Ahead of the National Hunt season getting back into full swing this autumn, an untimely injury to reigning Champion Hurdle hero Espoir D’Allen that resulted in him being put down means a new favourite for the Cheltenham Festival feature.
The Gavin Cromwell trained five-year-old wasn’t on the tip of many tipsters’ tongues when he romped home to Grade 1 glory in March by a record 15 lengths. Espoir D’Allen was only just back from a summer break when tragedy struck as he got spooked coming back off the gallops, then reared up and fell over.
In his absence, who are the early contenders for the 2020 Champion Hurdle?
Willie Mullins trained French import – sound familiar? Three-time novice Grade 1 winner Klassical Dream takes over from Espoir D’Allen as 7/2 favourite at 888Sport in the Champion Hurdle betting on horse racing at the 2020 Cheltenham Festival.
Why? The son of Dream Well has defied his stamina laden pedigree with victories at the Dublin Racing Festival, Cheltenham Festival and Punchestown Festival. That hat-trick of big meeting wins came on different types of going and all at the highest level.
Klassical Dream was in short, the best two-mile novice hurdler around last year, as demonstrated by facile successes in the Supreme at Cheltenham and the Herald Champion at Punchestown. Now stepping into open company, he’s younger than all four of the yard’s previous successes if heading to the Champion Hurdle aged six in the spring.
There’s still live in dual race winner Buveur D’Air yet. Although he went crashing out when falling in the back straight seeking a Champion Hurdle hat-trick back in March, the Nicky Henderson trained eight-year-old has proved himself no worse for that tumble by bouncing back at Punchestown.
Usually a slick hurdler, Buveur D’Air will likely come under pressure from younger horses in his own yard when the British jumps season returns in earnest. It’s not unprecedented that a horse who will be nine come the 2020 Cheltenham Festival can win the Champion Hurdle.
Hurricane Fly regained the title in 2013 at that age after finishing third the previous year and first winning the race for Mullins in 2011. Buveur D’Air is 11/2 to emulate that horse and reclaim his crown for Irish owner JP McManus.
Sticking with those hailing from the Seven Barrows yard of Henderson, Triumph Hurdle hero Pentland Hills finished last season off on a seriously upward curve. After bolting up on his jumps debut at Plumpton, the son of Motivator went straight to the Cheltenham Festival and won the big juvenile race.
Pentland Hills had been nothing but a low-class middle-distance handicapper on the Flat when in the care of Chris Wall. It takes a true training genius like Henderson to transform a sort like this into a hot hurdling prospect.
After triumphing in the Triumph, Pentland Hills went on to capture more Grade 1 glory at Aintree during the Grand National meeting. Like so many juveniles before him, however, the acid test comes when stepping into open company. Many horses struggle to adjust straightaway and a 10/1 ante post quote for the Champion Hurdle reflects this.
Another smart Henderson juvenile representing Simon Munir and Isaac Souede is Punchestown’s Champion Four-Year-Old victor Fusil Raffles. A winner of both his starts for the Lambourn handler, he had to miss Cheltenham and Aintree due to a setback.
Fusil Raffles had no problem accounting for Fakir D’Oudairies – rated so highly by connections that he previously ran in the Supreme instead of the Triumph – and Fairyhouse Grade 2 winner French Made. After just two runs in the British Isles, this French import remains very unexposed.
And yet Fusil Raffles faces the same issues as stable companion Pentland Hills. Open company means four-year-olds taking on more physically developed racehorses and the weight-for-age only goes so far. That’s why he’s a 14/1 shot for the 2020 Champion Hurdle, but there’s definitely more to come.