2021 Cheltenham Festival – Two Top-Class Mares But Only One Can Win Champion Hurdle
2021 Champion Hurdle Tips
It’s time for Lewis Tomlinson to tacke another of the big feature races. Taking place on Day 1 of the Cheltenham Festival, the race is set to be a fascinating clash between two top-class mares.
2021 Champion Hurdle Overview
Three months ago, the Champion Hurdle looked already a foregone conclusion, but three months is a long time in racing and there may now just be the smallest hint of blood in the water.
Key Contenders – Epatante
Reigning champion Epatante met defeat for the first time since her novice season when beaten in the Christmas Hurdle last time, and surely the way any punter would approach this season’s Champion Hurdle would revolve primarily around how willing they would be to forgive her that below-par effort.
Nicky Henderson’s mare still has the strongest overall profile amongst the two-mile hurdling brigade and she looked as if she had improved yet again when breezing to victory in the Fighting Fifth on her seasonal comeback, completing a perfect hat-trick of all three of Britain’s open Grade 1 two-mile hurdles.
So what happened at Kempton? One-off blip, or something more serious?
Epatante didn’t look comfortable at any stage of her Boxing Day blowout, unruly pre-race and never travelling with her customary fluency. Her current price of 5-2 – she was as short as 11-10 after winning at Newcastle – may be made to look very generous come March, because if she is at her best, it’s hard to see her out of the first two. Whether she appeals as a betting proposition, though, depends upon how willing you are to overlook her most recent performance.
Silver Streak was the horse who claimed Epatante’s scalp at Kempton, and the likeable grey is enjoying the season of his life. Having fallen short in two previous Champion Hurdle attempts – he was third in 2019 and sixth last season – it may have seemed unlikely at the start of this campaign that Silver Streak could be a considered a genuine championship contender, but a combination of more experience and new front-running tactics have brought about further improvement in Evan Williams’ ultra-reliable eight-year-old.
It would be foolish to dismiss his Christmas Hurdle victory as a fluke as he shaped like the best horse in a farcical running of the International, denied by the nose of triple Grade 2 winner Song For Someone (20-1) after enduring a nightmare passage in the closing stages. He’d usually need to take his form up a notch once more to win a race of championship calibre, but this looks far from the strongest crop of two-mile hurdlers and Silver Streak is practically guaranteed to give his running.
It’s harder to be positive about the chances of two-time champion Buveur D’Air, who was beaten on his reappearance at Haydock after a year out with injury. Though not given a hard time by Nico De Boinville, it was undoubtedly underwhelming to see Buveur D’Air fail to land a blow on the 140s-rated Navajo Pass, even allowing for the conservative ride. Yes, he was absent for more than a year, so a step forward is possible, but that step probably needs to be worth at least a stone for him to win
Like Silver Streak, Sharjah is also having his third crack at claiming the Champion Hurdle crown, having been brought down by Buveur D’Air’s fall in 2019 and finishing a gallant runner-up last year.
He’s had a relatively good year, winning his third consecutive Matheson Hurdle, and his well beaten Irish Champion Hurdle third was probably an improved showing from the same race last year. Admittedly, he’s not an outstanding, once-in-a-generation talent, and he’d probably need a few to underperform were he to take the crown this season, but he has justifiable place claims once again.
I’d prefer Abacadabras, who finished ahead of Sharjah when second in the Irish Champion Hurdle. He’s a horse that generally has divided opinion over the past year, with his detractors often accusing him of being a messy jumper and being weak in the finish.
Despite that, this season he’s managed to show glimpses of the form that saw him capable of running Shishkin close in the Supreme, winning the Morgiana, albeit benefitting from the way the race panned out, and emerging with some credit from the Irish Champion. Admittedly, he needs a clear career-best to hit the frame here but a strongly run two miles should be exactly what he wants and I can see him running his best race of the year.
Aspire Tower caused an upset when turning Abacadabras over in the WKD Hurdle on their first outings of the season, and the likeable front-runner has clearly improved from four to five, also finishing second behind Sharjah in the Matheson, but I find it hard to see last season’s Triumph runner-up possessing the raw ability to win a Champion Hurdle.
Saint Roi (25-1), impressive winner of last season’s County Hurdle, hasn’t made his mark in Grade 1 company yet and needs to improve.
If you’ve kept your eye on the ball, you might notice that the vast majority of Irish contenders for this race have closely interlinking formlines, with no single horse able to assert clear superiority over the division. That changed earlier this month, though. Step forward, Honeysuckle (5-2).
Henry De Bromhead’s unbeaten mare dodged the Champion Hurdle last season in favour of the Mares’ Hurdle, but a tilt at the big one is now seemingly in the offing and justifiably so. That move made sense at the time, given how Honeysuckle had generally always been a little bit more comfortable over two-and-a-half miles rather than the flat two. That’s not to say she was sidestepping the Champion for an easier task though; in Benie Des Dieux, she had an intimidating rival to take the scalp of.
However, in gaining back-to-back Irish Champion Hurdles at Leopardstown earlier this month, Honeysuckle evaporated any doubt about her aptitude at the top level over two miles. Sharjah, Abacadabras, Saint Roi, Saldier and Petit Mouchoir, all the major two mile hurdlers in Ireland, were brushed ashed by Honeysuckle, who looked a shade quicker and more accurate over her hurdles than she did the last season. Her record now stands at ten wins, zero defeats. I think she’ll make it eleven.
Champion Hurdle Big-Race Verdict
The single best performance we’ve seen in a two-hurdle this season came from HONEYSUCKLE. Henry De Bromhead’s mare was top-class last season, but looks to have improved again and arrives at Cheltenham having had a smoother preparation than Epatante. Most importantly, her weaknesses, if they still exist, seemed to be less severe than they had been previously at Leopardstown, and I think she still represents some value at the current prices. Abacadabras would be the e/w pick at double-figure odds.