Under normal circumstances, punters and tipsters alike pick up plenty of Cheltenham Festival clues over the Christmas period. Top National Hunt racing takes place both in the UK and Ireland, but this year the festive season leaves more questions than answers.
Nowhere is this more so than in the 2020 Champion Hurdle betting. Already an open division, trying to make sense of it all after contenders disappointed on both sides of the Irish Sea is tough.
This is what happened over Christmas and what you can glean from the festive jumps action ahead of the Champion Hurdle in March.
Epatante emerges as market leader
JP McManus is the most successful owner in Champion Hurdle history. The legendary Irish gambler lost last year’s winner Espoir D’Allen to a freak accident on the gallops and dual victor Buveur D’Air is very unlikely to be back this season following an injury to his hoof in the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle.
Thank heavens for the latter’s Nicky Henderson stable companion Epatante, then, who has made rapid progress during the campaign so far. A lightly-raced French import to his Seven Barrows yard, this mare by No Risk At All was a leading fancy for the Grade 2 Dawn Run Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle at the last Cheltenham Festival but only came ninth.
Epatante may have been too inexperienced off just two outings over the obstacles for that test. A Grade 1 bumper winner in France, she landed a Listed intermediate contest at Newbury before taking the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton in impressive style.
This sudden progress comes as young Henderson stable inmates Fusil Raffles and Pentland Hills struggle in open company after fine juvenile campaigns. Epatante is now as short as 5/2 for Champion Hurdle glory in the spring.
Saldier and Sharjah benefit from disappointing Klassical Dream.
Leopardstown’s Christmas Festival in Ireland culminated in the Grade 1 Matheson Hurdle which Sharjah won for the second consecutive season in a race where last year’s Supreme victor Klassical Dream flopped again. Drying ground was a key factor for the winner.
Irish champion trainer Willie Mullins obviously has a strong hand in the Champion Hurdle division. Sharjah has been cut to 7/1 in the horse racing odds available on this race with bet365. The Matheson result also pays a compliment to Saldier – another in the stable owned by Rich and Susannah Ricci.
That horse beat Sharjah, Petit Mouchoir and Klassical Dream in the Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown earlier in the season. Saldier has missed the Christmas period with a slight setback, but is a 6/1 chance to take the 2020 Champion Hurdle.
Klassical Dream has now twice been a beaten favourite in both starts since his fabulous novice campaign. An inability to settle in the preliminaries, coupled with errors over the obstacles, suggests something is amiss with this talented Dream Well gelding.
With Klassical Dream eased out to 10/1 in the Champion Hurdle betting, others with sounder temperaments have attracted more market support. Coeur Sublime – a Gordon Elliott trained contemporary of Fusil Raffles and Pentland Hills – also failed to follow-up on his impressive Down Royal exploits in the Matheson, leaving rival Mullins with the much stronger Champion Hurdle team.