This weekend the focus will start to sharpen on the Champion Hurdle scene, notably – and, nominally, appropriately – on the reigning king, Binocular. Weather allowing, the six-year-old will open the defence of his crown in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle. And yesterday, though confident that his charge is as ready as he can be at this stage of the campaign, his trainer, Nicky Henderson, was still reaching for all available talismans.
It was in the same Grade One race 12 months ago that Binocular's season made a stuttering start before ultimately coming good. Then, JP McManus's colourbearer started odds-on to beat six rivals but could finish only fifth to Go Native. This time he will again be a hot favourite, in an even smaller field. "I do know he's in good form," said Henderson, "and I'm happier with him now than I was last year.
"That's not to say there was something obviously amiss back then but I wasn't that confident. And I wouldn't be again – it's a very good race, as it should be – and it's not the Champion Hurdle, it's just the first step on the road back to Cheltenham."
The chief test of Binocular's present mettle is perceived as coming from one of last term's most upwardly mobile novices, the unbeaten Peddlers Cross. The five-year-old, whose six-for-six record includes victories at the Cheltenham and Aintree festivals, will be taking on his seniors for the first time. "He's ready to do himself justice," said trainer Donald McCain. "I think he's a special horse and we'll know a lot more about where we stand after the weekend."
There were bullish reports, too, from Alan Fleming on behalf of Starluck, in front of Binocular in last year's Christmas Hurdle at Kempton, the next elite pit-stop on the domestic programme after Newcastle, but well behind in the Champion Hurdle. "He's a lot stronger this year," he said. "He's put on muscle where he didn't have any before."
Irish raider Sublimity, Fighting Fifth runner-up for the past two years, was a defector yesterday, in view of the forecast soft ground. The former champion may opt for a lower-grade contest on Saturday at Fairyhouse where, the following day, a selection of Ireland's title contenders face up in the Hatton's Grace Hurdle.
The two-and-a-half mile Grade One race is scheduled as the eagerly awaited return to action of Hurricane Fly, currently second favourite behind Binocular in the ante-post Cheltenham lists, but favourite at Fairyhouse is the Willie Mullins-trained six-year-old's old rival Solwhit, who has had the benefit of a victory already this season.
However the established hurdlers fare at the weekend, there may be a potent threat without their ranks in the powerful shape of an apparently outstanding novice, Cue Card. The four-year-old, trained by Colin Tizzard, is likely to be given a chance in next month's International Hurdle at Cheltenham.
Sue Montgomery's Nap
Alverstone (1.00 Newbury) This Lawney Hill-trained mare returned last month from a long absence with an eye-catching victory in open-sex company.
Organisateur (2.20 Taunton) Drops in class, steps up in distance and has won at the track under today's competent young pilot.
One to watch
Point-to-point winner Mr Moonshine (S J Smith) looked a natural back over fences earlier this month, but remains on a handy hurdling mark.
Where the money's going
Nicky Henderson's Burton Port was trimmed a point to 7-1 yesterday by Totesport for Saturday's Hennessy Gold Cup.
Chris McGrath's Nap
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