Champion Hurdle 2019

Champion Hurdle 2019

At the time of writing, the Cheltenham Festival is less than three weeks away and the feature race on Day One, the Champion Hurdle, seems increasing likely to involve a set-to between, or among, leading trainers Willie Mullins, Nicky Henderson and Gordon Elliott.

Of course, Henderson is responsible for the defending champion, and favourite, Buveir D’Air, who seeks to emulate Hatton’s Grace, Sir Ken, Persian War, See You Then and Istabraq by winning the race three years in a row. Now an 8-year-old, Buveur D’Air may have lost his air of invincibility when turned over, albeit narrowly, by his stable companion Verdana Blue in the Christmas Hurdle on Boxing Day, but still looks a worthy favourite at around the 2/1 mark. With a Timeform Annual Rating of ‘just’ 167, he may not be quite as good as See You Then, also trained by Henderson, but that may not stop him winning.

Next best, at least in the antepost market, is Apple’s Jade, trained by Gordon Elliott, at 9/4. The mare, who receives a 7lb allowance from Buveur D’Air in the Champion Hurdle, was beaten at odds of 1/2 in the David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle last year, but is 4-4 this term and did not appear to be inconvenienced by dropping back to the minimum trip in the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown in early February.

Willie Mullins, who last won the Champion Hurdle with Annie Power in 2016, may saddle another top-class mare, Laurina, who is unbeaten in six starts – five of them at odds-on – since joining the Co. Carlow trainer from Guillaume Macaire in France two seasons ago. She has yet to be seriously challenged, including in the Dawn Run Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival last year and, while her one Grade One win, at Fairyhouse last April, was effectively a “shoe-in”, it’s difficult to know just how good she is. The fact that she’s third favourite for the Champion Hurdle is a fair indication, though, and anyone who ignores her does so at their peril.

Looking beyond the leading trio, anyone looking for an out-and-out ‘punt’ in the Champion Hurdle could do worse than to consider Evan Williams’ 6-year-old Silver Streak, who can be backed at 50/1 antepost. The Dark Angel gelding has yet to race, never mind win, at Grade One level, but needs an end-to-end gallop – which he’ll almost certainly get in the Champion Hurdle – to be seen at his best. He could, yet, surprise one or two of his apparently more illustrious rivals.

1.30 Southwell, Tuesday, December 18

1.30 Southwell, Tuesday, December 18  In the Betway Heed Your Hunch Handicap (1.30) at Southwell on Tuesday, Black Salt steps back up into 0-80 company, but won a 0-65 affair over course and distance two starts ago, on his Fibresand debut, so convincingly that he may be capable of defying a 6lb rise in the weights even in this higher grade. David Barron’s four-year-old has since run respectably in defeat, off today’s revised mark, when third of 12, beaten 2½ lengths, behind Burtonwood in another 0-65 on the Tapeta surface at Wolverhampton, but it is his previous Fibresand form that makes him of particular interest.

On his only previous visit to Southwell, off a handicap mark of 64, he stayed on strongly to beat the ill-fated Huntsman Close by 4½ lengths, with subsequent winner Declamation a further 4 lengths back in third and Roaring Rory, who also won next time, a neck behind in fourth. Consequently, that form looks a good deal stronger than it did at the time and with Robert Winston – who has a highly respectable 13-67 (19%) strike rate for the yard over the years – taking the ride, another forward showing looks on the cards.

Black Salt has been tried over 7 furlongs, and a mile, in the past, but on recent evidence sprinting looks his game and he might just become a regular visitor to the winners’ enclosure at the much-maligned Nottinghamshire track if his promising opening effort is anything to go by. As ever, only time will tell.

Selection: Southwell 1.30 Black Salt to win 4/1

Joe Mercer

Joe Mercer  Joseph Mercer, popularly known as “Smokin’ Joe” because of his trademark pipe, rode 2,810 winners in Britain in a career spanning nearly 40 years, but is probably best known for his association with two horses, Brigadier Gerard and Bustino.

 

Brigadier Gerard, who was ridden exclusively by Mercer throughout his career, was beaten just once in 18 races between 1970 and 1972. His successes included the Prince of Wales’s Stakes at Royal Ascot in 1972, just two days after the light aircraft in which Mercer was travelling crashed during take-off at Newbury, killing the pilot. Bustino won the 1974 St. Leger Stakes at Doncaster, but his most notable performance came a year later, in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot, when he went down by half a length to Grundy, ridden by Pat Eddery, in what became known as the “Race of the Century”.

