Hayley O'Connor's Champion Hurdle preview
Hayley O’Connor of Ladbrokes looks ahead to one of the biggest races of the Cheltenham festival and tries to justify her prediction of an Irish 1-2-3.
Despite being a self-diagnosed mild dyslexic, I do love a good word and the new one I learned last night when reading a rant on sport by George Orwell is just brilliant – JINGOISM.
The actual meaning of the word (thanks Wikipedia) refers to a country’s advocacy of the use of threats or actual force against peaceful relations. Don’t worry, I’m not about to start spouting off about Russia.
Colloquially, you see, jingoism refers to excessive bias in judging one’s own country as superior to others, and that, my friends, is prolific when it comes to horseracing.
The sporting rivalry that exists at Cheltenham between us Irish and the British is rife, but even with last year’s record number of winners, this patriotic predilection we have for the Irish-trained horses can be costly, personally speaking at least.
And so, to avoid a repeat of such losses, I’m going to scrutinise the bejaysus out of my Irish 1-2-3 prediction for the Champion Hurdle.
The race appears to be the highlight of next week and the market lead is shared by Willie Mullins’ Hurricane Fly and Cotswold native The New One. For the first time, I am going to force myself to look objectively at the credentials of the latter.
Here are the reasons I’ve come up with for why he currently stands as our biggest ante post liability in the race. First off; he’s a previous winner at the festival and has, in fact, notched up a win more at the track than his co-favourite.
The sectional times of the last two furlongs he ran in the Neptune last year are quicker than those of Hurricane Fly’s in the Champion, a horse, by the way, that is four years his senior. Another positive for his backers was Ruby Walsh’s comments about him on Sunday, where he stated that he had “an outstanding chance” possessing “that all-important pace”.
The hard reality though, is that his Grade One tally is 18 shy of the reigning champ’s, which just goes to show the task he faces. He was defeated last time out in the Christmas Hurdle by My Tent Or Yours and his victory in the International Hurdle was perhaps slightly tainted by the barging endured by runner-up Zarkandar at a crucial time on the run-in. The listed race he won at the start of his campaign was against Rock On Ruby, who doesn’t really show his best until January onwards and the pace of the race he landed at the festival last year was sedate.
But that could prove a surprising plus for Twiston Davies’ charge, as who will dictate the tempo in next week’s renewal remains ambiguous. If it is a slowly run affair he’ll probably cope well enough but I think greater tactics will come into play. It should be a bonus then, that under Ruby, Hurricane Fly has produced cunning performances in two challenging races preceding the defence of his crown.
Bryan Cooper celebrates after winning the JCB Triumph Hurdle on board Our Conor last year
Try as I might, and regularly do, age cannot be ignored and you’d have to venture back to before I was born to find a winner of the Champion Hurdle aged over nine. Should the mileage on Hurricane Fly’s clock start to show, young pretender Our Conor is poised in the wings, and reportedly in flying form, but I’d struggle to tip a five-year old without a win under his belt this year to win what is arguably the toughest Champion Hurdle in a decade, despite his eye-catching runner-up performance last time out.
I won’t ponder on Britain’s second strongest fancy, My Tent Or Yours, who sustained a puncture wound in his foot today, because I don’t believe he’s particularly flamboyant, hence I put a line through his name a while back. This leads me lastly but by no means least, to JP McManus’ other runner, the Jessica Harrington-trained Jezki.
I’ve made no secret of my affection for this horse and if he wins you’ll hear me roaring even if you haven’t made the trip to Prestbury Park. Things haven’t fallen his way since Christmas but with better fortune, he could prove the forgotten horse in the line-up. Not by me though.
So to conclude my analysis, strange as it may be, I think the chances of the tricolour flying high in the winner’s enclosure are good as is the likelihood of me being accused of being a jingoist. But that’s fine, I’ve been called worse.
But I am certain that, regardless of the winning nation, this will be one of the best Champion Hurdles of this generation.