Trainer Nicky Henderson gave a huge hint about the ability of Fusil Raffles when discussing the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton Park. The horse could be one of his three runners in the major trial for the Champion Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival in March. Last year’s winner, Verdana Blue, and Epatante are the other potential runners in his three-pronged attack.
The Grade 1 Christmas Hurdle is run over two miles and eight obstacles. It is one of the three most important races in the discipline of the season. The Fighting Fifth Hurdle and the big one at Cheltenham make up the triple crown. Since 2000, five of the winners have also won the Champion Hurdle. Since 2002, there have been four two-time winners.
Five of the last six winners were aged six years. All winners since the start of the century have been between five and nine years of age. The leading trainer is Henderson with seven wins from 2000 to 2017. He has won the race in the last two years with Buveur D’Air, which has also won two Champion Hurdles, and Verdana Blue, which is an intended runner this time.
Here are some 10-year betting trends for the Christmas Hurdle:
• The average starting price of the winners is almost +175.
• The SPs ranged from -550.06 to +450.
• There were seven winning favourites.
• No winners started at double-figure odds.
• Four winners were returned at +125 to +162.5.
All the winners in the last decade had run at least six times over hurdles and all but one of those horses had won five hurdle races or more in the past. Every winner in the last decade had won a graded hurdle race. Over the last 10 years, every winner of the Christmas Hurdle was in the top three in the betting. Verdana Blue is a seven-year-old, Epatante is aged five and Fusil Raffles is only four. No horse under five years of age has won the Christmas Hurdle this century.
When Henderson was asked about his likely runners in the Christmas Hurdle, he gave a brief mention to Epatante and Verdana Blue. However, he was most fulsome in his praise for Fusil Raffles. The trainer hinted that that horse was good enough to win the Champion Hurdle. Henderson knows what he is talking about because he has won the race four times in the last 10 years and seven times in total. His dual winner, Buveur D’Air, is currently sidelined due to injury.
Fusil Raffles will have to improve to win a Champion Hurdle, but that progress could come in the Christmas Hurdle. He produced a career-high Racing Post Rating (RPR) of 153 in his last run, at Wincanton in November. Verdana Blue won the Christmas Hurdle last season with a mark of 156 but has run to 163, so at her best she has a few lengths in hand over Fusil Raffles. The trainer thinks Fusil Raffles is his best chance at Kempton, so the horse must have shown something at home.
The ante-post betting for the Champion Hurdle suggests Fusil Raffles has not shown his best on the racecourse. The horse can be backed at a best price of +1000 with online bookmakers, while Verdana Blue is quoted at more than three times that price. Epatante is graduating from the handicap ranks so could come up short at Grade 1 level. If he wins the Christmas Hurdle, the +2500 odds for the Champion Hurdle will quickly disappear. However, Fusil Raffles is the horse to back on Boxing Day and a runner to consider for the Champion Hurdle.