The burning questions ahead of this year's Champion Hurdle...
Is Binocular good value at 7/2?
Nicky Henderson's seven-year-old simply destroyed his rivals in last year's Champion Hurdle and if the same horse turns up this time, you wouldn't want to be on anything else. He is at his best in a strongly-run race when his slick jumping at speed proves such a major asset, so Cheltenham is right up his street.
That said, it will have to bring out the best in him again as he was far from impressive when beating three no-hopers at Sandown on Saturday.
Sent off at 1/10, he never really jumped with any fluency and at the finish had just a length-and-three-quarters to spare over his stablemate Ruthenoise, who is rated 55lb inferior. His jockey McCoy summed the performance up by saying :"He didn't travel that great. He wasn't impressive at all. It was similar to last year. I don't know for what reason."
He was referring to Binocular's laboured performances last season prior to his Champion romp: he could only finish fifth in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle, third in the Christmas Hurdle and struggled to win the same race at Sandown. Of course, it can argued that he has performed more satisfactorily this season as, aside from Saturday, he had captured the Christmas Hurdle in good style just three week's earlier.
However, the nagging doubt over which Binocular will turn up remains and he will have to be at least as good this time round as the presence of Hurricane Fly, Menorah and Peddlers Cross gives the race a stronger feel. So, while Ladbrokes are dangling a carrot of 7/2, I couldn't touch him right now.
Can Hurricane Fly transfer his Irish form to Cheltenham?
Ireland's top-rated hurdler has looked great this season in winning all three of his starts, the latest coming at Leopardstown in January when beating his old rival Solwhit in comfortable fashion. That was a far more convincing trial than either of his two previous Grade 1 wins this season, but did he improve his festival credentials? Not really. The runner-up is undoubtedly useful but was found out in last year's Champion (sixth) and isn't even being considered for the race this time. And then there's the Cheltenham factor to take into account.
Hurricane Fly has missed the last two festivals and will be making his Cheltenham debut in March. That he has the pace and class to contend is beyond doubt but his hurdling is not always fluent and he jumped decidedly to the right at Leopardstown, which like Cheltenham is a left-handed track.
There's also a slight question mark over his temperament with his trainer Willie Mullins expressing concerns in the past about how he would react to the crowd noise. If he gets worked up in the preliminaries and then fails to settle during the race, he may struggle to get up the Cheltenham hill. The fact he's by the sire Montjeu, whose progeny are 0-31 at the festival, is another negative and, at around 5/1, he looks more of a lay to me.
Which horse has impressed most in the trials?
Peddlers Cross (6/1 Paddy Power) looked good when winning the Fighting Fifth but he controlled that race from the front and Binocular, who finished third, was clearly in need of the race. He's still got plenty to prove at this level. Menorah (11/2 William Hill), on the other hand, is unbeaten in three races at Cheltenham and his performance in winning the Greatwood Hurdle off top weight in November had 'Champion Hurdle winner' written all over it.
He followed up in the International Hurdle under a big penalty and the six-year-old probably has more improvement in him. His jockey Richard Johnson reckons he has a "great chance" and, providing the ground isn't too soft, I have to agree.
Any other horses worthy of attention?
Oscar Whisky (14/1 bet365) has forced his way into the Champion picture with comfortable wins at Cheltenham and Ffos Las this season and is clearly improving fast. Whether he can do it in a strongly run race, though, is open to debate. He was left behind at the last in the Supreme Novices' last season and essentially beat stayers for speed at Cheltenham on New Year's Day, while his Welsh Champion Hurdle romp was no more than an exercise canter against vastly inferior rivals. I see he's also been entered for the World Hurdle and he may ultimately prove to be best suited to 2m4f+.
Mille Chief (14/1 William Hill) galloped his way into contention with an impressive handicap success at Sandown last time and also took the eye when finishing second to handicap blot Aegean Dawn at Ascot in November. He will be stepping up in class for sure, but his rating of 158 is just 6lb shy of Menorah's and his trainer Alan King considers him to be a lot better than his 2008 champion Katchit. He's due to run next in the Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton on February 19th and an impressive performance there could see him sent off at a single figure price at the festival.
What are the best bets at this stage?
Most of the trials have been run and there shouldn't be too much more movement in the market between now and race-day. That's when I will consider backing Menorah, although I'd be hoping for slightly better than the current 11/2. The rest of the market leaders make no appeal at current odds, so any value at this stage lies with MILLE CHIEF at 14/1 for the reason given above.