Rarely has the betting market for a championship race at Cheltenham been as up in the air as this year’s Champion Hurdle, but Willie Mullins may once again have the answer in the two-mile hurdling showpiece.
The picture is likely to become clearer in the next two months but Mullins’ Sharjah has done little wrong since streaking to Galway Hurdle success nearly 18 months ago.
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Two Grade One triumphs have followed since then – the most recent in the Matheson Hurdle over Christmas at Leopardstown – and the seven-year-old is one of the most under-rated horses in training.
Sharjah – brought down in the race last year – travels beautifully off a good gallop and with a decent surface likely at the Cotswolds in March, he represents good value at 10/1. The trio ahead of him in the betting have questions to answer with Nicky Henderson’s Epatante (3/1) surging to favouritism have landed a sub-par Christmas Hurdle at Kempton.
The 7lb mares’ allowance is an obvious plus but her abject display in the Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle at last year’s Festival is a major worry and she is one to take on at the odds, as is stablemate Pentland Hills (7/1).
Last year’s Triumph Hurdle winner was beaten on his seasonal debut when racing keenly in last month’s International Hurdle and has it all to prove as a five-year-old, although last year’s ill-fated winner Espoir D’Allen did score at the same age.
Saldier (7/1) – also trained by Mullins (left) – impressed when landing the Morgiana in November but hasn’t made the track since with a minor setback adding to a frustrating career which saw him race just once last year.
His fitness will have to be proven in the spring while last year’s Supreme winner Klassical Dream (10/1) hasn’t trained on as expected, as of yet, but he could yet be another potent weapon for the Closutton maestro.
Henry de Bromhead’s Honeysuckle (10/1) could yet be the big name that this race has been crying out for with the unbeaten mare set for the PCI Irish Champion Hurdle at next month’s Dublin Racing Festival.
Victory might see her rerouted from the Mares’ Hurdle but Sharjah has done little wrong in the past two seasons and could be the one to take advantage of a weak division.