The Irish airline Ryanair, owned by Gigginstown Chief Michael O ‘Leary will be sponsoring the 2016 World Hurdle for the first time replacing previous sponsor Ladbrokes. The new sponsors will have several leading contenders going in to this year’s renewal at Cheltenham Festival 2016, headed by Grade Two winner Alpha Des Obeaux. The Mouse Morris trained six year old ran some fine races as a novice last season, finishing second to Douvan in the Moscow Flyer Novices Hurdle, finishing second to Nichols Canyon at Punchestown and travelling upside ante-post favourite and multiple Grade one winner Thistlecrack at the Grand National meeting, before falling. This season has seen two second place finishes by equal distances in the Grade One Hatton’s Grace Hurdle behind Arctic Fire, and in the Christmas Hurdle behind another Gigginstown horse, Prince of Scars.
The latter race might not have been ideal for Alpha Des Obeaux, as the winner of that race is a horse that thrives on heavy ground, the registered going that day at Leopardstown. Prince of Scars is unbeaten this season but I feel his chance depends very much on a soft/heavy surface, something he will not get at Cheltenham unless a serious bout of bad weather arrives. I would be happier to side with Alpha Des Obeaux who won last time out at Gowran Park defeating two time place horse in the World Hurdle, At Fishers Cross and last year’s Albert Bartlett hero, Martello Tower.
Martello Tower has been well beaten and disappointing in two starts this term, but he did win an Albert Bartlett at last year’s festival, and I feel he is a horse who needs building up and a good couple of runs to get going, therefore you cannot write him off. Thistlecrack is without doubt many peoples banker of the week going in to Cheltenham Festival 2016. The Grade One he won at Aintree has worked out well form wise, with several of the runners in that race including Vyta Du Roc, Roi Des Francs and Blaklion cementing themselves as solid performers in the novice chase ranks heading to the big week in March. The Punchestown form when finishing second to Killultagh Vic is no disgrace as he was ante-post favourite for the JLT Novices Chase before injury ruled him out. Trainer Colin Tizzard is already talking up Thistlecrack as a potential novice Gold Cup runner next season.
This season has been nothing short of brilliant. In the Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury, Thistlecrack dispatched some very handy rivals including Grade One winner Whisper and reigning World Hurdle champion Cole Harden. Stepping up to Grade One level in his second start of the season in the Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot against course specialist Reve De Sivola and World Hurdle second Saphir Du Rheu, the rapidly improving eight year old ran out a wide margin winner, a performance which propelled him to ante-post favourite in the World Hurdle market. All eyes were on Thistlecrack for the Cleeve Hurdle on Festival Trials day. Sent off 4/5 favourite, he ran a visually stunning race and skated home to be a wide margin winner yet again and silenced any doubts about handling the new course at Cheltenham. He is most certainly the horse they all have to beat.
Cole Harden is the reigning champion and his seasonal reappearance was satisfactory enough with a third place finish behind Thistlecrack. His second run of the season was over a trip arguably a bit on the short side for him nowadays, in the Relkeel Hurdle on Trials Day, with the Champion Hurdle bound Camping Ground victor that day. Cole Harden has solid form and his front running tactics will surely be employed, a formula which lead him to glory last year. He is a horse who loves the better ground. I expect a really bold showing from him this year again, although I feel he may be staring at the backside of one or two too good this time.
Paul Nicholls goes in to the Festival this year with no stand out chances for the first time in many years. The glory years of Masterminded, Denman, Kauto Star and four time champion Big Buck’s are now a distant memory and this year in this race he will be relying on the Andy Stewart owned grey Saphir Du Rheu and last year’s Coral Cup winner Aux Ptit Soins. Saphir Du Rheu finished runner up in the renewal of this race last year, then reverted back to his novice chase campaign, running out a Grade One winner at Aintree before returning to begin his season in the Hennessy Gold Cup, only finishing fifth. His run behind Thistlecrack at Ascot leaves him way behind the form needed to win a World Hurdle. I have major doubts about his wellbeing as he is arguably the most badly campaigned horse of the last five years along with the ill-fated Oscar Whisky.
Aux Ptit Soins has been off the track for a year and has only been seen once on UK shores, at last year’s Festival when he claimed a Coral Cup victory on his debut for Paul Nicholls. He is very much unexposed and yet to run in graded open company, so it would be a massive achievement if he could win a World Hurdle at this stage of his career. The Rich Ricci pair Vroum Vroum Mag and Annie Power are both entered and remain prominent in the betting, but the likely preferred target for Vroum Vroum Mag seems to be the OLBG Mares Hurdle. Annie Power looks likely to be supplemented for the Champion Hurdle after the absence of Faugheen and Arctic Fire through injury. The likely other runners include Whisper, At Fishers Cross, Lieutenant Colonel and Bobs Worth.
I am strongly in the Thistlecrack camp. He is improving with every run and silenced any doubters with his win at Cheltenham last time out regarding course form. He seems to have all form lines covered in regards to the other potential runners. He is a banker for many of the week, myself included. A forgotten horse, a three time Festival winner lurks in the background. He beat Simonsig at Aintree earlier in the season and ran a cracker in the Hennessy off a big weight and ground that didn’t suit. He ran below par at Cheltenham last time out on a shorter than ideal trip in heavy ground. The drying ground and trip over his beloved hurdles could see Bobs Worth run in to a place on his Festival swansong.
Thistlecrack 5 pts win @ 11/10
Cole Harden 3 Pts win @ 3/1 w/o Thistlecrack market (Paddy Power)
Bobs Worth 1 pt e/w @ 40/1