Unibet Champion Hurdle Challenge Trophy Preview
The feature race on Day 1 of The Cheltenham Festival is the Unibet Champion Hurdle Challenge Trophy over an extended 2 miles on the Old Course. Modern day greats such as Istabraq, Hurricane Fly, Faugheen and Annie Power have all tasted success since the turn of the century but in more recent history, owner JP McManus has farmed the race having had the last four winners. He saddles both defending heroine Epatante and 2017/18 Champion Buveur D’Air. Henry De Bromhead’s superstar mare, Honeysuckle, looks set to put her unbeaten record on the line, having bolted up in the Irish Champion Hurdle at The Dublin Racing Festival. Both her and Epatante head the market but there may well be dangers lurking at bigger odds.
Trainer: Henry De Bromhead
Current Odds: 5/2
Dual Hatton’s Grace winner, two-time Irish Champion Hurdler, 2020 Mares Hurdle winner and a perfect record boasting 10 wins and 0 defeats, superstar mare Honeysuckle looks set to contest this year’s Champion Hurdle. If it’s not already obvious, I adore this filly and she amazed me last time out when destroying a high-class field in the Irish Champion Hurdle. I had previously had my doubts about Honeysuckle’s speed at 2 miles having shown her best form up to that point over further, but boy did she demonstrate some serious gears. The way in which she breezed past Petit Mouchoir and had the so-called speedier types flat to the boards coming round the final bend was quite something to behold. The clock backs this up too. From the second last to the last, I had Honeysuckle at 1.53 seconds quicker than Appreciate It and 2.25 seconds quicker than Quilixious, who both won their Grade 1’s over the same distance, on the same ground, at the same track the day after. Honeysuckle’s winning time was also 4.5 seconds quicker than Appreciate It and 3.5 seconds faster than Quilixious. They didn’t start off a mad gallop in the Irish Champion Hurdle, but Honeysuckle upped the tempo considerably a long way from home. Not only did she have her rivals cooked from a long way out, but she slowed down approaching the last and then quickened again off the back of it and up to the line. She possesses a frightening number of gears, like her main market rival Epatante, but also an abundance of stamina which will kick in after jumping the last. She’s an iron mare with an abundance of talent, who certainly won’t back down should she get in a fight up the Cheltenham Hill.
Trainer: Nicky Henderson
Current Odds: 3/1
Last year’s Champion Hurdle Heroine, Epatante, will bid to defend her crown but does come here on the back of a poor run in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton. Prior to that she had bolted up in Grade 1 Fighting Fifth at Newcastle but from the off at Kempton she didn’t look herself. Irritated and on her toes before hand, she displayed an extremely awkward head carriage coming down to the first and a messy round of jumping followed. She was unable to reel back in the front runnnig Silver Streak and finished a disappointing second. The change of tactics may well have brought out improvement in Silver Streak but Epatante had twice previously beaten him with ease, including in last season’s Champion Hurdle. Neither Ballyandy or Floressa (both 8-9 lengths back in third/fourth), have done anything for the form since and although visually impressive in her wins thus far to date, I would worry about the strength of Epatante’s form overall. Epatante has since had her back tweaked via a minor operation and is reported to be in good health. Visually, she was seriously impressive in last year’s Champion Hurdle, but she must bounce back in a deeper renewal and may even have to improve if she is to defend her crown.
Trainer: Gary Moore
Current Odds: 9/2
Gary Moore’s Goshen burst back into Champion Hurdle contention with a visually impressive display in the Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton, destroying Song For Someone by 22 lengths, receiving 6lbs. Boy was it good to see him back to his best after a couple of poor runs on the flat and a blow out in The International at Cheltenham. Now, for all Goshen was visually awesome, his time wouldn’t read so well. He was 4 seconds faster than Longshanks who won the first race on the card over the same trip, carrying the same weight. Longshanks ran to an RPR of 121 so I would be careful about getting overly excited about this Goshen performance. I would however, be enthusiastic about last years Triumph form. Allmankind has looked extremely useful, all be it over fences, and Aspire Tower has gone from strength to strength in the top two-mile hurdles. Goshen had them stuffed last year but judging a juvenile from juvenile company into open company can be extremely difficult. Given their age, they progress at different rates and it could well be he was just the more finished article in last years Triumph. The flip side could be he has improved as well and would therefore be a big player. He looks short enough at 9/2 and will have to put in a monstrous performance conceding weight to both Epatante and Honeysuckle.
Trainer: Henry De Bromhead
Current Odds: 10/1
Henry De Bromhead may have star filly Honeysuckle, but he also has another main contender in the form of Aspire Tower. Extremely impressive in the early parts of his juvenile campaign, Aspire Tower ran an odd race in last seasons Triumph. Keen throughout he jumped poorly and looked to be running out of puff before sticking to his task gamely to finish third. He reappeared with a gutsy front running display in the WKD Hurdle and managed to fend off both Abacadabras and Jason The Militant to record an impressive win. He backed that run up over Christmas with a solid second to Sharjah at Leapordstown, again front running. He will come into this years Champion Hurdle a fresh horse and should give a good account of himself from the front. 5-year-olds have a shocking record in the race though and I worry about his jumping at the business end of the race. He can be prone to the odd jumping error, something he cannot afford to do with the likes of Epatante, Honeysuckle, Sharjah and Abacadabras breathing down his neck. He may also face a contest for the lead which might light him up early doors. 10/1 represents fair each way value but he will need to improve to beat the two fillies giving them 7lbs.
