BHP Insurance Irish Champion Hurdle (Grade 1)
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Won five times by the incredible Hurricane Fly, this year’s renewal again promises to be a cracker as Faugheen seeks to reclaim his crown.
The superb winner of this race last season, “The Machine” Faugheen will be looking to go back to back in the race to emulate Hurricane Fly as he bids to recapture the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham in March. Winner of the 2015 Champion Hurdle at the Festival, we have not seen Willie Mullins’ 9 year old since his 15 length dismantling of the field last season due to a suspensory problem. Mullins has stated that this will be his last chance of a run before the Festival and also gave us insight into how his stable star is performing at home: “It would be Faugheen’s last chance before Cheltenham, they (Faugheen and Annie Power) are both well – both are riding out and doing plenty“. A strong galloper with a quite remarkable turn of foot, if “The Machine” does take his chance in the race he has to have a leading chance despite the absence with any sort of conditions not an issue for him. He needs to be given a huge amount of respect and if leading from the front as he always does, he will be very hard to stop as he has only been beaten once in his career, and that was the only time he hasn’t made all.
Many thought that Annie Power would only run if Faugheen doesn’t make it but Willie Mullins has said that there is a chance that they could line up together. Called in as the ‘super sub’ for the 2016 Champion Hurdle when her stablemate was injured, the 9 year old mare defied history when becoming the first mare to win the race and cementing herself as one of the greats. Signing off last season with an impressive win in the Doom Bar Hurdle at Aintree, she is yet to return this season due to set backs but if returning at her best she would be a formidable opponent for all other entrants. Although arguably two miles is not her optimum trip, she has proved she still has the speed for it and travels supremely well through her races, quickening clear with the minimum of fuss. She is ground versatile which is another plus, although softer ground would be preferable and it is hard to find any real chinks in her armour when analysing her. If she does become Faugheen’s ‘super sub’ again for this race, she is more than worth her place in the line up and would be a very tough horse to beat.
On ratings it is hard to see any horse getting close to Faugheen at his best, but Nichols Canyon is certain to give it a good go. The only horse to beat Faugheen, he took away his pace setting duties by forcing him to settle in behind in the 2015 Morgiana Hurdle, galloping on strongly to spring one of the biggest upsets in recent years. He was however been soundly beaten by him when they met again in last year’s renewal of the race, with Nichols Canyon left trailing in Faugheen’s wake, 28 lengths behind. Nevertheless his seasonal reappearance this year gave hope that he was starting to progress again when easily winning the Morgiana Hurdle in convincing fashion, but then went to the Ryanair Hurdle at Leopardstown in December to be soundly beaten by Petit Mouchoir. His rider Ruby Walsh cited his disappointment at his mounts tame effort, suggesting it wasn’t his true running: “I don’t want to take anything away from Petit Mouchoir, who was a very good winner on the day, but Nichols Canyon barely managed to beat Ivanovich Gorbatov and Jer’s Girl and they were a long way behind him at Punchestown“. It is still hard to get away from how disappointing that performance was and he looking very one paced up the home straight, with a repeat of that performance leaving him vulnerable again. On past performances, he seems unlikely to reverse form with either Faugheen or Petit Mouchoir and he would really need heavier ground if he has any chance of upsetting them both. With heavy ground, it would bring his stamina into play and although he doesn’t have the turn of foot of some of the other horses in the race, he is a strong galloper and would most likely stay on the best if conditions get tricky. If resuming back to his peak, you’d have to give him Each Way chances if eight or more go to post, but he is certainly vulnerable for win purposes.
Speaking of the Ryanair Hurdle winner, Petit Mouchoir was most impressive that day, making all and quickening off the home bend in the style of a very progressive and smart horse. Henry De Bromhead’s 6 year old has finally shown us what he is really capable of and its hard to say where the limit of his ability is, as he should be capable of even better yet. Probably preferring ground that is closer to good than heavy, he is comfortable with this course and distance as evidenced by his win in the Ryanair Hurdle and he’d be very dangerous to give a lead to. De Bromhead was pleasantly surprised by his Ryanair Hurdle performance, citing ambitions for the Champion Hurdle later in the season: “I think we’d have every right to consider the Champion Hurdle on that performance. He was a good horse last year with some great runs at the back-end, and bar Newcastle with the fall, he’s done nothing wrong with us. He’s a lovely horse to do anything with, I’m just blown away“. The problem however may lie in the fact he is unlikely to get a soft lead with both the aforementioned horses likely to be vying for the lead as well as some others in the line up, but as long as he’s prominent he should still be able to give his running. He has to be considered a creditable threat and if nothing else a good Each Way angle into the race, and it’d be dangerous to discount any Henry De Bromhead horse at present with a 24% strike rate from 41 runners when writing this piece.
Winning the Hatton’s Grace Hurdle seems to have put Apple’s Jade back onto the right track after looking regressive earlier this season. 2nd in last year’s Triumph Hurdle before reversing that form to win a Grade 1 at Aintree by 41 lengths, her two runs before the Hatton’s Grace Hurdle were underwhelming. She was brushed aside on seasonal reappearance at Down Royal in November, before being narrowly beaten in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle when better was expected of her. The step up in trip for her last run worked wonders as it was her best run since Aintree, so it seems quite counterproductive to go down in trip again after her earlier defeats this season. Nevertheless, she has shown she’s got the speed for two miles in the past and if the ground is soft enough she is bound to put up a strong challenge with the mare’s allowance taken into consideration, so shouldn’t be discounted just yet.
Giving his stablemate seven pounds and finishing close behind was a creditable effort by Clondaw Warrior in the Irish Christmas Hurdle, although he never looked likely to get past. Willie Mullins’ 10 year old has always been a consistent force and it is rare to see him running a bad race, but at his age improvement is now unlikely. Although a winner at two miles, the drop back does seem questionable after his good performance last time out at three miles which he may well need at the veteran stage of his career. It is also concerning to note that he has never won a Grade 1 over hurdles and despite showing that he still has the ability, he looks vulnerable against this class of opposition.