A new winner of the Champion Hurdle will be crowned at this season’s Cheltenham Festival following the demise of reigning champion Espoir d’Allen and the non-participation of dual victor Buveur d’Air. Nicky Henderson is responsible for two of the leading horses in the ante-post markets but he can expect a strong challenge from the expected Irish raiders.
Epatante is the current favourite at about 7/2 for the 2020 Champion Hurdle although there have been recent concerns as to her well-being with Henderson assuring the public that all seems to be well. The 6-year-old mare has won both races this year at Newbury and Kempton but a disappointing effort in the Mares’ hurdle race at last season’s festival is a concern.
A ninth-placed effort when favourite for that contest raises doubts as to whether she can handle the undulations of Cheltenham, and that loss is her only defeat in five races over hurdles. She still has much to prove at this course.
Stable companion and second favourite Pentland Hills won the JCB Triumph Hurdle at the Festival last season and then won at Aintree, but he has failed to score in two races this season. He was particularly disappointing when fading to finish fifth in the International Hurdle at Cheltenham back in December.
There were signs of progress when narrowly finishing second behind the fast-finishing Ballyandy at Haydock and it may just be he prefers better ground and this time of the year. Pentland Hills will have the advantage of being a previous course winner while Ballyandy could also be a participant in this race although winning a race of this prestige for the first time may be a demanding task for a 9-year-old.
Nicky Henderson is also likely to saddle Fusil Raffles in this contest although he produced a poor effort when pulling up in his previous contest back in late December. He ran too freely in that Grade 1 Christmas Hurdle but if he can recapture the form of last season when impressively winning both juvenile races, the 5-year-old could be a leading player at 16/1.
Among the potential Irish challengers for this race, Honeysuckle was the more favoured but she will contest the later mares’ hurdle while Supasundae and Sharjah are other possible participants. The former horse is trained by Jessica Harrington and has raced just once this season when a close fourth behind Honeysuckle at Leopardstown.
That two miles distance may have been slightly sharp for the 10-year-old gelding but a more demanding test around the undulations of Cheltenham could be more suitable. As for Sharjah, the Willie Mullins trained horse is an inconsistent type but did win a Grade 1 Hurdle at Leopardstown back in December. She may also prefer better ground than the heavy conditions prevalent this Winter.
Added to the field has been Cilaos Emery from the Mullins yard. The 8-year-old fell in the Ladbrokes Dublin Chase but then comfortably won the Red Mills Hurdle. He was always viewed as more of a chaser so his return to hurdling is interesting.