Monday 27 February 2017

Menorah has right credentials for Champion Hurdle glory

JA McGrath

Yet again, those that revel in the unpredictability of the Cheltenham Festival and the guarantee of a good story have not been disappointed.

Let's read the script. The favourite for the Champion Hurdle is scratched from the race two days before the meeting and the 15-time Champion Jockey is left without a ride in the race.

A mystery allergy is blamed and medicine that was used to treat the horse remains in his system. Sometimes fact is stranger than fiction. His absence has sparked major controversy that will rage long after the 27th and final Festival race has been run on Friday.

It is typical of what the Cheltenham Festival delivers that such a sensation should have opened the week in which all professionals involved in the sport face their most exacting examination of the year.

All that aside, this year's Stan James Champion Hurdle, the feature event on the opening day of the 100th Cheltenham Festival, promises a vintage running, even without reigning champion Binocular.

There is no better test of a Festival horse than experience of the demanding Cheltenham course and, in this area, the brilliant Menorah comes up trumps every time.

He won a particularly strong Supreme Novices' Hurdle 12 months ago and since then he has registered wins at Prestbury Park back in November (in handicap company) and December. To say he relishes the uphill run to the line is an understatement.

What's more, he is in very good hands. Philip Hobbs, the calmest and most level-headed of trainers, has kept Menorah tuned to the minute in his build-up to this ultimate test for a hurdler.

The six-year-old surprised his trainer when he was able to shoulder 11st 12lb to victory in the Greatwood Hurdle in November, giving that tough and capable handicapper Bothy 27lb and a neck beating. Menorah has all the hallmarks of a true champion, and he would still have been my confident selection even had Binocular been in a position to take his chance.

Peddlers Cross is unbeaten in six hurdle races and is a perfect example of why Donald McCain's reputation as a trainer continues to grow. The gelding, winner of last year's Neptune Investment Novices' Hurdle will stay every yard of the trip and is another which will like the challenge of Heartbreak Hill in the closing stages.

The booking of Ruby Walsh for Hurricane Fly will do no harm to the chances of this seven year-old, which carries the hopes of most Irish punters. He has persistently beaten Solwhit, which just is short of top class, in his prep races, but a horse can do no more than win and should not be criticised because of a lack of opposition.

Oscar Whisky, which was fourth to Menorah in last year's Supreme Novices, is now the sole representative of the Nicky Henderson stable and he could easily sneak a place. He certainly has the ability, boasting a record of four out of five over hurdles.

However, as far as I am concerned the value lies with the Alan King-trained Mille Chief, which is generally available at 14/1. He won his latest outing, Wincanton's Kingwell Hurdle, by a narrow margin from Celestial Halo, a winner since. In the race he travelled beautifully in behind the leaders only to make a meal of things in the home straight. The ground was more testing over the final two furlongs and I believe he will be better suited by today's surface.

Punters don't have long to wait for the first 'good thing' of the meeting. Cue Card will be popular for the opening race of the meeting, the Stan James Supreme Novices' Hurdle, but how ironic if, as I expect, the race is won by AP McCoy on a Barry Geraghty 'discard' Sprinter Sacre.

Stable confidence is high in Geraghty's mount Spirit Son, but I feel that Sprinter Sacre is sure to be suited by the hurly burley of this fast-run race and predict major improvement.

Whatever the disappointments for Binocular's owner JP McManus, I fancy he could enjoy a first day double with Sunnyhillboy and Garde Champetre. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

SELECTIONS

1.30 Sprinter Sacre

2.05 Captain Chris

2.40 Sunnyhillboy

3.20 Menorah (nap)

4.00 Garde Champetre

4.40 Quevega

5.15 Definity

Irish Independent

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