Sky Sports Racing's Matt Chapman assesses the key candidates for hurdling's most prestigious prize, the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham.
The Champion Hurdle has already been a heartbreaker for me. For nearly a year, I was convinced Saint Roi would romp home. Now he's not even in it. Oh my.
However, from a personal point of view, I can look at the race with new vigour. So, let's see what I make of the 2021 Champion Hurdle Challenge Trophy, run over 87 yards further than two miles...
Place claims. Best run of his career - though flattered - when second to Shishkin in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle at Cheltenham last year. Since then, done alright behind Aspire Tower and when lucky to deny Saint Roi at Punchestown. Last two efforts below par and stuffed by Honeysuckle last time. That said, will be suited by a strong gallop off which he will travel well. Not always strong in the finish.
Only a youngster and hasn't done too much wrong with 14 places in the first three from 17 runs. However, has only won four times. Those wins include a defeat of Abacadabras at Down Royal, while he was second to Sharjah when last seen in the Grade 1 Matheson Hurdle at Leopardstown. Not for me.
Flopped in the Mares' Novices' Hurdle at Cheltenham in 2019 but has not really looked back since and is the defending champion hurdler. Quickened well in this race last year to beat Sharjah by three lengths and has a telling turn of foot. Returned this season with an impressive defeat of Sceau Royal in the Fighting Fifth but disappointed behind Silver Streak in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton. She's good. But she's not exceptional. Like Honeysuckle, gets a crazy 7lb from the boys.
Easy to write an essay on Gary Moore's stable star. Looked an absolute monster when on the verge of hacking up in the Triumph Hurdle last year only to unseat Jamie Moore at the final flight. Had issues after that, with two fair runs on the Flat, many missed entries over jumps and then flopping on his return at Cheltenham with a fibrillating heart. That was all put behind him, though, when he was at Wincanton last time bolting up in the Kingwell Hurdle. The runner-up Song for Someone was never travelling that day, but it was still super impressive. When he's been on top of his game, he's looked like something from a different planet. Different gravy.
Superbly handled by Henry de Bromhead and unbeaten in 10 starts. Her victories include six Grade 1s numbering two Irish Champion Hurdle successes and a defeat of Benie Des Dieux in the Mares' Hurdle at Cheltenham. She stays up to two and a half miles well and can be aggressively ridden. Gets a valuable 7lb for being a mare. Impressive when last seen at Leopardstown when slamming Abacadabras. Hard to fault.
James Du Berlais
French import likely to make his British debut here for Willie Mullins and hard to weigh up. Placed at Grade 1 level in France but in general terms looked Grade 3 class and might need a little further.
Not So Sleepy
Talented front runner for Hughie Morrison and he's no mug when on his A game. Did really well to score at Ascot last time when defeating Buzz under 11st 12lb. However, in general terms, you would expect him to get picked off by a few of these.
Always been held in high regard but been fragile. Travelled well for a long way on his return when beaten 32 lengths by Sharjah in the Matheson Hurdle at Leopardstown. Was expected to improve for that but was much worse behind Honeysuckle in the Irish Champion Hurdle. Has ability. Would be no shock if he reached the frame. But needs to do better.
Talented hurdler who chased home Epatante in this at a distance of three lengths in 2020. Has always been thought best on good ground, but coped with soft when defeating Aspire Tower in the Grade 1 Matheson Hurdle at Leopardstown. 'Lapped' by Honeysuckle last time on soft to heavy. I doubt he's good enough, but he will be ridden closer to the pace than last year when given plenty to do.
Another for those looking for an each-way shot. In the form of his life at the age of eight but was never placed to challenge in the 2020 Champion Hurdle when sixth behind Epatante. Was a distant third to Espoir d'Allen in the 2019 equivalent. Changed to front-running tactics when defeating a below par Epatante at Kempton last time and while that clearly flattered the grey, he was impressive. Gut feeling is he can't win, but he could easily run well. Should be in the first five.
MATT CHAPMAN'S VERDICT
So, with Saint Roi out I have had to change tack. Clearly Honeysuckle is the one to beat, but GOSHEN has looked out of this world on occasions. I'm praying he will make up for that Triumph defeat and smash the field apart.