 

Born in Bradford, Yorkshire in 1934, Joe Mercer began his riding career as apprentice to Major Frederick Sneyd at Sparsholt, Wantage and rode his first winner, Eldoret, at Bath in 1950. He won the Apprentice Jockeys Championship for the first time in 1952 and again in 1953, by which time he had already ridden his first Classic winner, Ambiguity, in the Oaks at Epsom. That success brought Mercer to the attention of Jack Colling, who had just moved from Newmarket to West Isley, Berkshire. Colling immediately offered Mercer a retainer, which was to last until Colling retired in 1962.

 

However, the intervening years were not without incident. In 1958, Joe Mercer broke his neck while riding in Singapore and, having married Anne Carr, daughter of jockey Harry Carr, the following year, suffered the trauma of being present at Ascot on Queen Elizabeth II Stakes Day when his older brother, Manny, was killed in a riding accident.

 

According to eye witness Geoff Lewis, Manny Mercer’s mount reared over backwards, landing on top of him, and kicked him twice in the face as it tried to get back on its feet. It wasn’t until after the race, in which he was riding, that Joe Mercer became aware of what had happened, by which time his brother was already dead and laid out on a stretcher.

 

Upon his retirement in 1962, Jack Colling sold the West Isley Stables to a long standing patron, Sir John Astor. Sir John invited Major W.R. ‘Dick’ Hern to become Colling’s successor and so began another fruitful association for Joe Mercer. Michael Sobell and Arnold Weinstock bought the stables in 1969 and, at the end of 1976, Weinstock sacked Mercer in favour of Willie Carson.

 

Joe Mercer was subsequently offered a job with Ian Balding but, while mulling it over, was offered the chance to become first jockey for Henry Cecil at Warren Place, Newmarket. Mercer jumped at the chance and the partnership flourished. Mercer won his first Classic for Henry Cecil on One In A Million in the 1,000 Guineas in 1979 and Cecil was instrumental in him becoming Champion Jockey for the one and only time that year, at the age of 45, with 167 winners. According to Mercer, towards the end of the season Cecil ran several juveniles that usually wouldn’t have run until the following season, just to make sure he won the jockeys’ title.

 

In 1982, Joe Mercer parted company with Henry Cecil and joined Lambourn trainer Peter Walwyn, for whom he was to remain stable jockey until he finally hung up his boots in 1985. His final mount, Bold Rex, won the November Handicap at Doncaster on November 9, 1985. During his career, Mercer won the 1,000 Guineas, 2,000 Guineas (twice), the Oaks and the St. Leger (four times) and his rhythmic style was copied by many aspiring young jockeys.

2.15 Newmarket, Friday, November 9

2.15 Newmarket, Friday, November 9  In the Christmas at the Heath Court Handicap (2.15) at Newmarket on Friday, Kasbaan appeared to have benefited from wind surgery earlier in the year when returning from a 159-day absence to readily account for odds-on favourite Welsh Lord in a novice stakes at Lingfield last month. The Dansili colt starts life in handicap company on a stiff enough mark, but remains open to further significant improve on his second start back from a break and just his fourth start in all. Of course, he has to prove that he’s at least as effective on the prevailing good to soft going on the Rowley Mile Course at Newmarket as he is on the Polytrack at Lingfield, but his racecourse debut – over a mile, on soft going, at Newbury last October – wasn’t without promise, so he should be fine on that score.

Of 19 three-year-olds that trainer Owen Burrows has saddled on the Rowley Mile in recent years, four have won, five have finished second and one has finished third, giving the Lambourn handler a 21% strike rate and an enviable level stakes profit of 18.00 points. Jockey David Probert is similarly 4-22 (18%) for the yard over the last five seasons, for a level stakes profit of 19.07, so the statistics offer cause for optimism. Kasbaan ran over course and distance, without distinction, on his seasonal debut in April, but his latest Lingfield effort was much more like it and he deserves another chance to demonstrate his ability on turf.

Selection: Newmarket 2.15 Kasbaan to win 9/4