It’s a decision that could be taken one of two ways, but Sam Twiston-Davies’ preference to ride Old Guard over The New One in the Christmas Hurdle is a significant one.
In truth if the 1/3 market leader Faugheen is back to his Cheltenham best, both could be playing for the minor honours, but his defection from his father’s horse might just suggest the gelding is on the downgrade.
When he was signed as retained jockey to the Paul Nicholls stable, it was publicly stated that Twiston-Davies would be released to ride The New One whenever the seven-year-old ran.
With the horse having won two Grade 1s and five further Grade 2 contests, it looked likely that he would have the services of his regular jockey at Kempton on Boxing Day.
But while he has won six of his last seven runs, very few of those victories were in the manner of a horse that was sent off at odds-on each time.
A tendency to put in the odd iffy jump in each of his runs and the hindrance of a ‘kissing-spine’ which apparently can cause the horse discomfort has hinted that he won’t reach the highs that he promised when winning the 2013 Neptune Novices’ Hurdle.
He was runner-up in the Christmas Hurdle that year, when one of his blunders at the final flight handed the initiative, and ultimately the victory to My Tent or Yours.
At 20/1 it appears his chances of making it third time lucky in the Champion Hurdle in March are slim, but rather than the odds it is the desertion of the man that has ridden him for all 21 outings that is more concerning.
The gelding Twiston-Davies will bid to take on Faugheen ‘the Machine’ with is arguably the most improved hurdler this season, Old Guard.
The four-year-old has won all three of his runs this season, every one at Cheltenham, first in a Class 3 handicap hurdle, before landing the Greatwood Hurdle in style, en route to a first Graded 2 success in the International Hurdle.
His official rating has gone up 20 pounds in that trio of runs, and it is as yet unclear how much more there is to come from the son of Notnowcato.
The fact that those three victories have come at Prestbury Park with the stiff uphill finish might mean that the flatter track of Kempton provides a very different speed test.
He’s 14 pounds below the 1/3 favourite on official ratings, however the fact that Willie Mullins’ champion hurdler was turned over at odds-on in the Morgiana Hurdle by stablemate Nichols Canyon could be significant.
Old Guard may not be in that class yet, but with Faugheen hanging left across the track at Punchestown that day, any weakness shown by the favourite will be tested by this improving type.
It may be that the Festival will be the his time to shine, but the decision for connections to pitch him into Grade 1 company at a late stage could be telling.
Ultimately though, it is Sam Twiston-Davies’ choice of mounts that is more telling, and now could be the time to accept that The New One’s hopes of one day winning the Champion Hurdle are over.
All Odds and Markets are correct as of the date of publishing.
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