The 2020 Champion Hurdle is run at Cheltenham on Tuesday the 10th of March, over a trip of two miles and eighty seven yards. With a few of the main contenders having alternative engagements, it’s hard to hazard a guess at exactly which horses will line up on the day, but at this stage it looks likely we’ll end up with a below par renewal.
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When Epatante finished just ninth in the Mares Novice Hurdle at last years festival, considering even the winner of that would be at least twenty pounds shy of Champion Hurdle winning form, you wouldn’t think it likely that just two starts later she would be favourite for the race. The first of those wins came off just 137 in a Newbury handicap, and although she was impressive, you would expect any horse that had any business in a Champion Hurdle to win like that off that mark.
Last time Epatante took the step up to grade one company in her stride when winning the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton, but that was a very poor renewal of the race, with Silver Streak and Ballyandy chasing her home. She did have more in hand than the five length margin though, as she was far from all out, and while you would assume she’s going to have to beat much better horses to win the Champion Hurdle, she does still have plenty of upside given her progression and ease of victory. It would be a slight worry how poorly she ran at last years meeting, but that big field mares race was likely a shock to the system, after two very easy victories from two over hurdles before that.
Pentland Hills is currently second favourite, and he won the Triumph Hurdle last season, travelling well before going away on the run in to beat Coeur Sublime by three lengths. He followed up at Aintree in a well run race, this time by just a neck from Fakir D’Oudairies, although he was only hands and heels close home, so was probably value for a little extra. That form would leave him with around twenty pounds to find to win an average Champion Hurdle.
He was only fifth on his seasonal debut at Cheltenham in December, fading from the last having been a bit free off a steady pace. He traveled well for a long way, and looked set to win when briefly hitting the front on the run in, but even if he’d managed a narrow victory that day, it would still be a stone short of the required standard to win an average Champion. Last time he was again a little keen in a four runner race at Haydock, but the pace while not strong, was much more even. He traveled much the best and looked certain to win when he went over a length up on the run in, only for him to tie up badly close home. A bigger field and stronger pace would look certain to suit him, but the simple fact is his form is miles short of what would be required even in a bad year. In fact even if his finishing effort matched the way he traveled you couldn’t have him any shorter than the 5/1 he is currently, as he would still have only beaten average horses, so that price seems to have a large amount of optimism built in.
Cilaos Emery needs to be supplemented, but that seems to be connections intention at the moment, although Willie has been known to change his mind! He won a grade one novice hurdle back in April 2017, but while he ran well to be fourth to Apples Jade in the Hatton’s Grace, and second to Mick Jazz in the Christmas Hurdle the following December, he didn’t look likely to make up into a Champion Hurdler, and after a year off he was sent over fences last January, and won easily at Gowran. He can’t be easy to train as he didn’t run again that season, but recorded two easy small field victories on his first two start this season, earning him a crack at the grade one two miler at Leopardstown last time, but he fell at the first fence.
Sending him back over hurdles at Gowran last time, may have been in part a confidence builder, although probably more so due to the Champion looking such a weak race. In beating Darasso, who was last of four on his only other start this season, by just over nine lengths at odds of 1/4, he certainly didn’t do anything you wouldn’t have expected of him. A small field hurdle on heavy ground didn’t really test how slick he is over his hurdles, and when asked for a jump at the third last he was very awkward. On better ground, going a faster pace at Cheltenham, he wouldn’t get away with jumps like that. To suddenly be third favourite for a Champion Hurdle on the back of that is probably a combination of it looking a poor race, but also an overreaction to that win, as it really did tell us little, and he never looked a top notch two miler hurdler before. Granted he may not need to be.
Honeysuckle is far from a certain runner, indeed her trainer seemed to suggest the mares was more likely after her last run. She’s currently around 14.5 on the exchanges for this, and 6.0 is the best price with a run. If those prices are right she’s about 11/8 to run in the Champion. She’s unbeaten after seven runs, and took her rating to new levels with a nine length win in the Hatton’s Grace at Fairyhouse in early December.
That was over two and a half miles on soft ground, and she clearly stays that trip strongly, so she didn’t look likely to be as effective back over two miles, and although she won the Irish Champion over two miles last time, she backed up that theory really, as the only other grade one two miler in the race, Sharjah, flopped, and she still only won by half a length from the novice Darver Star, with Petit Mouchoir just another half length back in third. She did look like winning five lengths when she went past Petit Mouchoir on the run to the last, but she steadied into that hurdle, and jumped it sideways, so ended up having to battle back to get up.
I don’t know why she was so awkward at the last, but given her stamina for further you would have been very happy with her when she went two lengths clear approaching that flight, with the expectation that she would go further clear, and while a five length win would still be maybe nine pounds shy of winning an average Champion, as we’ve gathered by now, you might not need to reach that level this year, and she has the potential to do better. You would be very worried if the ground came up on the good side though, as although she’s goes on it fine, it would make it more about speed.
Benie Des Dieux’s connections have also mentioned the Champion Hurdle as a possible for her, although her current Betfair price of 16.7 versus her with a run price of just 3.75 suggest that it’s not overly likely we’ll see her in this. That 3.75 price looks ridiculous though, as her career best form has been over three miles on soft and heavy ground, and she seems to stay that trip strongly. The chances of her being as good over two are slim. If connections wanted to be more adventurous than the Mares race, the right race for her is surely the Stayers Hurdle.
Envoi Allen would also be interesting if he runs, but considering connections don’t seem to fancy running him in the Supreme over two miles, with his aim being the half mile further Ballymore, then I don’t see how they’re going to suddenly fancy him as a Champion Hurdler.
Supasundae is only 14/1, and if that shows anything it’s how poor the field is likely to be, as he’s ten now and has never really looked quick enough to win a Champion Hurdle. His only chance would be very soft ground and a pace collapse when he could pick up the pieces.
Sharjah has won three grade one hurdle races, following up his Punchestown win in November 2018, with an impressive win at Leopardstown over Christmas that year, doing very well to come from the rear off a slow gallop. He was brought down in last years Champion Hurdle. He again won at Leopardstown over Christmas in 2019, cantering all over Petit Mouchoir on the run to the last, before quickening away on the run in when asked. He certainly beat the second easier than Honeysuckle did, and the pair were clear of the rest too.
Sharjah flopped last time behind Honeysuckle in the Irish Champion, which seemed to be predicted by whoever was responsible for an alarming pre race drift. His trainer blamed a couple of jumps down the back straight for the performance, but while he did reach for one, he didn’t lose any ground, and unless he came back with an injury which he didn’t mention, I think blaming the run on those mistakes is a bit of a stretch. If he bounces back to form he would clearly have his chance at Cheltenham, although it might be a slight concern that his three grade one wins came when he was dropped out last in small field, and he was mostly doing the others for speed. He was ridden closer to an even pace last time, and it didn’t go to well for him. That said he did win a Galway Hurdle before, and at the time it would have been a career best.
Of the others Verdana Blue, given her optimal conditions, would currently make the most appeal as a possible winner, but she seems very ground dependent. Her four best Timeform ratings over hurdles have come on ground they called either good or good to firm, and with the Cheltenham clerk highly unlikely to want the ground that quick on the opening day this year, no matter what the weather between now and then, she’s probably unlikely to get good ground, but if it’s anyway close she would be worth a look on the day. Some of the others would come into it if none of the possible’s line up, but I’ll wait until the final field is known before going any deeper into the race. It really is impossible to pick at bet at the moment, as there are so many unknown variables that will become much clearer once the declarations are out.