Ruby Walsh has let his head rule his heart and will be riding Faugheen in the Champions Hurdle at Cheltenham on Tuesday. He has decided to desert his old warrior ally Hurricane Fly in favour of the younger version but The New One could beat both horses. In a race that will involve no more than eight horses the first four in the betting have realistic chances of winning the most prestigious hurdle race of the season.
The Fly has beaten Jezki twice this campaign at Leoparsdtown where he is unbeatable. However, the latter is a better horse in the spring at Cheltenham. Jezki could win back-to-back Champions and Tony McCoy believes the horse is his best chance of riding a winner at his last Cheltenham Festival as a jockey. Four other horses are making up the numbers as the winner will be one of the four mentioned.
The Champion Hurdle is open to horses aged four or over and is the championship hurdle race of the National Hunt season. It is run on the Old Course at Cheltenham on the first day of the festival, voted the most popular racing occasion of the year in a survey in the Racing Post. The race is run over a distance of two miles and 110 yards and eight hurdles are jumped during the contest. Last year it was amongst the top ten most popular UK races in terms of betting turnover.
Five horses have won the race three times including Istabraq who was denied a fourth win due to the foot and mouth epidemic in 2001. A grazing sheep wandered on to the track which meant the risk of infection caused the cancellation of the meeting. Peter Easterby and Nicky Henderson have won five Champion Hurdles as trainers and JP McManus is the most successful owner with as many successes in the race. Before Hurricane Fly Hardy Eustace is the last multiple champion and McCoy will be looking for a third win on Jezki.
Since 1945 no four year old has won the race as that age group now have their own championship race and novices rarely take part and are even less regularly competitive. Since the abandoned renewal in 2001 only one five year old has won the race. Of the other twelve winners three were six, five were seven, two eight year olds have won the race and two animals aged nine. Faugheen and Jezki are both seven years of age.
There is a difference of opinion about how unlucky The New One was in last year’s race. He lost ground and momentum when impeded by the stricken Our Conor at the third hurdle. Sam Twiston-Davies did not panic and slowly got the horse back into the race. The animal finished strongly but was beaten by Jezki by over two lengths. He hasn’t raced against any of the other major players in the last twelve months so only this year’s contest will reveal if he was unfortunate last year.
Detractors of the horse point out that The New One was outpaced from two out in last year’s Champion and ran on up the hill when the race was all but decided. His latest run at Haydock in heavy ground was also not too encouraging as the horse jumped poorly and beat an inferior rival by less than his form would have suggested. However, The New One has been targeted at this day for the last year and has the form and pace to compensate for last season’s misfortune.
Walsh has made his decision about his ride in the race on the basis that he believes Faugheen has a better chance than Hurricane Fly. That must have been a tough call as the jockey has ridden that horse in his last eighteen races, including the last four Champion Hurdle including two wins. The iconic animal is now aged 11 and only two winners have been that old since 1945 but they were both multiple champions.
Faugheen is the new kid on the block and his place in the betting is more due to potential rather than solid form at the highest level. This year’s Champion Hurdle will be his toughest assignment to date but he was mightily impressive in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton. It would not be shock if he won the race but tactically Faugheen could be vulnerable to Jezki.
The defending champion has done little wrong in defeat to Hurricane Fly in Ireland this season. Jezki beat the Fly fair and square at Cheltenham a year ago and this track is where he excels most. The New One is the shortest priced horse not trained in Ireland and he can win the opening day highlight and get a festival win on the board for British trained horses.