Crockford considers if there should be a two and a half mile championship hurdle race added to the Cheltenham festival

On Saturday trainer Nicky Henderson started the debate with his comments to ATR  when asked about Oscar Whisky’s Festival plans. Henderson’s remarked that a two and a half mile contest similar to that for the chasers would suit his horse down to the ground as both the Champion Hurdle and World Hurdle are not quite Oscar Whisky’s optimum trip. The Dai Walter’s owned gelding will be targeted again at the Welsh Champion Hurdle at Ffos Las with his ultimate aim being a third successive win in the Grade one Aintree Hurdle in April. These plans have left Crockford and others thinking that there may well be a gap in the Cheltenham Festival schedule.

There are only two Grade One two and a half mile contests in the UK and Ireland in a season – The Hatton’s Grace Hurdle at Fairyhouse next weekend and the Aintree Hurdle on Grand National Day. There are eight other Grade Two contests between two miles three & a half furlongs and two miles five furlongs in the calendar; three at Navan and two at Cheltenham and one at both Ascot and Fontwell. Looking back over the years winners of these contests it is apparent that not only Oscar Whisky favoured this middle distance trip.

It would be wrong to say that there is not a two and a half mile race at the Festival as there is the David Nicholson Mares Hurdle, which has in recent years been dominated by the mighty mare Quevega. Throughout the season and at the Festival there are also a good number of novice contest over this middle distance – so why not a Championship race at the Festival open to all?

Some may cry that this would be too specialist and that a middle distance contest would just be an opportunity for inferior horses to swerve the true champions in the Champion and World hurdles. Crockford believes that this analysis would be wrong. In previous years if such a race had been a fixture – Limestone Lad, Al Eile and Morley Street would probably have won the race if not even better horses.

Turning attention to the current crop, who would contest such a race? Beyond the obvious Henderson horse (Oscar Whisky) another springs to mind – Simonsig. His inclusion would certainly make it more than a procession. Mullins may be tempted with Thousand Stars alongside another potential Irish raider Voler La Vedette. Even more mouthwatering would be the possibility of Quevega herself taking on all comers. Now to Crockford that looks much more appealing than some of the race entries at the Festival in recent years.

One danger lurks in the shadows of this new idea and that is the potential downgrading of the World Hurdle as a spectacle. Horses who have been forced away from the Champion Hurdle have often made the World Hurdle more of a contest. The concern is that the three mile contest may start to look thin and be dominated by only a few quality horses.

With the schedule busy for the four Festival days already there would be a few headaches to iron out to see it’s inclusion, but if there is a will there would be a way.

So should there be a “Ryanair Hurdle”? Crockford says yes and let’s hope Mr O’Leary will sponsor it too. 

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(Featured Photograph – Oscar Whisky after his win in 2011 Welsh Champion Hurdle)