Cheltenham: Sharjah could shine in less than stellar Champion Hurdle renewal

Galway Hurdle victory could point to stamina required to handle Cheltenham hill

 

The biggest Unibet Champion Hurdle field in over a decade lines up on day one of Cheltenham, underlining the perception of a race leaning vastly more towards quantity than quality.

Not that it always follows. Punjabi enjoyed his championship moment in the sun as a 22-1 shot in 2009 and won just one of his subsequent 11 races.

But no less than Istabraq beat 17 others in the first leg of his championship hat-trick in 1998 and proceeded to achieve legendary status.

That was the first of eight Champion Hurdle victories for his owner JP McManus, whose remarkable haul includes the last three renewals.

The sole mare in Tuesday’s big race is McManus’s Epatante, who has been favourite for weeks.

On the basis of the old adage about the bigger the field, the bigger the certainty, Epatante might look just that a few minutes after 3.30pm. But right now it’s hard to get definitive about any of the 17 runners.

For one thing Epatante reportedly coughed last week. She’s reported fine but in an already fretful health climate it’s hardly reassuring.

More broadly, the fact that much of opening day programme’s star quality comes in the following Close Bros Mares’ Hurdle – and the eagerly anticipated clash of Benie Des Dieux and Honeysuckle – suggests a championship as open as has been seen in a long time.

Glass half-full types will dress that up as competitive. The more sceptical might argue it suggests a sub-par Champion Hurdle.

Plenty suspect that if either of the two principals in the following mares’ race lined up in the Champion they would hold first-rate chances.

The fact they’ve opted out – and that such an opt-out exists – has automatically diluted the supposed main event to the extent that 17 hats have been thrown into the ring.

It could result in as underwhelming an outcome as 2002 Hors La Loi led home the less than stellar pair of Marble Arch and Bilboa.

Then again Hardy Eustace was a 33-1 ‘rag’ when he won in 2004 and proved he was the real deal when backing it up a year later in a vintage renewal.

Right now though it looks an opaque picture and there aren’t many of the 17 teams who will feel completely incapable of getting themselves a slice of the action.

Given her 7lb sex allowance Epatante could well bring a welcome sense of authority to the division.

The McManus team have been making confident noises about a mare who pitched up at last year’s festival for the mares novices’ hurdle, started a hot favourite, and spectacularly failed to fire.

The sort of performance expected then was instead served up in the Christmas Hurdle when Epatante won with style around Kempton’s billiard table-like circuit.

Cheltenham’s undulations are a very different proposition and while the after-effects of vaccination shots against equine flu – remember that – have been offered as an excuse for her sub-par festival display in 2019 it’s a worry that her one career blip came at the place that matters most.

Taking her on though represents a shot in the dark, with a lot of high-class but hardly standout performers in the mix.

The most objective eye in such circumstances usually comes from the handicapper and while it may sound simplistic, official ratings suggest that Sharjah is the best horse in the race.

Willie Mullins’s runner has a mark of 163. That’s 3lbs clear of the next top-rated, Jessica Harrington’s stalwart Supasundae.

They are among a seven-strong team of Irish-trained runners in the race with Mullins’s supplemented Cilaos Emery rated the best of them by the bookmakers.

His stable companion is more than twice the odds which isn’t surprising since Sharjah arrives here on the back of a dreadful run behind Honeysuckle in the Irish Champion.

Usually a slick jumper Sharjah ruined his chance with a bad mistake down the back so that run might be best ignored.

Giving him a shout also requires ignoring two previous festival defeats, although being brought down in last year’s Champion was hardly his fault.

The fact Sharjah could win a Galway Hurdle indicates a punishing final hill should be no difficulty and drying ground at Cheltenham could be a crucial plus.

Mullins’s son Patrick has enjoyed a productive partnership with the Rich Ricci-owned runner and is on board again.

No amateur has won the Champion Hurdle since Colin Magnier managed it on For Auction in 1982.

He sprang a 40-1 shock that year. Sharjah’s odds won’t be so extravagant but in the year that’s in it he could be a value priced option to assume the vacant championship throne.

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