The World Hurdle is always one of the mostly hotly contested races during the Cheltenham Festival and 2016 is no different. With the recent announcement that Ladbrokes would no longer be sponsoring the race, Ryanair have stepped in and it will now be called the Ryanair World Hurdle and it takes place straight after the Ryanair Chase on St Patricks Thursday, the third day of the festival.
Strangely enough this is another Festival race where there is a reasonably short priced favourite, but on this occasion it isn’t one trained by Willie Mullins, this time it is Colin Tizzard.
Thistlecrack demolished his six rivals in the Cleeve Hurdle last time out, running out a comprehensive twelve length winner under jockey Tom Scudamore. That was all done under an 8lb penalty which goes to show that Tizzard’s eight-year-old is the real deal.
Tizzard is so enamoured by the scope and potential of his gelding that he says that the Gold Cup in 2017 is the long-term aim for the horse.
A successful 2014/15 season saw Thistlecrack win his first Grade One contest when taking the Sefton Novices’ Hurdle at Aintree. He won by a total of 13 lengths after he was left clear at the last when the hotly pursuing Alpha Des Obeaux took a tumble, however saying that, it looked like a probable smooth victory anyway.
Thistlecrack’s last race of last season was a valiant half-length runner-up spot to Killultagh Vic at the Punchestown Festival.
This season Thistlecrack kicked off his season with victory in the Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury, before following that up by taking the Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot.
It is very understandable why this horse is at the head of market.
Annie Power (3/1)
Willie Mullins’ eight-year-old is a 4-6 shot for the OLBG Mares' Hurdle at next month's Cheltenham Festival as well as being a general 4-1 second favourite for the World Hurdle.
With most bookmakers offering NRNB on the World Hurdle it may be prudent to pick one of those should the enigmatic mare turn up in this race.
Annie Power is set to make here seasonal return this Wednesday when she will be running in a Mares’ Hurdle at Punchestown. She has been off the track since winning a Grade One event at that track's Festival last May, making amends for her final-flight departure when booked for certain victory in the Mares' Hurdle at Cheltenham.
Whether we will be any clearer as to where she will run come Wednesday remains to be seen but she has to figure in any punters calculations wherever she eventually runs.
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Vroum Vroum Mag (7/1)
Vroum Vroum Mag enhanced her Cheltenham Festival claims with victory in the OLBG.com Mares' Hurdle at Ascot – but for what race in March remains uncertain.
She was the 4-6 favourite that day and the Ruby Walsh-ridden seven-year-old was trying the near three-mile trip for the first time and she handled it well, taking her unbeaten record to eight.
Owned by Rich Ricci, Vroum Vroum Mag is 4-1 second-favourite for the Mares' Hurdle (from 8-1) and 7-1 third-favourite for the World Hurdle. If you follow the betting markets your hunch would be that she will not line up in the World Hurdle, but trying to second guess the Mullins camp is almost an impossible task so it is best to err on the side of caution.
So how would Vrooum Vroum Mag fair against the boys if she ran in the World Hurdle? Well. It would be her sternest test to date but she would get a 7lb’s mares’ allowance which would be a big positive.
Alpha Des Obeaux (6/1)
The Mouse Morris trained, Alpha Des Obeaux, looks a worthy adversary to take on Thistlecrack et al after finally a convincing success in the Galmoy Hurdle at Gowran Park at the end of January.
Alpha Des Obeaux had finished second in three consecutive Grade One events before his Grade Two Gowran win and as we eluded to earlier, fell when about to challenge Thistlecrack, in last season’s Sefton Novice Hurdle at Aintree.
A pre-Cheltenham clash between Thistlecrack and Alpha des Obeaux was never really on the cards in the Cleeve Hurdle despite Mouse Morris’ six-year-old being entered at the declaration stage, so a mouth-watering Prestbury Park contest it will be instead.
Gigginstown and Mouse Morris believe that given better ground Alpha Des Obeaux does not have a lot to find with Thistlecrack, despite the official handicapper making it a 13lb difference between the two. The spring weather may just bring the pair a few pounds closer.
Cole Harden (8/1)
Cole Harden’s trainer Warren Greatrex believes his runner can defend his World Hurdle crown and has warned the other chief protagonists to expect “a different horse” at Cheltenham.
The seven-year-old has met with defeat in both his starts this season, but Greatrex feels his stable star will be at the peak of his powers in his bid to land back-to-back victories.
Cole Harden was third on his seasonal return in the Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury in November and he filled the same spot behind Camping Ground on his most recent outing in the Relkeel Hurdle at Cheltenham on New Year's Day.
It was strikingly obvious in both of those races that Cole Harden did not enjoy the conditions underfoot one bit so Greatrex’s bid to retain the trophy doesn’t appear to be quite as outlandish as it first appears on paper, and horses do not race on paper.
Other lively outsiders:
Saphir De Rheu (16/1)
Runner-up in this race in 2015, things have not quite panned out the way Paul Nicholls hoped they would with this horse.
He will be reverting back to hurdles after seemingly not convincing his connections over fences. Last time out at Ascot he was well-beaten by Thistlecrack where a breathing issue was to blame. An operation has been performed since and sometimes horses come back as good as ever after such a procedure, especially from this stable, so one never knows.
Aux Ptits Soins (16/1)
Absent from the track since landing the Coral Cup on his first start for the Ditcheat handler at the Festival twelve months ago, it will take a brave punter to back the John Hales owned six-year-old, but Paul Nicholls believes he can have him ready in time.
This previously trained French horse came over to Nicholls with a big reputation and it really would be a masterstroke if he can pull off two feature races at the Festival in as many years, with such little racing.