2016 Cheltenham Festival: Who should Ruby Walsh ride in Champion Hurdle?
David Metcalf | February 18, 2016
Following the news that red-hot favourite and 2015 winner Faugheen has been ruled out of next month’s Champion Hurdle, Coral take a look at the tough choice facing jockey Ruby Walsh over who to partner in the 2m showpiece on the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival on Tuesday, March 15th.
Walsh’s boss and champion Irish trainer Willie Mullins still holds a strong hand in the race and has the front three in the betting, but which one has the best credentials to land the spoils? Here are our expert’s thoughts on the trio of candidates
Current Champion Hurdle odds: 7/2 second-favourite.
This really classy seven-year-old has won four of his 17 starts over hurdles and been placed on nine occasions.
Arctic Fire, a 164-rated gelding, posted a series of top class efforts last season, including when runner-up to Hurricane Fly in the Irish Champion Hurdle and occupying the same spot behind stablemate Faugheen in the English equivalent at the Cheltenham Festival.
Beaten just 1 1/2 lengths in the latter, Arctic Fire was closing all the way to the line in a race which wasn’t run to suit.
Faugheen was allowed to dominate in a slow run affair, and Arctic Fire is best when coming off a strong gallop.
In the circumstances it was a cracking effort, and Arctic Fire looked as good as ever in winning his first two starts this season.
Although then well beaten when just fourth of five to Prince Of Scars at Leopardstown, that race was over 3m and Arctic Fire clearly didn’t stay, preferring a shorter trip.
Arctic Fire has since chased home Faugheen in the Irish Champion Hurdle at the same venue and, although no match for the easy 15-length winner, it was a solid run.
Current Champion Hurdle odds: 7/4 favourite.
This classy mare has won 10 of her 12 starts over hurdles, including two Grade 1 contests.
Eight-year-old Annie Power carries the colours of Rich Ricci, who also owns Faugheen, and is officially rated 162.
While Annie Power is clearly a very good mare, her two defeats over hurdles have come at the Cheltenham Festival.
She was beaten 1 1/2 lengths into second behind More Of That in the 2014 running of the World Hurdle, and was four lengths clear and travelling strongly when falling at the final flight in last year’s Mares’ Hurdle when having the race at her mercy.
Annie Power is more of a stayer than a speed horse, and it’s easy to pick holes in her form compared to some of the established two-mile hurdlers.
Following Faugheen’s withdrawal due to injury, Annie Power became favourite for the Champion Hurdle after overcoming a lengthy absence to make a winning return to action in a minor contest at Punchestown. She coasted to a facile success over two vastly inferior rivals.
Just minutes before that race, which was effectively a schooling session, the news broke about Faugheen’s injury, so Annie Power may now market leader by default and, on closer inspection, doesn’t have the form in the book to justify that position.
Current Champion Hurdle odds: 5/1.
A winner of seven of his 10 starts, including six Grade 1s, 160-rated six-year-old Nichols Canyon inflicted a first-ever defeat on the mighty Faugheen when making a winning return to action in the Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown.
Nichols Canyon made all and, despite making a mistake at the last, stayed on strongly to assert on the run-in to score by 1/2 a length.
The gelding went on to beat the upwardly mobile Identity Thief in the Grade 1 Ryanair Hurdle at Leopardstown, looking beat approaching the final flight before rallying strongly to win going away by two lengths.
A below par run when beaten 28 lengths into third behind Faugheen in the Irish Champion Hurdle followed, but Nichols Canyon wasn’t ridden from the front that day and may have found the race coming too quick following his gruelling success in the Ryanair.
Nichols Canyon clearly needs to bounce back from that defeat, but if doing so has the form in the book to be a big player in the Champion Hurdle.
Conclusion: Whilst many will think Annie Power will be an automatic choice for Walsh if she is supplemented as expected, but her form is not strong at 2m and she looks more a stayer than a speed horse.
Nichols Canyon has plenty to prove after his last run, but Arctic Fire has by far the strongest form in the book. On his run in last year’s Champion Hurdle, he would be our recommended choice for Ruby to ride.