Matt Brocklebank is taking on last year's Champion Hurdle one-two with one of the leading novices from last season - find out who our man fancies for the big one.
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ABACADABRAS (16/1 General 1/5 1,2,3) has his quirks but, having doubled in price following the first below-par run of his life, he looks the one to be on in the Unibet Champion Hurdle.
Gordon Elliott’s horse was essentially the second-best novice hurdler in Ireland last season, beating Latest Exhibition three lengths in the For Auction Novice Hurdle and finishing a length and a half second to Envoi Allen in the Royal Bond fair evidence of that, and he very nearly beat Shishkin in the Sky Bet Supreme at Cheltenham.
The considerable improvement the horse made between winning Leopardstown’s four-runner Future Champions Novice Hurdle in rather underwhelming fashion last Christmas to almost landing the Festival curtain-raiser didn’t seem to come as much of a surprise either, having been one of the best-backed horses of the day.
The 2020 Supreme was a strong edition. It was run in a quick time and has already produced nine subsequent winners (including Allart, Chantry House and Edwardstone), which isn’t bad going considering we lost the likes of Aintree, Punchestown and other major late-season meetings which typically contribute to that tally. And Abacadabras has done his bit by winning the Grade One Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown in mid-November.
That came on the back of a relatively ring-rusty second behind Aspire Tower in the WKD Hurdle at Down Royal and he went into last month’s Matheson Hurdle as one of the fancied horses (3/1).
Fitted with a tongue-tie for the first time in his career, it just didn’t happen for him back at Leopardstown.
He didn’t jump anywhere near as slickly as he can, he lost his pitch and briefly got stopped in his run, before weakening quickly from the approach to the last flight.
A small excuse came to light post-race with the vet reporting to have found mucus in his trachea and, in hindsight, he wasn't the only horse from the yard to take a dip in form over the festive period, but he won’t be winning much on that evidence alone, and certainly no Champion Hurdle.
Whether Elliott is able to quickly freshen Abacadabras up and regroup before the Irish Champion Hurdle on February 6 will be interesting to discover, but a ‘straight to Cheltenham’ battle cry wouldn’t be the worst development given connections opted to miss last year’s Dublin Racing Festival en route to the Supreme.
If that’s the case he’ll be sneaking in under the radar again and, providing he’s back on song, is entitled to be a serious danger to anything in the field with a touch more improvement to come on some spring ground.
Speed is his number one weapon and the pretty sharp Old Course at Cheltenham clearly plays to his strengths. A big field and guaranteed strong gallop of a Champion will also help as he probably got there too soon for everyone’s liking in the Supreme, before just being run out of it by the well above-average winner (he was running on again right at the death).
Epatante also has an awful lot to prove after Christmas but is also a whole lot harder to forgive as the 9/4 favourite, while Sharjah – second to Nicky Henderson’s mare last March – looked better than ever in the Matheson and is surely going to give Honeysuckle a serious race back at his beloved Leopardstown next month.
Buveur D’Air is reportedly back in great shape ahead of his return at Haydock this weekend and - providing the meeting beats the weather - could conceivably halve in price from his current 16/1 if jumping and galloping with all of his old fluency.
The other potential pointer between now and the big day might come in the Betfair Hurdle at Newbury the weekend after the Irish Champion. Ballyandy, Buzz, For Pleasure, Not So Sleepy and Marie’s Rock are the handful of horses cross-entered, and the Henderson pair are still quite interesting.
Buzz (40/1 for the Champion Hurdle) was just shy of being a 100-rated Flat performer and his form in good handicaps so far this season stacks up really well. He was trying to give Not So Sleepy 6lb at Ascot when last seen and shaped really well in second after coming around the field on the wide outside.
The winner and third being prominent throughout gives the impression Buzz’s effort can probably be marked up and he’s not out of it off a 4lb higher mark (152) in the Betfair.
Marie’s Rock (80/1 with bet365) could probably win the Newbury handicap from her current mark of 141 without screaming Champion Hurdle contender, but it wouldn’t be a complete surprise if she ultimately takes that route at the Festival despite obvious alternatives like the County Hurdle or Mares' Hurdle over a longer trip.
Even further afield, it’s hard to sign off without the briefest mention of James Du Berlais.
He’s reportedly been showing Willie Mullins all the right sings since joining from Robert Collet, for whom he won Listed and Grade Three hurdles before being beaten a short-head in an Auteuil Grade One when last sighted in November.
He’s 50/1 generally for Cheltenham with Mullins on record stating he could go straight there, ahead of Punchestown and back to France in the springtime, all being well.
He’s a fascinating long-term project, but doesn’t quite make the staking plan for this preview.
Posted at 0800 GMT on 20/01/21
Matt Brocklebank is assessing the 2021 Cheltenham Festival markets and will be publishing his antepost previews in the build-up to the big meeting over the coming weeks.
In recent seasons, our man has identified big-priced winners of the Paddy Power Gold Cup (Baron Alco, 12/1) and Ladbrokes Trophy, striking rich in the Newbury feature with back-to-back 33/1 victors Sizing Tennessee and De Rasher Counter.
Matt also enjoyed a fantastic Flat season in 2020, having put up Love to win the 1000 Guineas at 16/1 and the same horse to win the Investec Oaks at 20/1, among others - he's now aiming to add to those profits with long-range selections for the 2021 Cheltenham Festival. Click here or on the image below for the full schedule and already advised tips.