Thursday 22 March 2018

Henderson can have last laugh with Oscar

Julian Muscat

Nicky Henderson and his ability to defy the odds have become all too familiar in the last two runnings of the Champion Hurdle.

His Punjabi downed better-fancied stablemate Binocular in 2009, while the latter obliged last year after he had been verbally ruled out in the build-up.

And despite Binocular's shock withdrawal this time round, Henderson can still have the last laugh with Oscar Whisky in the Stan James-sponsored showpiece (3.20) at Cheltenham today.

Hurricane Fly and Menorah pose the biggest threats in a wide-open contest, with Kyber Kim, runner-up 12 months ago, most attractive among those at longer odds. In Oscar Whisky, however, they encounter an opponent with plenty of scope to find the improvement required for victory.

It won't take much. Oscar Whisky finished four lengths behind Menorah -- and two adrift of Dunguib -- when fourth in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle over this course and distance 12 months ago.

Yet those are just the bare bones. Unbeaten in four starts until then, Oscar Whisky had never raced in earnest -- and that betrayed him when the tempo quickened. Nevertheless, he learnt plenty on his sole defeat in seven starts to date.

The benefit of that experience was plain to see on Oscar Whisky's seasonal comeback, when he returned to Cheltenham to toy with Any Given Day, Celestial Halo and Karabak. That performance alone gives him attractive prospects, and he will have derived further benefit from a recent effortless victory that completed a pleasing preparation.

Oscar Whisky's critics highlight his occasionally suspect jumping and the fact his two wins this term have been gained at two and a half miles.

The latter is of no consequence; Hardy Eustace won over that trip as a novice, and he went on to win the hurdling blue riband twice. By contrast, Oscar Whisky's jumping causes some concern, but in the credit column, odds of 8/1 are freely available.

Stamina is Peddlers Cross' strong suit, although his penchant for racing close to the pace leaves him vulnerable to burnout. He was all out to lead approaching the last over an extra half-mile here last year, and Cheltenham's much-reduced run-in will not play to his strengths.

Conversely, it should suit Hurricane Fly, whose acceleration will be played late by Ruby Walsh. Though physically fragile, the Willie Mullins-trained Montjeu gelding has always looked a class act.

He was superior to Binocular on the Flat in France, but what sways the argument is his tendency to jump right. That could cost him valuable ground in a race where seven of the 11 runners are separated by just 5lbs on official ratings.

At more than double Hurricane Fly's odds, Oscar Whisky represents much better value.

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