After he teed up a record 13 winners in 2011, the Irish once again send their best National Hunt performer of recent seasons to lead the assault on the opening day of the Festival. Hurricane Fly appealed as a good bet for the Stan James Champion Hurdle last year; and, for any who heeded the counsel of his jockey, he briefly became good value when eased in the betting on account of a delayed reappearance. After that breathtaking resumption at Leopardstown in January, however, he is a short price to retain his crown today. Anyone having a bet must either be comfortable with those odds, then, or seek out some each-way value.
Since being obliged to sit out consecutive Festivals in his younger days, Hurricane Fly has achieved metronomic consistency. He has won his last seven starts, all in Grade One races. Making his first appearance on the Cheltenham hill last year, he cruised through the race as usual and readily outpaced Peddlers Cross. Admittedly, he then had to be driven out to win by a length and a half, but the second and third have both fled to different disciplines since. While there is fresh blood in this field, in Zarkandar and Rock On Ruby, as well as a rejuvenated champion, in Binocular, Hurricane Fly has compiled a CV that identifies him as the best winner of this race since Istabraq. And it is asking a bit much for anything else to match that kind of standard, never mind surpass it.
Zarkandar merits respect, naturally, unbeaten over hurdles as he is, including in a Triumph Hurdle here last year that has since proved very solid form. Albeit leniently treated, he did well to overcome rustiness and inexperience in a valuable handicap on his return; equally, he took so long to organise that he surely cannot match Hurricane Fly for pace.
Binocular looked right back to his best in his rehearsal at Wincanton, giving Celestial Halo an unceremonious thrashing. The 2010 champion had previously been dragged into a scrap by Rock On Ruby in the Christmas Hurdle and, while connections of the runner-up reckon he will be better suited by this track, it seems clear that Binocular broke some shackles in meanwhile undergoing a wind operation. He is hardly over the hill – he is a contemporary of Hurricane Fly, after all – but his overall profile makes it hard to accept he has quite the quality of the favourite. As we saw with Istabraq himself, their very consistency is one of the things that sets the best apart.
Though Hurricane Fly left him for dead at Leopardstown,Oscars Well seems likely to make a better fist of things restored to spring ground. He was running a stormer when losing all momentum at the last as a novice here last year.
Brampour and Kalann look exposed as out of their depth, and the same will be assumed of Overturn after he trailed in only seventh last year. But this tremendously tough creature was not at his most redoubtable that day. He has since reached new heights on the Flat, and was still on a roll when returned to timber for the first half of the campaign. If Binocular has since warned that his defeat in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle in November should not be taken literally, the fact is that Celestial Halo was another 16 lengths away in third – and no other horse could beat that one in four starts before he went to Wincanton. Overturn's hectic campaign seemed to catch up with him after that, but he has been freshened up by 11 weeks off and, crucially, could enjoy an uncontested lead. On top of his game, this is a very hard animal to pass.
The other one that may surpass expectations is the favourite's stablemate. Willie Mullins seems to view Zaidpour as between a rock and a hard place, pitching him in here largely because the ground would be faster still if he waited to tackle Big Buck's on Thursday. But the suspicion persists that this horse has unfinished business, and that an emphasis on speed might actually suit him. After exploding on to the scene, Zaidpour lost his way in the second half of his novice season and a midfield finish in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle here last year is no guide to his merit. Rather as with Quel Esprit over fences, Mullins has since renewed Zaidpour's confidence in relatively shallow waters. He has been up and down in distance, admittedly, but it was no mean feat to give the thriving Voler La Vedette 7lb and a comfortable beating at Gowran Park in January.
Plainly, Hurricane Fly is the class act. But he must share the podium with two other horses and, at 25-1 and 33-1 respectively, Overturn and Zaidpour look palatable each-way alternatives for those intimidated by the odds about the favourite.
Champion hurdle: the experts' verdict
Chris McGrath (Racing Correspondent) 1. Hurricane Fly 2. Zaidpour 3. Overturn
James Lawton (Chief Sports Writer) 1. Binocular 2. Hurricane Fly 3. Zarkandar
James Corrigan (sports writer) 1. Rock On Ruby 2. Hurricane Fly 3. Oscars Well
Sue Montgomery (racing writer) 1. Hurricane Fly 2. Oscars Well 3. Binocular
Hyperion (tipster) 1. Hurricane Fly 2. Zarkandar 3. Binocular
John Cobb (Associate Editor, Racing Post ) 1. Rock On Ruby 2. Oscars Well 3. Hurricane Fly
£100 charity bet - Courtesy of Betfred
Day One Alastair Down, Channel 4 Racing: Carrickboy 5.15 – £50 each-way