The Champion Hurdle is the feature race on the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival. Owner JP McManus (8 wins) and Trainer Nicky Henderson (7 wins) are tipped to strike again this year with star mare Epatante. Henderson is expected to run four in total for what is an incredibly open renewal and his Pentland Hills is feared most. Silver Streak finished third last year at long odds and the tough and consistent grey could sneak into the prize money once again. The strength of the Irish challenge is yet to be clarified but here is our analysis of the ante-post Champion Hurdle betting market.
Epatante started the season as a 33-1 outsider but jumped her way to the head of the betting when storming clear in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton. Her supporters have suffered an anxious few days after Henderson announced that she had been coughing. The latest reports suggest that all is well and she is back on course for Cheltenham.
This certainly does not appear to be a vintage year and her five lengths victory over Silver Streak on Boxing Day stands out. She travelled comfortably throughout that race and quickened up impressively. The runner-up was followed home by Ballyandy and Verdana Blue, both likely to renew rivalry at Cheltenham.
The only blot on Epatante’s copybook was her poor run at the corresponding meeting in the Mares’ Hurdle. Connections felt that she was on edge that day and did not run her race but has matured in the past 12 months. She receives the 7lbs mare’s allowance and should get plenty of cover in a potentially large field.
Epatante is tipped to add her name to the roll of honour, although the recent scare means that she should be backed “with a run”. Most leading bookmakers are already offering “non-runner no bet” terms on the top Cheltenham Festival races.
Triumph Hurdle winners do not have a great record in the Champion Hurdle, the last horse to win both races being Katchit in 2007-2008. Pentland Hills will be bidding to buck the trend, a stable companion of Epatante. Although beaten on both starts this season, there are reasons for anticipating an improved performance at Cheltenham.
Pentland Hills travelled and jumped well in the International Hurdle in December but his fitness told in the closing stages and he faded to finish fifth. The son of Motivator looked certain to win the Haydock Champion Hurdle Trial next time when jumping to the front at the last. He appeared to tie-up in the closing stages and was caught in the final stride by Ballyandy.
The horse has since undergone a minor wind operation and jockey Nico de Boinville will be holding on to him for as long as possible in the Champion Hurdle. The going was heavy at Haydock and a faster surface should enable him to finish his race strongly. Pentland Hills is regarded as the main danger to Epatante.
With doubts surrounding so many of the market leaders, last year’s third-placed Silver Streak could be good value at around 25-1. The Evan Williams-trained seven-year-old was one of the last horses to come off the bridle last year but was no match for the ill-fated Espoir D’Allen. In such an open year, the grey’s chances of reaching the frame must be at least as good, if not better.
Silver Streak’s biggest victories to date are the Welsh Champion Hurdle and the valuable Swinton Handicap Hurdle. He won at Kempton in October before finishing third to Cornerstone Lad in the Grade 1 Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle. He was the best of the rest behind the impressive Epatante in the Christmas Hurdle and should give his supporters a run for their money at Cheltenham.
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