Hurricane Fly is bidding to be become the first horse since Hardy Eustace to retain the Champion Hurdle and he's an odds-on favourite to do just that.
A worthy favourite?
Absolutely. He won last year, thus dispelling any doubts about his suitability to Cheltenham, and has been imperious in both his starts this season, perhaps even taking his form to a higher level. He was most impressive when slamming classy types Oscars Well and Thousand Stars in the Irish equivalent at Leopardstown in January and that was despite him being in need of the run, having missed a couple of early season targets. Now the winner of 12 of his 14 starts - 10 at Grade 1 level - his is clearly a winning machine and his trainer Willie Mullins reports that his preparation since has gone "like a dream". Equally at home off a steady or a strong pace and on any ground, he will be extremely hard to beat.
Any chinks in his armour?
As he's got older (now an eight-year-old), he has got progressively more fragile and because of that he was never really an ante post proposition. However, there is no better trainer than Mullins in getting one ready for Cheltenham and all the signals are that he's arriving at the feastival in tip-top form. You could argue that the form of his win 12 months ago is not great with the three horses in behind - Peddlers Cross, Oscar Whisky and Thousand Stars - all running over a trip arguably short of their best, but it was the turn of foot he showed when cutting through them that really stands out in the mind and none of that trio are in the line up this year.
A back-to-form Binocular has to prove dangerous. Nicky Henderson's eight-year-old has on more than one occasion looked a shadow of the horse that destroyed the opposition in the 2010 Champion Hurdle and many wrote him off after another lacklustre defeat in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle behind Overturn on his reappearance. However, a narrow success over the progressive Rock On Ruby in Kempton's Christmas Hurdle was more like it and he looked right back to his very best when slamming old foe Celestial Halo in the Kingwell Hurdle last time. He's yet to finish outside the top three in his previous Festival visits.
Zarkandar is one of the new pretenders to the throne and last year's Triumph Hurdle winner (form boosted several times since) showed battling qualities when winning the Betfair Hurdle on his reappearance from an uncompromising position, despite being in need of the run. Whether he has the necessary tactical speed to beat the likes of Hurricane Fly is open to question, though, and his stablemate Rock On Ruby poses a bigger threat as he might have beaten Binocular at Kempton but for a last-flight error and will be better suited to Cheltenham. Oscars Well was perhaps unlucky not to win last season's Neptune but will do well to reverse Leopardstown form with the favourite. The rest are much harder to fancy.
Hurricane Fly is impossible to oppose and those punters who hoovered up the 5/4 on offer at William Hill last week are sitting pretty. I've got him in a double with Quevega (4/7) at that price, but for those not already on the value bet now lies with ROCK ON RUBY, who can be backed each-way at 5/1 in Ladbrokes' 'without Hurricane Fly' market (1/4 odds, 1.2.3). Nicholls reckons he could run a "massive race", in which case he's going to prove devilishly difficult to keep out the frame, with second place behind the favourite ensuring a maximum payout.
Zarkandar may be feeling the effects of a hard race at Newbury last time and would be better suited to the more demanding New Course, on which he won the Triumph. Lay him in Betfair's place market as I can see both Binocular and Rock On Ruby finishing ahead of him, not to mention Hurricane Fly.
Best bookmaker offer?
Boylesports will refund losing stakes on the second-placed horse in this race.
Where to watch?
bet365 are showing the Champion Hurdle as part of their live streaming service. Simply place a bet of at least £0.50 pence (£0.25 pence each-way) and click on the video icon next to the race.