by Rory Jiwani, StanJames.com Step two on the Road To Cheltenham takes place on Saturday with three of the top six in the Champion Hurdle ante-post betting set to do battle in the StanJames.com International Hurdle. The Fighting Fifth gave us a real contender in John Quinn’s Triumph Hurdle hero Countrywide Flame, who handed Supreme winner Cinders And Ashes a comprehensive beating.
Donald McCain’s charge was clearly unsuited by the ground and will no doubt come on plenty for the run, but it’s hard to see him reversing form with the four-year-old who was cut from 25/1 to 8/1 for the big one in March.
Now we have the StanJames.com International and it’s a mark of the quality of those involved that neither Champion Hurdler Rock On Ruby nor last year’s winner Grandouet are at the head of the market. Our favourite is Paul Nicholls’ Zarkandar who was fifth in last season’s Champion Hurdle.
The 2011 Triumph Hurdle victor impressed when carrying top weight to victory over stablemate Prospect Wells in the Elite Hurdle at Wincanton. He was 13/8 when we opened the book and we’ve already had to cut that to 11/8 with punters perhaps latching on to the fact that he will carry four pounds less than both his market rivals.
Harry Fry is confident about Rock On Ruby’s chances with the seven-year-old boasting a superb record when fresh. In his previous two seasons, Rock On Ruby has started his campaign with victory in the listed bumper at Cheltenham’s Open meeting and the Gerry Feilden at Newbury off top weight. He also went straight from being narrowly beaten by Binocular in last year’s Christmas Hurdle to winning the Champion Hurdle in March.
On his blog on betting.stanjames.com, Fry said: “it’s a good race and we’re very happy with our horse.” He has also said Rock On Ruby will probably go straight from the International to the Champion Hurdle after missing his initial target the Fighting Fifth.
Grandouet has not raced since defeating subsequent Champion Hurdle runner-up Overturn to take the StanJames.com International 12 months ago. He travelled exceptionally smoothly before Barry Geraghty moved him out to pass Donald McCain’s warrior and looked to be on the brink of very big things before injury prematurely curtailed his season.
In my opinion, the five-year-old is the classiest two-mile hurdler in training and easily the best of Nicky Henderson’s squadron of Champion Hurdle hopefuls. If he is back to his best, our quote of 5/2 could look massive on Saturday evening.
With Sedgefield chase winner Rose Of The Moon set to miss the race, we are down to eight entries with nothing else likely to threaten the big three. Oliver Brady’s One Cool Shabra should ensure a decent gallop so hopefully we will see a proper test with real clues as far as the Champion Hurdle is concerned.
Zarkandar is currently 7/1 second favourite for the Champion Hurdle behind Hurricane Fly with Rock On Ruby and Grandouet 8/1 and 10/1 respectively. All three are genuine contenders and I am fairly sure one will be the new favourite come Saturday evening. I also believe there is a good chance the winner will become the first horse to double up in the Champion Hurdle since Rooster Booster a decade previously.
StanJames.com International Hurdle antepost (EW 1/4 1,2 – 1/5 1,2,3 IF 8 OR MORE) – 11/8 Zarkandar 7/4 Rock On Ruby 5/2 Grandouet 33 One Cool Shabra 50 Albert Hall, Mad Moose 80 bar
For the full StanJames.com International Hurdle market please click here