The field for this year’s Champion Hurdle may be small – the last time fewer of the two-mile elite faced the starter at Prestbury Park was when Night Nurse beat seven rivals in 1976 – but it is, by both common consent and the evidence of the form book, uniquely select.
The runners have won 33 top-level contests between them and, for the first time in this one, each has scored at least once at Grade 1 level or its equivalent before the present classification system was introduced 31 years ago.
After a record 14 winners at the Festival for the Irish last year, the first-day assault is once again led by their best performer over obstacles of recent years, one who has annexed more than twice as many Grade 1 prizes as today’s rivals put together.
Hurricane Fly (3.20) has a world record 19 wins to his credit and is going for his third Champion Hurdle, aiming to join a club that has only five other members.
This year will be his toughest task to date though and not just because of the quality of the opposition, which is headed by three of last season’s outstanding novices. The New One showed his affinity with the course and occasion as he powered home in the Neptune Novices’ Hurdle over five furlongs further than he has to gallop today, but has since proved equally adept over two miles and his stamina will serve him well up the demanding climb to the finish.
He is closely matched with My Tent Or Yours – in two meetings their score is one apiece – who lost little caste at last year’s Festival when he beat all bar Champagne Fever in the Supreme Novices and has not been beaten in four runs since. Last year’s leading juvenile Our Conor has not won since his breathtaking romp in the Triumph Hurdle 12 months ago, but has hardly been disgraced in chasing Hurricane Fly home, at decreasing margins, in his two senior runs.
With a small field, there is always the danger that the best jockey, rather than the best horse, emerges the winner, but the prospect of a tactical contest has largely been removed by the addition of formerly top-class, and still no mug, Captain Cee Bee, as a pacemaker. The front-running 13-year-old will primarily do duty for his two fellow JP McManus colourbearers My Tent Or Yours and Jezki, but will suit everyone.
The one caveat against Hurricane Fly is his age. Only two as old as 10 have won a Champion Hurdle, but he is younger than his years, having not had a strenuous youth over jumps. And the pair of triumphant oldies, Hatton’s Grace and Sea Pigeon, were not so much golden as diamond; each went on to take a third title as 11-year-olds.
The years will one day catch up with Hurricane Fly, but perhaps not yet, and it may be deemed foolhardy to desert a horse who rattles up top-level triumphs with metronomic consistency. Having seen off Ireland’s young pretenders, he can now do the same with Britain’s elite and confirm his place on the pantheon at the expense of The New One and Our Conor.
The Irish have their usual formidable hand in the novice Grade 1 contests, and can take the opening hurdle, but with one of their longer-priced challengers, Gilgamboa (1.30), who is progressive and battle-hardened in handicaps. Champagne Fever is back for more as a chaser, but former hurdles champion Rock On Ruby (2.05) is just as at home here. Quevega (4.00) cannot be opposed in the mare’s contest that she has won five times before and in the handicaps Green Flag (2.40), Foxrock (4.40) and Baby Mix (5.15) are suggested at better odds of reward.