In last year’s Stan James Champion Hurdle, the Willie Mullins trained Hurricane Fly won in dominant fashion. The biggest hurdling event in the National Hunt season has a history of throwing up repeat winners, with five horses having completed the hat trick (including the immense Istabraq) and many more back to back winners, so it’s easy to see why the reigning champion is as short as 1.67 for a 2012 victory. But surely there must be some value to be found elsewhere in the race…?

Last year, Hurricane Fly powered up the hill on his Cheltenham Festival (and indeed anywhere in England) debut to see off some seriously talented hurdlers. The horse is a best price of just 1.83 (SportingBet) to defend his Champion Hurdle title in 2012, and it’s easy to see why, given the manner of last year’s victory.

Hurricane Fly ticks all of the required boxes and is genuine “Festival Banker” material, but from an antepost betting perspective, there’s really little point in smashing into the horse at puny odds, knowing that anything can happen between now and March 13th, so I’m going to try and find a small Each-Way bet just to keep things interesting and to please those of us that like a bigger priced punt.

As always, we’ll start with some key trends and as is the case with so many of the big Cheltenham Festival races, previous Festival form is very important. We need a horse that can not only perform in top class company, but can handle the incredibly testing nature of the Cheltenham racecourse, particularly its famously tough uphill finish. With regards the Champion Hurdle, 16 of the previous 20 winners had placed in a Cheltenham Festival race, while 16 of the last 23 winners had all won a race at the course, if not the Festival itself.

Current form is crucial too. We need to be looking for a horse that is approaching the absolute peak of fitness and conditioning, as this is the most prestigious hurdle race in the world and as such, obviously attracts the best quality hurdlers. No horse finishing way down the field in its last race is going to suddenly improve beyond all expectations to see off the classiest of hurdlers the world has to offer. 24 of the last 28 winners had won (that’s right – won, not placed) their last race coming into the Festival.

On a similar note, all of the last seventeen Champion hurdle winners ran during the same calendar year. Again, we need to find a horse nearing its peak, not a horse that’s been off the racecourse for more than three months. This is just as important as the result of the last race, if not more so, in my mind.

Age in the Champion Hurdle is an interesting one. Since 1985, just one five year old (from over 80 runners) has managed to land the race (Katchit, in 2008). But there is a little evidence to suggest that this could be changing, as when you look at the twelve horses that have placed in the Champion Hurdle since then, five of them were aged five. However, my gut feeling is that it’s tricky to argue with more than a quarter of a century’s worth of history, so I’ll be eliminating the five year olds.

Sticking with age, only three Champion Hurdlers since 1951 have been nine or older, so it’s clear that our ideal age range should be six to eight years old.

The head of the betting is usually the place to be with the Champion Hurdle, as 17 of the last 21 winners started the race in the first five of the market. A third of the last 21 Champion Hurdlers have gone off as favourite too, which isn’t especially discouraging to fans of Hurricane Fly.

If there were any doubt in my mind before writing this article, it has surely been banished by now. Hurricane Fly really does look the likely winner of the 2012 Champion Hurdle, but if we like the horse at odds on, we might as well wait until the day of the race to back him.

In the meantime, I quite like the look of a couple of Each-Way antepost nibbles. First up is Final Approach whose current price of 101.00 with race sponsors Stan James completely baffles me. It’s actually possible to have a couple of pounds to win on Betfair at an enormous 260.00.

The horse has an entry in the World Hurdle too, but having recently failed at two and a half miles, you’d have to think that they would prefer the shorter Champion Hurdle trip. I can’t understand how the horse can be as short as 25/1 with Ladbrokes, but 100/1 with the race sponsors and it must surely be worth backing, if only to lay off in future. It even has Cheltenham Festival form, having beaten Get Me Out Of Here in the County Handicap Hurdle last year.

But the more realistic of the Each-Way nibbles in the 2012 Champion Hurdle has to be Rock On Ruby, who was so unlucky in last year’s Neptune Novices’ Hurdle when he went down by a short head to First Lieutenant. This season he’s been campaigned over the shorter trip of two miles, and has posted some brilliant results, winning a Listed Race and finishing a quarter-length runner up to Binocular at Kempton in the Christmas Hurdle.

He made Binocular work very hard that day on a course that he isn’t really suited to. At a best price of 15.00 (BetVictor, SportingBet) I think he rates as good Each-Way value, especially given his record at Cheltenham racecourse.

Advice:

The Stan James Champion Hurdle
Tuesday 13th March 2012, 15:20

Final Approach (Each-Way) @ 101.00 (Stan James)
Rock On Ruby (Each-Way) @ 15.00 (BetVictor or SportingBet)