This year’s Champion Hurdle looks set to be a vintage renewal of the famous race and the four market leaders have dominated the ante post betting for some time.
Reigning champion Binocular will return to Cheltenham to defend his crown after he powered to a particularly impressive victory in the race last year and he has followed a similar path to the meeting in 2011. After fluffing his lines in the Fighting Fifth behind Peddlers Cross, there were no surprises when Nicky Henderson’s star bounced back to form in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton. All his greatest assets were on display in an impeccable display of accurate jumping that day and he was kept ticking over with an unimpressive but facile success at Sandown last time out. He must have a very strong chance of rewarding favourite backers with his second victory at his fourth consecutive Festival.
That being said, however impressive Binocular can be on his day, the thousands of Irish punters descending on Prestbury Park will be confident that Willie Mullins’ Hurricane Fly can fly their flag and secure his status as their best hurdler since the mighty Istabraq.
It will be the first time Mullins has managed to get his hugely talented but equally fragile superstar to the Festival and many will regard that as a triumph in itself. With seven victories in eight Grade Ones in Ireland Hurricane Fly has won his last four races, pummelling classy hurdler Solwhit each time.
His latest victory and most impressive performance came in the Irish Champion Hurdle and Hurricane Fly seemed to answer almost every question, turning in a near-faultless round to win easily. Jumping to his right at some obstacles (something his trainer believes would only happen in a small field) the son of Montjeu came to the last flight swinging on the bridle before quickening and disposing of Solwhit with consummate ease.
Sceptics will argue that the form doesn’t stack up but those who dismiss Hurricane Fly’s chances will need reminding that Solwhit is a multiple Grade One winner who was favourite for last year’s Champion Hurdle for some time. It would be easy for form students to say that Binocular beat Solwhit by eighteen lengths at Cheltenham but the latter wasn’t right that day and he remains a seriously difficult horse to pass.
What most people will agree on is that Hurricane Fly has everything you would want to see in a Champion Hurdle contender. His jumping is near faultless when he is concentrating on the task and he has enough speed to keep himself in a race should he make an early mistake. His slick jumping and his ability to cruise into a challenging position before knuckling down to the task are a potent mix and he has proved that he doesn’t mind getting in a battle to the line.
Binocular has made a habit of slipping away from his rivals and using his speed to put his races to bed, but he could find that move is impossible with Hurricane Fly in the field and the latter’s change of gears could make him very hard to shake off approaching the last.
With the likes of Peddlers Cross, Menorah and Dunguib also taking their chance in an enthralling looking renewal of the opening day feature, the challenge to Hurricane Fly looks formidable. However the faster pace and better ground at Cheltenham are certain to suit his breathtaking acceleration and with his slick jumping, ability to stay and his desire to get his head in front, the French import has all the necessary ingredients to finally prove he is the best hurdler on both sides of the Irish Sea.
Nick Wilby's selection - Hurricane Fly (best priced 11/2, Ladbrokes)