The Champion Hurdle features 13 runners officially rated within 10lb of each other and promises to be a fascinating contest (3.30pm Tuesday, Cheltenham Festival, live on CH4).
The absence of reigning champion and hot ante-post favourite Faugheen, suffering from a suspensory ligament problem, has thrown the race wide open. His trainer Willie Mullins (pictured) can still rely on the trio of Annie Power (2/1), Nichols Canyon (11/2) and Sempre Medici (28/1).
Annie Power has been beaten just twice in her 15-race career, going down by 1½ lengths to More Of That in the World Hurdle two seasons ago and falling at the last with the race at her mercy in the Mares Hurdle last year.
She is a three-time Grade 1 winner, twice at 2 miles 2 furlongs and once at 2 miles 4 furlongs but, interestingly, never at 2 miles. However, the Shirocco mare has won seven times at or around 2 miles, including two Grade 2 contests over hurdles, so anyone looking to oppose her on the basis of distance alone is probably clutching at straws. She receives the 7lb mares’ allowance from all her rivals and, barring accidents, must take a world of beating.
Nichols Canyon has the distinction of being the only horse to beat Faugheen, keeping on well to edge out his stable companion in the Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown in November. He followed up with a two-length win from Identity Thief (6/1) in the Ryanair Hurdle at Leopardstown over Christmas, but was firmly put in his place, to the tune of 28 lengths, by Faugheen on his return to the Dublin track in January. While it would be foolish to dismiss Nichols Canyon or Identity Thief out of hand in this Champion Hurdle preview, neither of them makes strong appeal.
The New One (13/2) is the shortest of the domestic contenders in the Champion Hurdle market but, having tried, and failed, in this race on two previous occasions, it is frankly difficult to see him faring any better this time around. His form is top draw, make no mistake, but both his Grade 1 wins have come over 2 miles 4 furlongs or further and he appears exposed as just short of the class required to win a Champion Hurdle.
That accusation can hardly be levelled at My Tent Or Yours (10/1), who failed by just a neck to overhaul Jezki in this race two seasons ago, but returns from an absence of 703 days. Despite the absence, he looks the pick of Nicky Henderson’s quintet, although to win a Champion Hurdle after nearly two years off, without a preparatory run, would be an exceptional training feat, even for the Seven Barrows’ handler.
Camping Ground (20/1) finished fourth, beaten a couple of lengths, in last year’s Imperial Cup off a mark of 150 on just his second start for Robert Walford, but has improved again this season.
Camping Ground’s 11-length defeat of subsequent Grade 2 scorer Lil Rockerfeller (33/1) in the Relkeel Hurdle over 2 miles 4½ furlongs at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day took his form to a new level. Although he was well beaten by Thistlecrack over 3 miles on his only subsequent start, the drop back in distance is almost certainly in his favour. He is yet to win at Grade 1 level, but it’s surely only a matter of time before he does so.
Dorset trainer Robert Walford had the choice of this race or the World Hurdle for Camping Ground, so the fact that he sends the progressive six-year-old here may be a hint worth taking.