Scene set for big odds shock in uncertain Champion Hurdle
Irish Leger hero Wicklow Brave is huge price for Cheltenham festival feature
Jockey Rugby Walsh with trainer Willie Mullins out on the gallops on Monday morning. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho.
Time may yet prove 2017’s Stan James Champion Hurdle to be a vintage renewal but it looks anything but beforehand. So maybe stranger things will happen this week than the Cheltenham festival’s opening day highlight falling to the fastest horse in the race.
That Wicklow Brave has been a 33 to 1 outsider barely mentioned in the Champion Hurdle build-up is no surprise.
He is after all the second-choice of Willie Mullins’s two long-shot hopes of a fifth win in seven years and would barely have scraped into his own stable’s long-list of potential Champion Hurdle contenders at the start of the season.
However with the last two title-holders, Faugheen and Annie Power, on the sidelines, and a long list of other contenders that have failed to fire, this is a Champion Hurdle wide open for plucking by those who’ve actually managed to make it.
It’s why an iffy jumping technique hasn’t stopped Yanworth from topping betting lists, or another JP McManus hope, Buveur D’Air, reverting from fences and pressing for that favouritism on the back of a glorified odds-on school.
His stable companion Brain Power has won a couple of handicaps and the novice Moon Racer’s entire jumping career consists of a couple of runs, in contrast to the veterans, My Tent Or Yours and The New One, whose best days look behind them.
It’s a context that makes Petit Mouchoir’s claims entirely persuasive but even he began the season looking no star when third at Down Royal.
To his credit Henry De Bromhead’s recruit from Michael O’Leary’s September split with Willie Mullins has looked a transformed proposition since, winning twice at the top level.
He had just three parts of a length in hand of Footpad in the Irish Champion but that looked flattering to the runner-up who had sat off the quick pace while Petit Mouchoir was up there throughout.
Petit Mouchoir is undoubtedly Ireland’s number one contender and holds solid claims for giving Michael O’Leary a Champion Hurdle to go with his two Gold Cups.
Still it’s hardly encouraging for Petit Mouchoir followers that Daryl Jacob, who rode Footpad then, hasn’t seemed particularly perturbed as being steered towards the owner’s other hope, Sceau Royal, with Walsh on the apparent Mullins first-string.
It all adds to the overall sense of uncertainty about this Champion Hurdle and while arguing a race is wide-open often seems an invitation for the favourite to sluice up, arguing for value odds around Cheltenham is always sound. And in these particular championship circumstances, Wicklow Brave could present potential each-way value.
It’s not just that he’s the fastest horse in the race, although it’s undeniable that none of these would see which way last September’s Irish Leger winner would go on the flat. Wicklow Brave after all won the Leger from the 1 to 7 Order Of St George who subsequently ran third in the Arc.
Wicklow Brave’s one subsequent run came in the Melbourne Cup which is probably the most unlikely Champion Hurdle prep ever, part of a quirky profile that only adds to the horse’s own assortment of quirks that have made him something of an enigma over the years.
Yet he’s here, and while Mullins’s trying winter has been mostly focused on getting bigger names here, the trainer has consistently outlined his ambition to get Wicklow Brave to the Champion Hurdle.
Walsh has opted for Footpad but Paul Townend has always got on well with Wicklow Brave and the pair danced up in the County Hurdle here two years ago on similar ground conditions to what they face now.
Even if the suspicion remains Wicklow Brave is better on the flat, that County still represents high-class hurdles form and course form is always a plus around Cheltenham.
What’s intriguing though is how it’s almost 16 months since Wicklow Brave has run over hurdles, since when he has won a classic and displayed a previously unknown tactical versatility by landing that Leger from the front.
Two years ago proved he can come through from the back of a field here. But, in a race full of ifs and buts, the idea of such a quality animal getting loose on the lead, and possibly ignored, is tantalising.
Big odds winners have won the Champion Hurdle before, like Beech Road (50 to 1) and For Auction (40 to 1.) It’s 13 years since Hardy Eustace scored at 33 to 1. Plenty were willing to believe it was a fluke until he came back the following year and won it again.
None of these might manage that. But, in a year when so much seems uncertain, perhaps the scene is ripe for another big-odds shock.
1: Wicklow Brave 2: Yanworth 3: Brain Power