Horses For Courses: No shortage of class in small field for Champion Hurdle

FLYING HOME: Hurricane Fly ridden by Ruby Walsh races to the finish to win the Ryanair Hurdle at Leopardstown.
FLYING HOME: Hurricane Fly ridden by Ruby Walsh races to the finish to win the Ryanair Hurdle at Leopardstown.
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Defending champion Hurricane Fly heads 18 entries for the Stan James Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham on March 11.

The Willie Mullins-trained 10-year-old will be bidding to become the sixth three-time winner of hurdling’s premier event and the first since Istabraq – successful for Aidan O’Brien in 1998, 1999 and 2000 – and also the first not to achieve the feat in successive years.

Hurricane Fly captured his first Champion Hurdle crown in 2011 and became only the second horse to regain the crown when getting the better of the 2012 victor Rock On Ruby last year.

After confirming his superiority over Rock On Ruby at Punchestown in April, Hurricane Fly made a triumphant seasonal debut in the Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown in November – a record-breaking 17th Grade One success.

He then extended that sequence to 18 by beating fellow Champion entries Jezki and Our Conor in the Ryanair Hurdle at Leopardstown last month.

Although the number of entries is on the small side, the class of horse is as high as ever, with Nicky Henderson’s My Tent Or Yours and The New One, trained by Nigel Twiston-Davies, heading the home team.

The pair finished first and second, respectively, in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton on Boxing Day.

Jezki was considered unlucky in the Ryanair Hurdle and gets another crack at Hurricane Fly in the BHP Insurance Irish Champion Hurdle back at Leopardstown on Sunday week.

“At the moment, the Stan James Champion Hurdle is very much the aim for Jezki,” said his trainer, Jessica Harrington.

“He runs a week on Sunday in the Irish Champion Hurdle.

“He went to Cheltenham last year and was beaten by two very good horses (in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle). His jumping was probably a little bit sloppy on the day, but he gets two and a half miles and I see no reason why he won’t run very well in the Champion Hurdle.”

Hurricane Fly is not the only classy performer Mullins has put in the Champion. The County Carlow handler is also responsible for Grade One-winning mare Annie Power, exciting French import Un De Sceaux and stable stalwart Thousand Stars.

As well as My Tent Or Yours, Henderson has entered Grandouet and Rolling Star as he looks for a record sixth Champion triumph.

Ptit Zig is Paul Nicholls’s sole entry, while his 2012 winner Rock On Ruby, now with Harry Fry, also figures but he is expected to stick to novice chasing, with the Arkle Trophy his target.

Among other Champion possibles are Elite Hurdle scorer Melodic Rendezvous and Cinders And Ashes, winner of the 2012 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.

La Estrella moved to within one win of the record number of British victories on the all-weather with a determined performance at Lingfield.

Don Cantillon’s 11-year-old has 24 successes on an artificial surface to his name, with China Castle holding the record on 25.

With no suitable opportunity at his beloved Southwell, where the veteran has recorded 15 wins, La Estrella headed to Surrey where he was a 4-7 favourite for the two-mile Claiming Stakes.

Trainer Jessica Harrington watches Our Dukeat her Commonstown Stables in Moone, Ireland. PIC: Niall Carson/PA Wire

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