When you think of the David Nicholson Mares Hurdle, (now sponsored by OLBG) only one name springs to mind, Quevega.
The mighty mare set a new Cheltenham Festival record last season, beating the number of consecutive race wins record set by Golden Miller, who won five consecutive Cheltenham Gold Cups in the 1930s.
The now retired Quevega, who was trained by Willie Mullins, won six consecutive renewals of the race dating all the way back to her first success in 2009, a record that will surely be impossible to better.
This will be the first year that the OLBG Mares Hurdle will be a Grade One event, and will be sure to attract the best mares in training.
Let’s take a look at some of the leading contenders.
The highest rated mare in training set fans pulses racing last season with a highly impressive campaign. She started off by winning the Grade Two Coral Ascot Hurdle and then going on to post impressive performances at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day and Doncaster. There was much deliberation as to which race Annie Power should take part in at the Cheltenham Festival.
Eventually it was decided the Rich Ricci owned mare should run in the Ladbrokes World Hurdle, to avoid clashing with Hurricane Fly in the Champion Hurdle.
Despite doubts on whether Annie Power would stay the 3 miles on her first attempt, she ran a cracking race at the Festvial. Despite being very keen, she finished a very creditable second by a length and a half to the highly progressive More of That, trained by Jonjo O’Neill.
Annie Power would go on to compensate her new army of fans by winning the Grade One Mares Champion Hurdle at the Punchestown Festival in May.
With the elevation to Grade One status and with no Quevega this year in the race, there is a big void to be filled, one which Willie Mullins will surely be keen to fill, with his new superstar mare.
Faugheen, also owned by Rich Ricci, will line up in the Champion Hurdle, and to avoid a clash, the only other possible target for Annie Power could be the same race as last year, the Ladbrokes World Hurdle, but the current markets would indicate otherwise.
The negatives many people will have over Annie Power would be her fitness and lack of racing this season, as she has not been seen on a racecourse since last May.
But if she returns the same horse as last season she will be very tough to beat and the drop back in distance to two and a half miles will also be a big positive for many people.
Annie Power is generally EVEN money for the OLBG Mares Hurdle.
John Quinn is no stranger to Cheltenham Festival success, with his sole winner coming in 2012, winning the JCB Triumph Hurdle with Countrywide Flame.
This year he must be feeling he has a chance of landing another festival winner, with his impressive mare Aurore D’Estruval.
Running out an easy ten length winner on her seasonal debut at Wetherby, she caught the eye of the racing public with her strong travelling and stylish hurdling technique.
The next stop was a clash with The New One at Haydock, which many people felt was a chance to show her true potential against the best hurdler in the UK. Despite being declared a non-runner, fans did not have to wait long to see her again.
Despite finishing second by a length and three quarters in her first Grade One in open company to one of last season’ top novice hurdlers Irving, in the Grade One Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle, Aurore D’Estruval showed off how well she travels and jumps in a race, and one can take a lot of positives from the run.
Touching off Dark Spirit with another impressive performance at Sandown in January, Aurore D’Estruval stamped her credentials as a horse improving with every run and has got to hold a big chance in the OLBG Mares Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival. With a fast pace almost certainly assured and lots of cover in a big field, the race should be run to suit and could be one for the bookies who may well want to side with her when taking on the short priced favourite Annie Power.
Aurore D’Estruval can be backed at a general price of 4/1.
With an impressive string of ‘ones’ in her form line before going down a quarter of a length to The Pirate’s Queen at Haydock in very testing ground in December, seven year-old Bitofapuzzle bouncd back to post a victory in one of the best clashes of the season so far in the mare’s division, by defeating Carole’s Spirit in a pulsating finish at Ascot in the Grade Two OLBG Mares Hurdle January.
Trained by one of England’s most young and promising upcoming trainers, Harry Fry has not been shy to hide his excitement about the horse’s potential to go far over the hurdling division.
Harry Fry is not a trainer to rush horses in to races for the sake of it. This was indicated last year by swerving the Cheltenham Festival with one of his star juveniles Activial, who was vying favouritism for the JCB Triumph hurdle after his impressive win in the Adonis at Kempton. After a below par run at Aintree, the minding of the horse paid off with an impressive showing in the Ladbroke Hurdle at Ascot.
With such a tough race and the tank seemingly reaching empty at Ascot in her last race, Bitofapuzzle’s participation in the OLBG Mares Hurdle remains a slight doubt and whether she possesses enough speed worries me a bit, but she could be one to sneak in to a place at a double figured price if the race is run to suit.
Bitofapuzzle can be backed ante-post at a best priced 16/1.
After being narrowly denied in last season’s Cheltenham showpiece, Glen’s Melody will be a horse high up in many punters’ notebooks to go one better this year.
Once again lining up against Quevega at Punchestown, in the Grade One Ladbrokes World Series Hurdle, the Willie Mullins mare could only finish fourth behind Jetson.
This season in December, she started off her campaign at Leopardstown in the Grade One Christmas Hurdle, where she could only finish fifth of eight runners, in a race won by the Gigginstown owned Lieutenant Colonel, who is a leading contender for the Ladbrokes World Hurdle in March.
Next up was a clash at Naas with Kitten Rock, a horse who a few feel could be a live outsider for the Stan James Champion Hurdle. Running a good race and finishing second by three and three quarter lengths, many positives can be taken from the race.
Glen’s Melody has big claims for the Cheltenham Festival, and likely to be second string again for the Mullins yard, this year to Annie Power, she could go off at a decent price.
Glen’s Melody can be backed at around the 8/1.
Little King Robin will be another fancied Irish runner who has won a Grade Two this season, winning the WKD Hurdle at Down Royal, beating some good horses including Tiger Roll and Arctic Fire. Her front running tactics could be a disadvantage, as a good gallop will allow strong travellers like Annie Power a chance to settle and finish off a race strongly.
But at a big price of 16/1 ante post, this could be one worth noting.
Analifet has disappointed since pulling up in her juvenile campaign at Christmas in 2013. She has made several reappearances, most recently at Doncaster in the OLBG Mares Grade Two Hurdle, won last year by Annie Power. Travelling like the best horse in the race, she could only finish third.
Not an easy horse to train by all accounts, she could be one to keep on side with, as a bit of better ground could play in to her hands, and she could still hold enough class to one day produce the goods.
Analifet can be backed ante post at 25/1.
Morning Run has started off a short priced favourite in her both her runs this season so far. Running out an impressive winner twice, her full capabilities remain unexposed, and she could be the one to keep an eye on, on Champion Day at the Festival. The betting markets on the day will be a good clue as to the confidence of Irish punters.
Morning Run can be backed ante-post at a price of 8/1.
With some concern over the wellbeing of the market leader, the safe bet would be to find a horse with solid form this season at a nice price to back each way.
It is no secret I am a huge Annie Power fan, and with my favourite horse ever, Quevega now retired, I cannot think of a better horse to take over her mantle.
If I was to bet with my head, I would be willing to take her on at such a short price, due to not having a run so far this year and fitness a concern, but if she turns up the same horse, she will win easily.
2 pts Win – Annie Power 1/1
1 pt each way – Analifet 25/1
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