The Ladbrokes World Hurdle has enjoyed a fantastic history since first gaining its title.
This has been a golden era for staying hurdlers with the likes of Barracuda, Iris’s Gift, Inglis Drever and Big Bucks all raising the profile of this division, before the classy Solwhit won the absent Big Bucks’ crown last year.
Sadly, Solwhit has been ruled out of a title defence following a recent setback, which in theory opens the door for the returning four-time winner of the race Big Bucks.
The Cleeve Hurdleraised as many questions as it answered, as Big Bucks’ unbeaten run, stretching back to the 2008 Hennessy Gold Cup, was ended by Knockara Beau and a rejuvenated At Fishers Cross.
Racing moves on quickly and it is rare that an aged horse regains a Cheltenham title after injury. Big Bucks is now 11 and in reality, whilst his recent run will was hugely encouraging and proved he can mix it still – not to mention how much the race will have brought him on, nobody is going to know for sure whether he has fully recovered from his injury and whether he retains all of his old zest until the pressure is on in the World Hurdle itself.
Undoubtedly on paper, his best would seem good enough to win this renewal but his price we feel is too short given there are too many questions that will only be answered when it matters most.
At Fishers Cross had looked a real live contender for this race at season’s start but has proved hugely disappointing to date, with jumping errors casting a big shadow over his ability to perform at this level. He was still not entirely foot perfect at hurdles last time but his Cleeve Hurdle run suggested he is coming back to his best. We feel soft conditions around Cheltenham would very much be to his benefit in the World Hurdle.
Reve De Sivola seems to really enjoy Ascot and retained his Long Walk Hurdle crown in fine style in December. However, he was always soundly beaten behind the old Big Bucks and that scenario was repeated as he put in a shocker in the Cleeve Hurdle. He has come up short in championship races at every attempt and at present, we feel he needs to improve if he is to even have place claims and again would probably act best in soft conditions.
At this stage, the World Hurdle is a hugely difficult race to size up accurately, given the number of horses with multiple Festival entries.
Annie Power would appear to have a mighty chance if turning up here. She remains unbeaten in nine races and on New Year’s Day proved she is effective at Cheltenham, when slamming Zarkandar for a second time. She will of course receive a sex allowance and only time will tell whether she runs in this race or the Champion Hurdle.
Zarkandar himself has dual entries but seems just short of Champion Hurdle class – he loves Cheltenham and would be a very interesting and classy recruit to the 3 mile division, although trainer Paul Nicholls has real depth to his challenge.
That challenge is bolstered by Celestial Halo, who has now finished runner-up in both the Champion Hurdle and World Hurdle and remains as talented as ever. Daryl Jacobs has reportedly stated he is his favourite horse and preference to Big Bucks, who runs in the same Andy Stewart colours. He represents the best of last season’s World Hurdle form and should be respected.
From the same connections, Salubrious is a young and improving horse but seems to have a bit to find perhaps at the highest level, while Saphir Du Rheu was a hugely impressive recent winner of the Lanzarote Hurdle off a big weight and could be anything.
More Of That is a fascinating novice who gets an entry and beat Salubrious at Cheltenham in December. He probably needs to find more improvement to figure here but that word aptly describes his progressive this season. Should More Of That run, he could present jockey AP McCoy with a dilemma and difficult choice with At Fishers Cross due to run also. Jonjo O’Neill has also entered Festival winner Holywell, who stays well and might appreciate a return to hurdles after some slightly disappointing novice chase efforts.
Another interesting entry who has been chasing is Alan King’s Smad Place. Of course the stable has been under a cloud for several weeks but before then, Smad Place had stamped himself potentially a smart novice chaser and it is likely he will be aimed at something like the RSA Chase. That said, the grey has finished third in the last two World Hurdles and should he run, could not be dismissed lightly.
Fingals Bay is another potentially exciting entry. As a novice hurdler he was a smart recruit, giving Simonsig a run for his money. He then embarked on an anti-climatic novice chase campaign last season, which resulted in him jumping erratically out to his left and crashing through the wings of a fence at Exeter and injuring himself. He has not been seen on a racecourse for over 14 months now, making his entry for the World Hurdle an intriguing one, given his level of form over hurdles.
A whole myriad of potential Irish runners have been entered along with Annie Power – and most of them could equally run elsewhere. Quevega has won for five consecutive years but is surely going to target the David Nicholson Mares race, whilst Boston Bob was a smart novice chaser before returning to hurdles this season. He could yet run in the Gold Cup and was a disappointing runner in the Cleeve Hurdle and now has a lot to prove at the highest level in staying hurdles races.
Monksland is an interesting and very classy entry, who looked like he might play a big role in last season’s race before his season was curtailed by injury. He has yet to race this season but Noel Meade’s yard is gradually coming back to form and he has reported that he hopes to get a run into Monksland before Cheltenham.
Thousand Stars would be lightly dismissed if running, while Zaidpour has seemed an improved horse this season and is yet another additional to the Mullins’ ranks.
We feel that this is likely to prove a very open renewal and it would not shock us if there was a big priced “surprise” in the 2014 Ladbrokes World Hurdle. Perhaps one horse that has been a little overlooked is the consistent Rule The World; a smart novice hurdler who then suffered an injury. Mouse Morris has brought him along nicely and he has run well since returning and might appreciate better spring ground.
Another interesting dark horse is the smart ex-Flat horse Whispering Gallery. After a couple of years off the track, having been campaigned at the prestigious 2011 Dubai Carnival, Whispering Gallery won both his novice hurdle races for John Ferguson last season and made a satisfactory return in dire conditions at Cheltenham this season. He lacks experience but we feel that the Ferguson yard could be interesting if we have a good ground Cheltenham Festival.
In summary, at the moment there are too many possibilities at present and we feel it is best for punters to wait until we have the final complexion of the race. It is a little frustrating that a championship race should have so many imponderables due to multi-entries and it makes it a little harder to look forward to the race this far out, notwithstanding the return of Big Bucks.
Next week Course-specialist will take a look at the entries for the Ryanair Chase and thereafter we will continue our Cheltenham Festival build-up with a look at the history of the big 3 races: The Champion Hurdle, Queen Mother Champion Chase and Cheltenham Gold Cup.