More may be revealed at the weekend about this season's pecking order among the best two-mile hurdlers, when the reigning king Punjabi is due to turn out at Haydock and two more high-profile contenders, Solwhit and Celestial Halo, square up at Leopardstown on Sunday. But however open and fluid the market may be for the Champion Hurdle, two facts emerged from yesterday's entry for the Cheltenham crown.
Firstly, one of last season's best novices, Mikael D'Haguenet, was not among the 34 names listed, and so will not be giving those who had backed him at as low as 14-1 a run for their money. And secondly, one of this term's most exciting young prospects, Dunguib, is there, which will keep another set of supporters sweating.
The seven-year-old, who treated his bumper rivals with contempt up the Cheltenham hill last March and has not been threatened in his three runs over obstacles, is 12-1 for the Champion Hurdle but a red-hot favourite for the Supreme Novices' Hurdle. The beginners' contest is still his preferred option, as his trainer, Philip Fenton, is at pains to emphasise. "That's all the Champion Hurdle entry is – an entry," he said. "The only thing that would change our minds is if the race became an easier target than it is now."
Novices do win Champion Hurdles, but only rarely; Alderbrook 15 years ago was the latest of only eight to have taken the title in the same season as their first victory over hurdles. But so impressive has Dunguib been that those who regard the gelding as the meeting's banker among his peers will be wishing the senior prize market principals good speed and good fortune over the next seven weeks.
Punjabi, who was patently ring-rusty when fourth to Khyber Kim on his seasonal comeback at Cheltenham last month, should have a straightforward task in the Champion Hurdle Trial on Saturday. The next day's Grade One test in Ireland, though, will be more competitive, with such as Donnas Palm, Torphichen and Sublimity also among the entries.
One intriguing new name in the Champion Hurdle mix is that of Rock Noir, a recent recruit to Jonjo O'Neill's yard from France. The five-year-old will in future carry the colours of J P McManus, whose prime title contender is Binocular, a close third last year to Punjabi and Celestial Halo.
Binocular, due to have his final prep at Sandown early next month, has been beaten by Go Native on his two starts this season. Rock Noir has won his last five starts at Auteuil, most recently a defeat of Jumbo Rio – since third to Solwhit and Sublimity – in a Grade One contest.
"Binocular has a little to find on Go Native," admitted McManus's racing manager, Frank Berry. "Rock Noir has settled in well, but we'll need to get a run into him before deciding about the Champion Hurdle. His form in France is very good, though, and it will be interesting to see how he stacks up against the English horses when he does run."
Jumping in Britain is once again on weather watch; yesterday's good card at Newbury was lost to snow and inspections are planned this morning at Ludlow, for today's card, and at Chepstow, for tomorrow's. But an additional fixture has been arranged for Monday at Newcastle, where racing returned to the northern circuit yesterday for the first time in 35 days. It proved a good afternoon's work for Howard Johnson, whose 58-1 treble with Diamond Frontier, The Knoxs and Toy Gun proved there is happiness in being a sandboy. The Co Durham trainer has kept his string on the move in one arena guaranteed not to freeze, the beach at Redcar.
Turf account: Sue Montgomery
Ghizao (1.30 Taunton) Getting off the mark over hurdles today should be a penalty kick for the highly-regarded dual bumper winner, runner-up at Cheltenham on his obstacles debut.
Sternlight (6.20 Wolverhampton) Travelled well until he ran out of puff on his return from a break earlier this month. Sprint-bred and drops in trip today, with first-time headgear.
One To Watch
Peak District (K Ryan) has been nudging down the ratings and shaping as if his turn will come. Not given a hard time after being stopped in his run at Wolverhampton on Sunday.
Where The Money's Going
Secant Star has been backed to 12-1 from 16-1 for the Triumph Hurdle with Paddy Power ahead of his run at Thurles today.
Chris McGrath's Nap
Keenes Royale (6.50 Wolverhampton).Reuse content