Is the Champion Hurdle division set for a changing of the Guard?

The International Hurdle on Saturday was billed as the real acid test of Peace and Co’s Champion Hurdle credentials and it was to some extent, when exposing the character traits that could see him fail to fulfil his potential.

The Triumph Hurdle winner was a free-going sort for most of his races last season, pulling hard in the early stages with his class getting him through to take four wins from four runs.

Sent off 4/5 favourite for the Grade 2 contest last weekend, trainer Nicky Henderson had expressed confidence behind his charge with only a lack of a prep run likely to stand in his way.

Instead, what stood in the way of the four-year-old was himself.

As much as he tried Daryl Jacob’s inability to get the horse to settle in the early exchanges put paid to his chances.

Approaching the second last things looked to be going to plan as the jolly led them into the straight, but when his jockey pushed the button there was nothing left in the tank.

The early exertions had obviously taken their toll as he went out like a light and finished the race last of the six.

His handler has spoken of how he is still a contender for the Champion Hurdle, but if he is to see off the likes of Faugheen, he will need to settle better in his races.

Taking advantage of Peace and Co’s was one of the most improved horses of the campaign so far.

Coming into his season opener at Cheltenham in October Old Guard was rated 137, but victory in a handicap hurdle at Prestbury Park saw his mark shift up eight pounds.

That rise wasn’t enough to stop him taking the Greatwood Hurdle in great style over the same course and distance three weeks later to book his spot in the International.

Sam Twiston-Davies, taking the mount of the son of Notnowcato for the first time since April, maintained a prominent position in the early stages keeping tabs on those at the sharp end of the pace.

When the race favourite folded tamely, the 7/1 shot showed that he could tough it out when push comes to shove up the hill, scoring by a length to Willie Mullins’ Sempre Medici.

Old Guard ground it out up the Cheltenham hill

Old Guard ground it out up the Cheltenham hill

In truth, the runner-up is probably not even in the first four or five of Mullins’ Champion Hurdle contenders such is the strength of the stable, but it was a likeable performance nonetheless.

Bookmakers were forced to cut the winner into 20/1 from 25/1 for the big one in March, while maintaining a cautious mind on the strength of the win.

He will need to keep improving if he is likely to be involved in the Festival race, with the last six Champion Hurdle winners rated at least 163.

After Saturday’s victory he’s rated 157, though one more win before March could see that edge past the 160-mark.

Paul Nicholls has confirmed that he’s set to be trained for the Grade 1 on the opening day of the Festival, with one more run likely before the big day in March.

That could come at Wincanton in the Kingwell Hurdle in February, a race that the handler has had a horse finish in the first two in each of the last five renewals.

He’s likely to need to win that race, and win it well, to give defending champ Faugheen anything to think about at Prestbury Park, but with more improvement likely, he could well be a contender to make the frame.

All Odds and Markets are correct as of the date of publishing.

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Ben Stones

Ladbrokes News’ equine expert, Ben likes nothing more than studying the form to pick out a winner or two for our readers. A Journalism and Media Studies graduate from the University of Winchester, Ben has previously written for a number of football and racing blogs and websites, as well as contributing to the sports pages of his home-town newspaper.