip when successful in the Irish Champion Hurdle, and may try to execute similar tactics here. However the 6-year-old will need to improve vastly upon his eighth placed finish in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle 12 months ago.

That said, the son of Al Namix is clearly on the upgrade, and looks to have every chance in a very open looking year.

SCEAU ROYAL:
Trainer: Alan King
Jockey: Daryl Jacob

Sceau Royal rates one of the more lively outsiders for the 2 mile crown, having bolted up over course and distance at the Showcase Meeting in October.

Alan King's 5-year-old landed the Grade 2 Elite Hurdle at Wincanton on his next start, before finishing fourth in the Grade 1 Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle in November. The gelding then placed third in the Grade 2 Kingwell Hurdle on his return from a mid season break back at Wincanton in February, coming home two and a quarter lengths adrift of his stablemate, and current Champion Hurdle favourite, Yanworth.

Sceau Royal is a very strong traveller, and wastes no time at his hurdles. Indeed the super slick youngster has all the tools required in a Champion Hurdle contender.

His two defeats this term have come on soft ground, with the son of Doctor Dino showing his best form on a decent surface. He should therefore relish the underfoot conditions he'll encounter at Prestbury Park on Tuesday, and could run a very big race in the hands of the owners retained rider, Daryl Jacob.

THE NEW ONE:
Trainer: Nigel Twiston-Davies
Jockey: Sam Twiston-Davies

The New One lines up for a staggering fourth attempt at landing the Day 1 showpiece, arriving here in fine form after two victories this season, achieved either side of a second-placed effort behind Yanworth in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton.

Nigel Twiston-Davies' stable stalwart won the International Hurdle for a third time in December, and ran another good race on Boxing Day before getting the job done against progressive handicapper Clyne in the Grade 2 Champion Hurdle Trial at Haydock last month.

Regular rider Sam Twiston-Davies will be on board the thoroughly likeable 9-year-old, who has finished third, fifth and fourth respectively in this contest over the last three years.

Victory for the son of King's Theatre would threaten the foundations of Prestbury Park, and signal some serious celebrations inthe Hollow Bottom on Tuesday evening.

WICKLOW BRAVE:
Trainer: Willie Mullins
Jockey: Paul Townend

Easy 2015 County Hurdle winner Wicklow Brave completes the Irish Champion Trainer's entries, and is hard to weigh up having not jumped a hurdle in public since finishing third in the 2015 Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle.

The talented flat performer finished sixth on his only other trip to Prestbury Park, when chasing home the brilliant, and sadly much missed, Vautour in the 2014 Supreme Novices' Hurdle.

Either Ruby Walsh or Paul Townend will partner the 8-year-old on Tuesday, with the gelding having his first start since competing in the race that stops a nation, the Melbourne Cup, in November where the Beat Hollow gelding finished 22nd of the 24 runners.

YANWORTH:
Trainer: Alan King
Jockey: Mark Walsh

Last, but certainly by no means least, is current favourite Yanworth, who like fellow JP McManus owned contender Buveur D'Air looked destined to contest a different Festival race at the start of the season before a certain stayer called Unowhatimeanharry carried all before him in the staying hurdle division this term. Alan King's son of Norse Dancer has always looked a top level performer, finishing fourth in the 2015 Champion Bumper before developing into a high class novice hurdler last term.

Indeed Yanworth found only the potentially top class Yorkhill too good in the Neptune Investment Management Novices Hurdle at Cheltenham last March, which remains the only occasion King's charge has encountered defeat over hurdles, and in his defence, it's fair to say he didn't enjoy the greatest of passages through the 2m5f contest, missing the third last and getting caught wide on the top bend.

The 7-year-old comes into the race on the back of three graded victories this season, landing a brace of Grade 2s, the Ascot Hurdle and the Kingwell Hurdle, with the Grade 1 Christmas Hurdle at Kempton sandwiched in between.

Mark Walsh, who is set for a huge four days in the absence of Barry Geraghty, comes in for the ride on Yanworth, and made the trip to Barbury Castle last week to school the horse who takes some getting to know according to those closest to the him.

The main concern people have for the otherwise standout contender is his ability to throw in some less that fluent leaps along the way, which is far from ideal when travelling at Championship pace on the big day in March. However there is no disputing the high performance tank that purrs inside his imposing orange frame.

On ratings and form he's the one they all have to beat. And he is a strong qualifier if trends are your bag. Mark Walsh has received much praise for his superb form in Ireland this term, and I'm sure I speak for many when I say it would be great to see the talented Irishman notch up at win of two on National Hunt Racing's biggest stage.

SUMMARY:

JP McManus obviously holds a very strong hand in the race, with both Buveur D'Air and Yanworth boasting extremely solid form in such a wide open renewal.

Nicky Henderson must also fancy his chances with Brain Power and My Tent Or Yours (also owned by McManus) providing further ammunition to current second favourite Buveur D'Air. Cases can be made for each arrow the Seven Barrows handler throws at the race, and you could bet your last tenner that all will be trained to the minute for this prestigious assignment.

Leading Irish fancy Petit Mouchoir and the aforementioned Brain Power look the most progressive hurdlers in the field. However Sceau Royal looks to be a horse open to significant improvement granted a strong gallop and decent ground.

The fact that David Pipe is allowing Moon Racer to take his chance here should certainly be taken seriously. With his form at the course and the Ballyandy formline suggesting it's not beyond the realms of possibility that he could bely his relative inexperience in such an open year.

The elders of the parish, namely The New One and My Tent Or Yours, have it all to do according to the trends. However their consistency and experience are certainly factors in their favour.

Finding the winner is no easy task, but all looks set for a truly intriguing Champion Hurdle.

Good luck.

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