MINE'S EARL GREY
Champion Hurdle hopeful Zaynar is a deep well we have yet to see the bottom of, writes Ian McClean
Barry Geraghty claimed last week that any one of the first 10 in the betting for the Champion Hurdle was capable of winning in mid-March. He was speaking in the shadow of Solwhit's victory in the Toshiba Irish Champion and the previous day's trial at Haydock where the jockey had partnered Punjabi to finish second to a resurgent Medermit.
One might safely assume that the "first 10 in the betting" reference didn't necessarily even include either Dunguib or Voler La Vedette, whose primary Festival targets are currently mooted as other than the Champion. So with many of the significant trials complete, how do we untangle a champion's web of intrigue that can count as many as a dozen as champion-elect less than six weeks prior to the day?
A decent starting point is last year's race given the perennial significance of Festival form. What looked very fashionable form at the time now looks like a bit of a mullet in flared trousers. That race featured the largest field since Morley Street won in 1991 and appeared to contain the best available (in the words of the following day's Racing Post, "it would be hard to nominate a single significant contender that did not make it to post").
Not many at the time placed much store in the time being slower than the earlier Supreme Novices, and with the hot favourite Binocular finishing so close in a nail-biter it appeared to give real substance to the form. However, like a buoyant 2007 economic forecast, hindsight can make us look foolish, and the value of what we perceived then looks counterfeit now.
Starting at the top, Punjabi has not won since March and apart from Celestial Halo (one win) none of the first 11 home has won a single hurdle race between them in the meantime. And Binocular is starting to look like last year's blonde.
Indeed the stark output from the class of 2009 has not been lost on the markets and at least three horses have emerged to supplant the cream of last season. It's not that Zaynar, Go Native, and Solwhit weren't displaying their quality last spring -- with the first two winning in their novice division at the Cheltenham Festival while Solwhit delivered the goods at both Punchestown and Aintree -- it is also that their trajectory this season has gone in the opposite direction to last year's principals.
The Top of the Hill syndicate must be pinching themselves every time Solwhit meets a racecourse, where the gelding has won 11 out of his 17 starts, and now can boast possessing the horse most bookmakers agree is the likeliest Champion Hurdle winner in their lists. What seemed expensive in Belgium when they bought the horse looks a positive bargain as they deduct it from the over half a million earnings to date.
Following his comprehensive win in the Toshiba last Sunday, his Festival credentials look rock-solid. A better jumper now than he was in his early excursions, he has the deadly triumvirate of class (last five hurdle wins have been Grade 1s); speed (won a November handicap on the Flat) and stamina (won Aintree Hurdle over two and a half miles). The main imponderable is his aptitude for Cheltenham, with the importance of course form a very strong influencer at the Festival. (Solwhit has actually gone to Cheltenham to compete in the International Hurdle in December 2008 but the meeting was lost to weather.) Significantly you have to go back to the middle of the last decade to find a Champion Hurdle winner which hadn't competed well at the course previously.
Timeform made the point in the current Chasers and Hurdlers of comparing Go Native "a Grade 1-winning hurdler raced at around two miles which travels strongly but doesn't always find so much as expected, trained by Noel Meade and ridden by Paul Carberry" to . . . guess who? Harchibald famously never won a Champion but Go Native just might. Timeform goes on to opine that Go Native "could find winning a Grade 1 beyond him outside novice company". Once again the value of hindsight.
From four races this year Go Native has amassed two Grade 1s and a Grade 2, with one of those (Fighting Fifth) coming at the expense of Solwhit. He has improved enormously on what he achieved as a novice in a faster time than Punjabi's Champion on the same day, although that included the Supreme Novices at the Festival, and his form entitles him to his lofted position in the ante-post market.
The third contender to emerge this season is Zaynar. When Katchit won the Champion two years ago it gave lie to the dossier of stats that had accumulated around the ability of five-year-olds to win the race. Up until then none had triumphed since See You Then in 1985, and over 90 had tried. What was virtually a commandment became a shattered tablet after Katchit gritted out victory in the slowest time since Celtic Shot needed a calendar, not a stopwatch, to record his win in 1988.
'The Triumph winner who went on to win the Champion' once resurrected, almost found Groundhog Day 12 months later when Celestial Halo went within an ace of nailing Punjabi in March. So can Zaynar resume the novel trend?
Time will tell but I have little doubt that the quality of the field in the 2009 Triumph was of greater calibre than the two previous renewals. The sixth that day (Reve De Sivola) has won a Grade 1 and Grade 2 already this year; while fourth-placed Starluck went down by just the minimum margin to Go Native in the Christmas Hurdle. In addition, Triumph runner-up Walkon, sadly sidelined this season, won an Aintree Grade 1 on his next start.
Zaynar himself hasn't exactly stood still either, notching two Grade 2s so far this campaign. Significantly, he has been campaigned at beyond two miles this season, winning at Ascot and Cheltenham without being seriously tested. And therein lies the difficulty with Zaynar. Five from five over hurdles and we really don't know how good the the son of Daylami (out of a great grand-daughter of Petite Etoile) actually is. If he has an Achilles heel many will suggest it might be speed, because he obviously stays so well. So did Istabraq. We will not have the chance to discover the truth before D-Day as his next start will be in Borders country at Kelso in the Morebattle Hurdle over two and a quarter miles.
Cheekpieces were applied to sharpen up Zaynar's jumping for the first time in last season's Triumph. They have been an interesting omission thus far this season -- but will be reapplied on March 16. I strongly suspect Zaynar is a deep well we have yet to see the bottom of. Victor Chandler have been noticeably shortest about him in the market all year and Barry Geraghty has been notable for his reticence on the subject.
And if you check the leaves in your morning brew, I suspect you might just find the name of Nicky Henderson's grey.
2pts win Zaynar Champion Hurdle (6.3 Betfair)