The 2021 Champion Hurdle is due to be run at Cheltenham on Tuesday the 16th of March, over a trip of two miles and eighty seven yards. Last years winner Epatante is trying to defend her crown but after a defeat at Kempton last time she needs to bounce back to her best, and the market is currently headed by another mare in Honeysuckle.
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Honeysuckle is unbeaten in ten starts over hurdles, including wins in the two most recent renewals of the Irish Champion Hurdle over two miles. Having already won her first five races, she really announced herself as a top class performer when easily winning the Hatton’s Grace in December 2019, looking very strong at the finish of that two and a half mile race, run at an even enough pace, so while she went off odds on favourite next time in the Irish Champion the drop to two miles looked a negative.
It didn’t stop her winning, but with second favourite Sharjah flopping on the day it was a weak renewal, and she was made to fight for a half length victory over Darver Star, although she would have won easier but for a mistake at the last. Her connections clearly thought that wasn’t a Champion Hurdle winning performance and stepped her back up to two and a half miles for the Mares Hurdle at Cheltenham where she quickened better than Benie Des Dieux off the final bend, and was always holding her close home.
She again won the Hatton’s Grace on her first run back this season, although not as impressively this time. She was however much more impressive when running out a ten length winner of the Irish Champion hurdle last time. I’m not sure you should be crediting her with any improvement though, the pace was much stronger than in last years race, and when horses finish slowly as they did that day margins get exaggerated. If the pace had been similar to when she won the race in 2020, then I doubt she’d have won by more than a couple of lengths, although the softer ground clearly helped this year too, and it’s pace and ground that will decide her chances in the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham. On good to soft ground, with a less than even pace, she didn’t look a top two miler in 2020, but if the ground comes up soft or heavy and she ensures a solid gallop like last time, she will take an awful lot of beating.
Epatante was an impressive winner of the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton in December 2019. before winning last years Champion Hurdle on her next start. She travelled well the whole way and was produced with her challenge approaching the last, before finding plenty, going away from the patiently ridden Sharjah again at the line. You couldn’t fault the performance, but there’s no question it wasn’t a vintage renewal, indeed the Champion Hurdle has been a weak division for a few years, and she meets a rival in Honeysuckle this year, that is much better than anything she’s beaten so far.
Epatante was disappointing when beaten in the Christmas Hurdle last time, finishing six and a half lengths behind Silver Steak, and while some excuses afterwards used the pace of the race with the winner getting a soft lead, as a legitimate reason for the flop, it wasn’t really the case. The time was decent, and the pace was only slightly slower than when she had easily beaten that same rival in the 2019 edition. She did make a mistake when she bunny hopped the third last, but it didn’t appear to cost her much ground or momentum, so all told it was a below par run.
Abacadabras was beaten just a head in last years Supreme, and while the winner did well to recover from being hampered at the second last, you could argue the runner up was unlucky to get there too soon having tanked through the race. He committed sooner off a strong pace too, and the form looks decent, indeed he only ran about two lengths slower than Epatante did when winning the Champion Hurdle later that afternoon, and if anything the Champion was more evenly run, with the horses in the Supreme going a stride too quick. On that performance you would think he would develop into a live contender for this, but he hasn’t gone on since that run in his four starts this season, and had no excuses when held up off a strong pace at Leopardstown last time, eventually beaten ten lengths by Honeysuckle.
Before Silver Steak beat Epatante last time, he had won just two of his previous twelve starts, both in listed company, and he repeatedly came up short in grade one and two level, so it’s hard to believe he’s suddenly turned into a top class hurdler after a small field win, when a far more likely explanation is that the favourite ran below par. The lack of strength in depth in the hurdling division means he has a place chance, but if either of the big two turn up with their A game then it’s hard to see him win.
Sharjah is capable of some top form on his day, and was second in this last year, although had no excuses, but he is also capable of throwing in a few stinkers, and he never travelled with his normal zest, albeit off a stronger pace than usual, when a well beaten third to Honeysuckle last time. He flopped in the same race last year before bouncing back at Cheltenham, but that’s as good as he is, and even if in the same form he’d be playing for a place if the top two are on song.
Aspire Tower was second in last years Triumph, although would have been a well beaten third, but for Goshen falling at the last, although unlike that one, Aspire Tower has gone the right way since. He was value extra in a win over Abacadabras at Down Royal, as a steady pace compressed the margins, and while he was beaten two lengths by Sharjah last time at Leopardstown, that one has a good turn off foot, and I was left with the impression that the runner up would have been better served pressing on a bit further out, as although he set a fair pace, it did steady between 4 and 2 out. He was strongest at the line, and more of a test will suit. He does need to improve to topple the big two, but still has the scope to do it. The issue might be that his best form is when making the running, and given how aggressively Honeysuckle was ridden last time, it could mean they end up going too quick.
None of the others jump out as likely winners at this stage. I think Honeysuckle is easily the most likely winner on soft ground, but while Timeform have called the ground soft for the Champion Hurdle for the last three years, it was good for the previous three, so I’d definitely be waiting till closer to the day before I’d be interested in odds of just 5/2 on her. Of the ones outside the big two, I think Aspire Tower is probably the most likely to improve, but again doesn’t make any great appeal at the current 14/1, and I’d rather wait and weight up all the variables on the day.