IF luckless The New One is ever going to win the Stan James Champion Hurdle for trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies and his jockey son, Sam, it is today.
Badly hampered two years ago by Our Conor’s fatal fall, the father and son team’s star horse was not 100 per cent last year when fifth to Faugheen.
But the first four hurdlers home 12 months ago are all missing today’s race because of injury or, in the honourable case of the venerable dual former winner Hurricane Fly, retirement.
It means The New One has a chance for redemption following an uninterrupted reputation.
By all accounts, the eight-year-old – who came to prominence when winning the Neptune Investment Management Novices’ Hurdle in 2013 – has been an impressive sight on the Twiston-Davies gallops, which are just a short canter from Cheltenham’s iconic racecourse where the four-day National Hunt Festival begins today on ground that is drying out rapidly.
“He is the best he has been for two seasons and I think he is better than when he won the Neptune. He really is, there is no doubt about that,” declared the trainer with characteristic bullishness.
“With more luck in running he would have won the race two years ago. Hopefully this is his year. He was never going to look impressive on heavy ground. On really heavy ground he just can’t quicken out of it. If you look at his form he has done nothing wrong.
“He had a bad foot problem and that caused the back problem last year when everything was wrong with him.
“The farrier has done a brilliant job and he has had specially manufactured shoes which have helped him.”
If The New One wins, it will compensate Twiston-Davies for his misfortune six years ago: “Binocular came back from the dead to beat Khyber Kim so I think we deserve a win at some stage.”
It will also silence those who continue to crab his stable star’s record – the horse has earned nearly £750,000 in prize money – and the workmanlike nature of his prep race win at Haydock on desperate ground.
“Reading in the press, they said what a bad race it was and then I looked at his form and everything,” he added. “He’s won £722,000, he’s never been beaten more than eight lengths, but yet he’s said to be useless. He’s been quite unbelievable for us – 16 wins out of 23 races.”
This view was shared by Twiston-Davies junior who has had his detractors since becoming stable jockey to champion trainer Paul Nicholls nearly two years ago.
A natural talent who burst onto the scene when victorious at the 2010 Festival on Baby Run – ironically the same day that his father saddled Imperial Commander to win a Gold Cup – his mindset is positive.
“He goes there in the best shape he’s been in for two years, the race has cut up dramatically over the last fortnight and everything has gone well in his preparation,” said the jockey.
“There are no negatives this time.”
In a wide open renewal with Nicky Henderson saddling five runners in his quest for a record sixth Champion Hurdle – he currently shares the record with Yorkshire’s Peter Easterby – all eyes will be on the Willie Mullins-trained mare Annie Power who carries the hopes of Ireland.
Luckless at the past two Festivals, her final flight fall in last season’s OLBG Mares’ Hurdle is credited with saving the bookmaking industry after Mullins, and jockey Ruby Walsh, came so close to winning all four Grade One races on Cheltenham’s opening day.
They have a chance today with Min in the Sky Bet Supreme Novices Hurdle, Douvan in the Racing Post Arkle Trophy and Vroum Vroum Mag in the aforementioned mares’ hurdle, but all eyes will be on Annie Power, who was supplemented for the Champion Hurdle following the injury-enforced absence of her more fancied stablemates Faugheen and Arctic Fire.
Bidding to become the first mare to win the race since North Yorkshire jockey Mark Dwyer prevailed in 1994 on Flakey Dove, her 7lb weight allowance is significant. Yet, with Annie Power having raced just once this year due to injury, the odds are stacked in The New One’s favour.