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Hurricane: The Fly in the Champion Hurdle ointment?

Hurricane: The Fly in the French Champion Hurdle ointment?

Hurricane can Fly at Auteuil, by Nigel Howard

The spectre of the great race mare, Dawn Run, looms large at Auteuil on Sunday as it stages the Grand Course de Haies, or French Champion hurdle, the race in which she so tragically perished only three months after her heroic victory in the 1986 Gold cup. The image still remains of her battling up that famous Cheltenham hill to fend off the challenge of two other greats of the timber, Wayward Lad and Forgive‘n Forget.

A far cry from any British or Irish jumps track, Auteuil, which on Sunday will be competing against the men’s singles final at Roland Garros across the road, boasts a stone wall, huge water jump and broom topped fences for the chasers to negotiate and a hurdle course who’s ‘haies’ are more akin to mini fences than the hurdles back home; hit one of these hard and your race is run.

Bizarrely sandwiched between the Jockey Club (French Derby) and Prix Diane (French Oaks) in the French racing calendar the race reads more like a World Hurdle than a Champion Hurdle as it is run over 5100 meters (3 miles 1 furlong). This year’s renewal sees no less than seven overseas contenders from four different stables. Top billing goes to Hurricane Fly who actually started his career on the flat in the south of France when trained by the Jean-Luc Pelletan back in 2006.

He is now the winner of two Champion Hurdles and a staggering 22 group 1 events. He comes into this race on the back of a fine run in defeat behind old adversary Jezki at Punchestown. A reproduction of that form would surely see him at the head of affairs come Sunday and Willie Mullins confirms, saying “Hurricane Fly is in great form after his effort behind Jezki at Punchestown. He has good form at Auteuil when a 4 year old so I’m excited to see him run again over this course. I would have liked to return to France before now but sadly it just wasn’t possible.”

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The other overseas contenders are also a talented bunch. Top of the list, Zarkandar,  who might have troubled the World Hurdle winner Cole Harden without a bad mistake at the second last and who has winning form over this course and distance when taking the Grand Prix D’Automne last November. He must have strong claims with stable jockey Sam Twiston-Davies in the saddle. Paul Nicholls explained, “He ran too soon at Aintree after The Festival.  It was the same story last year but we won’t make the same mistake again. He’s had a break since and is now in great form. I think he’s better in the autumn when he’s fresh but he should run well if the ground is sufficiently soft. He knows Auteuil very well now!”

Next on the list is the David Pipe-trained Ballynagour, the mount of stable jockey Peter Scudamore. He will be strongly fancied based on his impressive win back in May at this track with the Prix la Barka considered a key preparation race for Sunday’s contest. Pipe confirmed his well being saying “He’s been very well since his win at Auteuil. My only worry is that he’s travelled a lot in a small space of time having been to Punchestown and Auteuil twice. However, everything seems to have gone well since he arrived in France on Friday morning”.

Val de Ferbet, another Mullins runner was five lengths back in second behind Ballynagour and can’t be ruled out following that much improved performance after having been pulled up at Punchestown on his previous start. Said Mullins, “I think he will improve over this longer trip and should therefore have place claims”. He also saddles the admirable grey, Thousand Stars, already twice a winner of this race in 2011 and 2012. He’s not without a chance on his best form although his trainer is worried about the weather stating “He is working well at home and should progress from his latest outing but it will be a worry for him if it turns out hot on Sunday”.

David Pipe’s other runner, Un Temps Pour Tout, is a French import who already has form at Auteuil when trained by François Nicolle as a 4 year old, picking up a Grade 3 event. His experience over these obstacles will be to his obvious advantage. James Reveley takes the mount and he shapes up as an interesting runner who could be a big price on the pari-mutuel. David Pipe believes he’s got a sporting chance, “I’ve had this race in mind for while now… He prefers soft ground and we know that the course and the distance won’t be a problem.”

That leaves the Harry Fry-trained Activial, a five year old and as a result in receipt of 2kg, (5lbs), based on the conditions of the race against older horses. His latest effort was a creditable fifth in the Grade 2 Prix Leon Rambaud at Auteuil at the end of April where he met trouble in running and was promoted to fourth. Fry is hopeful, saying, “This will be his biggest challenge to date but he does have experience at Auteuil. The longer distance will suit him and Daryl Jacobs rides Auteuil very well which can only help him”.

The pick of the locals is Voiladenuo, winner of his last 3 races. He had Activial comfortably beaten on his last outing and this 6 yr old son of Network, sire of Sprinter Sacre, still looks relatively unexposed.  He seems sure to run a big race and will no doubt have the weight of a partisan French crowd behind him.

So, the stage is set for this fascinating contest with all eyes on Hurricane Fly and his attempt to lift his 23rd Grade 1 prize. With the ground sure to be soft due to the systematic watering policy at the course he should have the underfoot conditions he prefers. As a betting contest the value in the race may come from following the each way market on the Pari-mutuel where some of the English & Irish contingent might go off at very interesting prices.

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