At Wincanton on his previous outing Paul Nicholls’ formerly smart hurdler Celestial Halo had given a very strong hint that he is on the way back to something close to his best when only just failing to deny Mille Chief in the Kingwell Hurdle. On Sunday at Fontwell, over an extra half-mile, he proved just too good for his four rivals in the Grade 2 National Spirit Hurdle, writes Elliot Slater.
In very soft ground that a number of his rivals found hard to handle, the 2009 Champion Hurdle runner-up set out to make it a test of stamina and took up the running after a mile, soon having his rivals on the stretch. Clear coming into the home straight for the final time, he had to be kept up to his work up the Fontwell hill but stayed on strongly to record a comfortable six-length win over Trenchant, with Afsoun third, and the favourite Karabak only fourth.
The Andy Stewart-owned seven-year-old had started out this term with a new career as a novice chaser but he never really took to the larger obstacles and his Wincanton run showed that he had not lost his ability; he just didn’t enjoy jumping fences. Connections have already taken the gelding out of the Champion Hurdle, but he remains in both the Vincent O’Brien County Hurdle (over the minimum trip) and the World Hurdle (over three miles). Anyone looking for Cheltenham free bets shouldn’t consider him a certainty, but it looks like he could do well if allowed to take his chance.
Connections wouldn’t been drawn as to whether or not he will run in the World Hurdle, noting that the options also remain for Celestial Halo to be saved for the Aintree Hurdle over two-and-a-half miles in April, or even a trip to Punchestown later that month. Most firms cut the odds of a Celestial Halo World Hurdle success though, prices ranging from as low as 16/1 out to a best priced 25/1 to beat hot favourite and stable companion Big Buck’s (also owned by Andy Stewart), who remains an 11/10 market leader.