We're now well into the National Hunt season and its already started as a superb season with all horses aiming for the Cheltenham Festival in March.
On the opening day, one of the most competitive races on the festival takes place. The Champion Hurdle has saw some legendary horses - the epic tale of flat's trainer Aidan O'Brian training the immortal Istabraq who won the race a record three times from 1998 to 2000, being only the second horse to do so since the equally class Persian War from 1968-70.
This Champion Hurdle could be by far the most competitive it has been for a very long time. Head of the market is Nigel Twiston-Davis' The New One. It was a top class novice last year who cruised to victory in the Neptune Investment Management Novices' Hurdle, romping to a four length victory over Rule The World.
This form was then transferred to Aintree. In it's first run stepping up out of novice competition, Davis through the horse right into the deep end. Entered into The Aintree Hurdle at the Grand National Festival in April, the horse far from disgraced itself.
Going off 11/4 favourite, The New One was fluent throughout the race and was pipped at the line by Zarkandar under a majestic ride from Ruby Walsh. However, I'm sure NTD was more than happy with the run. It got within a head of beating the Champion Hurdle third and maybe a.It tore the rest of the field apart, including the previous years winner Oscar Whisky by six lengths with Grade One winners Countrywide Flame and Grandoeut a further six lengths back.
On its seasonal appearance at Kempton, The New One had its first run back down at two miles since it's Champion Bumper run in 2012. It met 2012 Champion Hurdle winner Rock on Ruby, who was too second behind Hurricane Fly seven months ago. Despite it dropping in trip, punters really fancied The New One's chances, especially with its trainer calling the beast 'the best I've ever trained.'
It really lived up to that potential. With two fences out, jockey Sam Twiston-Davies gave the The New One a few shakes of the reigns and it quickened up superbly, leaving the Harry Fry trained Rock on Ruby for dead and cantered home to win by 10 lengths. This victory really set the standards for the rest of the Champion Hurdle hopefuls and has sent Rock on Ruby now chasing for the season.
Last years winner Hurricane Fly could very well be The New One's biggest challenge. A winner of the 2011 and 2013 Champion Hurdle, the Willie Mullins trained horse most recently broke records by winning its 17th Grade One contest. It is a very well proven horse, however last time out it was far from unimpressive. Going off 1/16 favourite, it faced a fairly poor field. Despite winning easily in the end, it was not an 'on the bridle job' for Ruby Walsh who had to crack the whip a few times. It was the horses first run of the season, but it was less than impressive.
The main competition I feel comes from Nicky Henderson's My Tent or Yours. Both The New one and My Tent Or Yours are around a 9/2 shot. A close second in the Supreme Novices Hurdle after being sent off at 15/8 to Champagne Fever, it bounced back to it's easiest win of it's career in the Rose Appeal Supports Alder Hey Top Novices' Hurdle at Aintree, cantering to a 16 length win.
The Henderson horse most recently entered the Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle for its first time out of novice company. MTOY won by a comfortable three lengths. It was a decent enough win for it's first time out and out of novice company, but at times jumped left and it was not against any real good horses. The nearest market rival Melodic Rendezvous had was a novice itself last season. To this, it had no favours as the horse the two horses it had beat in it's last two runs Far West and Puffin Billy both comprehensively were turned over in their next outings.
What too worries me about the JP McManus owned horse is the hill at Cheltenham. AP McCoy looked so comfortable with two fences left in the Supreme Novices Hurdle, it didn't find anything extra in the run. The hill almost adds another furlong to the race and you have to have the fitness and determination to get in front to win.
Another JP McManus owned horse Jezki, who was one place behind My Tent Or Yours in the Supreme is a leading player for the two mile hurdle at Cheltenham. It reveresed it's Supreme form at Punchestown when it walked to a 16 length in the Herald Champion Novice Hurdle, leaving Champagne Fever well behind.
On its seasonal reappearance at Down Royal in the WKD Hurdle, it was a rusty but easy win to see off the Paul Nicholls trained Caid Du Berlais, winning by three and a half lengths. Most recently it stepped up to two and a half miles, and just fended off previous Grade One winner Zaidpour by a length and a half. Two dullish performances from Jezki have put some punters off him. However as it has showed it can stay two and a half miles, it may be fitter than My Tent or Yours come March.
The final leading contender is Our Conor who possesses the biggest danger to The New One. His performance was by far the most eye catching in all of the above mentioned at Cheltenham in March. The Dessie Hughes horse conquered in the JCB Triumph Hurdle by a massive fifteen lengths to Far West - it couldn't have been an easier ride for Bryan Cooper who barely asked for anything but a squeeze. He travelled like a dream throughout and his stamina lasted which many doubted. On Our Conor's seasonal appearance, it came on the flats in October. Racing at one mile four furlongs, it was unlucky not to win as it missed the break and finished fourth.
The only problem that Our Conor faces is the abysmal record of Triumph Hurdle winners to win the Champion Hurdle - just four have done so.
What The New One posses above all is a world class run this season. To crush Rock on Ruby so badly and send it over fences proves how good it is. I can understand that many of these horses have had just one run, like Hurricane Fly and My Tent Or Yours.
However, they haven't done what The New One did on its first run of the season. It's run at Aintree last year was so eye catching - to go straight from novices company to get within inches of winning the Aintree Hurdle and crushing Champion Hurdle opponents said enough for me last year. It's seasonal debut this year confirmed my predictions.
The New One is a very possible runner this Saturday in the International Hurdle at Cheltenham. There it could meet Zarkandar. At 4/9 it highlights how bookmakers really fancy the Twiston-Davis horse to reverse it's Aintree form.
I'd like to see Davis skip Saturday and aim at the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton on Boxing Day. It's an aimed race for My Tent Or Yours. Why wait until March to see the battle. It's a win-win situation - it has great form their and if it wins you have gave a big blow to your rivals. If it loses, then you can either blame the flat track or go back to the drawing board. I don't see the point in waiting until March when you can face the best before that.
The Ryanair Hurdle on the 29th December at Leopardstown could see Hurricane Fly, Our Conor and Jezki all meet. Iron sharpens iron and that's what that race will certainly do to all three. NTD needs to do the same and go for the Christmas Hurdle
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