Solwhit to underline class on hurdling red-letter day
On a weekend when we have so far been presented with the first few pieces of each of the separate jigsaws that will occupy everyone's mind in the coming months leading up to March, we are faced with another potentially highly informative day at both Cheltenham and Punchestown.
The Champion Hurdle market is the puzzle for which we may find the most pieces, with the Grade One Dobbins & Madigans at Punchestown Hurdle the feature at home and the informative Greatwood Hurdle, the feature race on the last day of the Paddy Power Open meeting across the sea.
The Irish challenge for the Champion Hurdle has diminished in recent seasons, with no Irish winner of the race itself since Sublimity took a weak renewal four seasons ago. Aside from Hurricane Fly, second favourite in the ante-post markets, and perhaps Dunguib, which will be campaigned in the second half of this season according to Philip Fenton, Ireland's challenge looks quite short again this year.
The line-up of only four runners for what was formerly commonly known as the Morgiana Hurdle is disappointing but not surprising given the recent history of the race. Three of last four renewals contained only four runners.
It is usually a quality-over-quantity-type contest anyway, but the defection of last season's Rabobank Champion Hurdle winner Hurricane Fly is another disappointment.
But the race contains three relatively young horses, each open to more improvement, and today's contest should provide a good guide to the top hurdle races in Ireland for the rest of the season.
Solwhit, which won this race last season and then went on to take last season's Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown, was made favourite by most bookmakers when the absence of Hurricane Fly was announced. The forecast heavy ground should play to his strengths and although his trainer Charles Byrnes voiced concerns last week that the six-year-old may not be as forward as he was this time last year, his class should make him tough to beat here.
Colm Murphy's Voler La Vedette, which was a very impressive winner on her seasonal debut at Punchestown last month, has fitness on her side but the likely slow pace that may develop today probably wouldn't be in her favour. Noel Meade's Donnas Palm may provide the bigger threat to the favourite.
There won't be much time to digest the race afterwards because over at Cheltenham, the Greatwood Hurdle is scheduled to go off five minutes after the Punchestown showpiece. Although the race is only a Grade Three handicap, it has been a really good race for identifying top-class horses. Part of the reason why that is so is because it will take a performance of a 165-plus rated horse to win it off a big weight. Khyber Kim, which won last year off a mark of 143, eventually ended up a 165-rated horse when second to Binocular in last season's Champion Hurdle.
Looking at this year's event, it seems as though there are five horses which could go on to fit that bracket. If the Phillip Hobbs-trained Menorah, last season's Supreme Novice Hurdle winner, won here carrying top weight with an official rating of 151, it will provide a big piece to the Champion Hurdle puzzle and he should be strongly considered for all the big hurdles later in the year.
The same criteria would apply to Jonjo O'Neill's Get Me Out Of Here which is rated 150, and which finished second to Menorah in the Supreme Novice. He will have to improve on his previous run though, which he may have needed when well beaten in a listed handicap hurdle at Ascot two weeks ago. The Paul Nicholls-trained Sanctuaire and Nicky Henderson's General Miller, both rated 146, are two also to consider.
The aforementioned horses are potentially top class, but it could also be that they are not up to Champion Hurdle standard just yet. If that were the case, Alan King's Manyriverstocross, which gets in off a mark of 138, may go very close.