Trainer: Evan Williams
Current Odds: 9/1
Evan Williams’ highly likeable grey, Silver Streak, is in the form of his life and surged into Champion Hurdle contention when defeating Epatante in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton. Ignoring the fact he was carried out in the Fighting Fifth, his form reads 121 this season, with his only defeat coming to Song For Someone in a luckless run at Cheltenham in the Grade 2 International Hurdle. That defeat did come on soft though and he certainly seems a better horse when “good” is in the going description. His lifetime form figures over obstacles when “good” is in the going description read 432114121122211CO1, whereas his lifetime form figures without “good” in the going description read UR6353262. Despite handling soft ground, I believe he needs a quicker surface to been seen at his best. The festival comes a week later than last year so we may have good spring ground, but Cheltenham do tend to water quite a bit and subsequently the going on day 1 is never too quick. He will have his supporters, especially in the place markets, but for me if you fancy him, you should back him closer to the time if the sun is shining!
Trainer: Willie Mullins
Current Odds: 12/1
Sharjah has quite quickly become racings Father Christmas, having once again delivered in the Grade 1 Matheson Hurdle at Christmas time. Just like in previous seasons, he blotted his copy book in the Irish Champion Hurdle when finishing a 19 length third to Honeysuckle. I would be inclined to put a line through this run given it is not the first time it has happened, and I’d expect to see him get a fair bit closer to Honeysuckle this time around. Runner up in last season’s Champion Hurdle, we know Sharjah handles the track and should we get a smaller field size this time around, it should be easier for him to make his move from the back. Like all the boys in here, he does have to give 7lbs to both Epatante and Honeysuckle who have both beaten him comfortably in recent times. For all I believe he will give a much better account of himself than last time out, I struggle to see him finding the extra improvement needed to challenge the market credentials. He could be one for the place markets come the day.
Trainer: Gordon Elliott
Current Odds: 12/1
Last season’s Supreme Novice Hurdle runner up came within a head of beating the mighty Shishkin last March and clearly has some engine under the bonnet. It must be said, Shishkin had a troubled passage which varied drastically to Abacadabras who seemed to be presented the race swinging for home. As a result, the winning margin may flatter Abacadabras a tad, but I would argue he wasn’t suited by hitting the front as soon as he did. He travels through his races like a really good horse and Jack will look to smuggle him into contention. His transition to open company has been a bit patchy, having disappointed behind Aspire Tower on reappearance before winning the Morgiana when once again hitting the front too soon. You can put a line through his run at Christmas as he, like a few of Gordon’s string, were unwell and he duly bounced back with a fine second to Honeysuckle in the Irish Champion Hurdle last time out. He has 10 lengths to make up on Honeysuckle and I can see him getting closer. He needs horses to take him deep into the race and given the Champion Hurdle has more quantity and quality, he should get that. Will it be enough to turn the form around with Honeysuckle though, I’m not so sure. Like Sharjah I would be looking at the place markets for him where he may offer some nice value.
Just because I have bracketed them as outsiders doesn’t mean they can’t win, and this could not be more apparent for dual Champion Hurdler Buveur D’Air who loves Cheltenham and this race in particular. Reappearing after a 420-day break, I thought Buveur D’Air moved through the race like his old self, jumping slickly and travelling sweetly. He appeared to get very tired coming up the straight and was ultimately beaten by Navajo Pass in convincing fashion. He faces big question marks as to whether he retains his peak level of ability. This seasons International winner, Song For Someone, is an interesting outsider and his form has been franked by Silver Streak in the Christmas Hurdle. Taking that form too literally could be dangerous though and he needs to bounce back after a poor run behind Goshen.
Crunching The Numbers
- of the previous 25 winners had recorded a win that season (Hardy Eustace 2004 the exception) and 16 of them had recorded 2 or more wins
- 21 of the previous 25 winners had won on their previous start
- 14 of the last 25 winners were unbeaten that season including the last 6 winners!
- 24 of the last 27 winners were in the top 6 of the betting
- The last 25 renewals have seen 11 winning favourites
- 21 of the previous 25 winners have been aged between 6 and 8
- 19 of the last 28 winners had previously won at Cheltenham
Market 24 leader Honeysuckle is the only horse who can achieve the full house on stats due to being the current favourite and she has done that with a perfect 7/7. Epatante and Silver Streak fit 4 of the criteria whilst Abacadabras and Sharjah fit 3. With five-year olds having such a poor record in the race, it is unsurprising to see both Aspire Tower 2/7 and Goshen 3/7 come off worst on the stats.
Factoring in the mares’ allowance, both Honeysuckle and Epatante find themselves well clear on Official Ratings and from a win perspective I struggle to see past them. I can see plenty of pace in the race this year with the likes of Not So Sleepy, Goshen and Aspire Tower all keen to go forward. This should suit both superstar mares and Abacadabras, who Jack Kennedy will hope to sneak into contention. Aspire Tower and Goshen could have a right ding-dong battle up front and may subsequently give Honeysuckle, who is likely to sit prominently, the ideal tow into the race. I can see Honeysuckle making an early move on the home bend and attempting to kick clear, putting her stamina to good use. Epatante and Abacadabras will surely be produced as late as possible, looking to out sprint Honeysuckle. I cannot see this turning into a sprint though and for me, Honeysuckle will find more coming up the hill and stretch away in Annie Power wining fashion. From a place point of view, I struggle to see Abacadabras out of the first three or four and he may offer some value in the place markets.
My Idea of the Winner
- Honeysuckle 5/2
Each Way Play
- Abacadabras 12/1
- Aspire Tower
By Sam Rideout
Follow me on Twitter – @TheTr17pleP