Champion Hurdle: what is the strongest trial?

Petit Mouchoir on his way to winning the Irish Champion Hurdle

PICTURE: Patrick McCann ( Champion Hurdle: what is the strongest trial?
By Mark Scully & keith melrose 5:00PM 21 FEB 2017

THE major Champion Hurdle trials are out of the way and with three weeks until the tapes go up for the big race, punters are scouring the form for the key clues that may have been missed.

Looking at the recent history of the race, which contests should be the focus of that attention and which route is this year's winner most likely to have taken to Cheltenham glory?

Christmas Hurdle, Kempton
Average RPR of winner (last ten years): 165
Champion Hurdle winners in the last decade: 4
2016-17 winner: Yanworth

Britain's best two-mile hurdle pre-Cheltenham has an expectedly high number of subsequent Champion Hurdle winners in its recent history. Curiously, though, of the four to emerge from the race in the last decade only one did so as the winner.

Faugheen did the double in 2014-15, but Rock On Ruby (second), Binocular (third) and Punjabi (fell) had no such luck at Kempton. It is often pointed out how different Kempton's configuration is to Cheltenham and this serves to back it up.

Of course, this is not to say you should be rushing to back The New One over Yanworth for the Champion, but those who think the result at Kempton so comprehensive that it simply cannot be reversed in three weeks might just want to double-check their reasoning.

Significance rating: 4 out of 5

Irish Champion Hurdle, Leopardstown
Average RPR: 168
Champion Hurdle winners: 3
2016-17 winner: Petit Mouchoir

Though the field size averages fewer than five, the Irish Champion Hurdle has contained the winner of the British equivalent in three of the last ten years: twice when Hurricane Fly did the double, while Jezki turned fourth at Leopardstown into first at Cheltenham three years ago.

It stands to reason that Ireland's best hurdle race translates fairly successfully to Britain. The stats might have been even better, too, but for the misfortune that befell Sizing Europe in a weak Champion in 2008.

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This year, a slightly below-average field size and a slightly below-average performance from winner Petit Mouchoir (165) doesn't set the pulse racing like Hurricane Fly and Faugheen did, but then neither does this year's Champion Hurdle.

Significance rating: 4/5

Contenders Hurdle, Sandown
Average RPR: 154
Champion Hurdle winners: 1
2016-17 winner: Buveur D'Air

A race that is a bit of a jack-in-the-box. Sometimes it pops up to surprise you, the rest of the time it sits unobtrusively in the corner. The spread of winning performances on RPRs in the last ten years alone is 30lb, which tells much the same story in cold, hard numbers.

Being Listed and held in late-January or early-February, it is also prone to being lost due to the weather, as it was for three years in a row after its most famous recent graduate, Binocular, won a second renewal in 2011.

He is the only winner since Rooster Booster to follow up in the Champion. Buveur D'Air, in the same colours, must step up significantly on his performance, about average for the race, to justify his position as favourite for the Champion.

Significance rating: 2/5

Kingwell Hurdle, Wincanton
Average RPR: 158
Champion Hurdle winners: 2
2016-17 winner: Yanworth

A regular haunt for British Champion Hurdle hopes, the Kingwell does not get the Irish patronage of a race like the Christmas Hurdle and has suffered as a result in a time of Irish dominance in the division.

Two years in a row, 2008 and 2009, the Champion Hurdle winner came from the Kingwell. Katchit won both races, Punjabi a year later was only third at Wincanton.

Binocular, Celestial Halo and Zarkandar also made it an important stop before their creditbable but ultimately unsuccessful raids on Cheltenham.

Significance rating: 3/5

Wild card:

Neptune Novices' Hurdle, Cheltenham
Average RPR: 155
Champion Hurdle winners: 2
2015-16 winner: Yorkhill

By chance rather than design, the Neptune Novices' Hurdle regularly turns into a speed test and, by dint of that, frequently serves as a passable trial for the following year's Champion Hurdle.

Considering the disparate routes are open those who have been competitive in the Neptune, it is quite remarkable how many wind up in the Champion Hurdle. Already this decade, three winners of the race (Peddlers Cross, The New One and Faugheen) have at least placed in the following year’s Champion Hurdle and Rock On Ruby, runner-up in the Neptune in 2011, won the Champion 12 months later.

Yanworth is once again the thread that links to this year’s Champion Hurdle. His only defeat over hurdles so far came in the Neptune, behind Yorkhill who remains something of a lingering spectre in this year’s Champion picture.

Significance rating: 3.5/5

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