Titleholder Rock On Ruby and the previous three winners are among 34 entries for what is shaping up to be a vintage renewal of the Stan James Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham on 12 March.
Hurricane Fly, successful in 2011, Binocular (2010) and Punjabi (2009) are the past champions who could try to regain their crown. Last season it was Rock On Ruby’s turn when he was officially in the hands of Paul Nicholls, but under the supervision of rookie trainer Harry Fry. And he made an encouraging seasonal reappearance for Fry when third behind fellow Champion hopefuls Zarkandar and Grandouet in the StanJames.com International Hurdle at Cheltenham in December.
“Rock On Ruby is still very much on course for the Stan James Champion Hurdle,” said Fry. “He is all set for a prep run at either Sandown on February 2 [Contenders Hurdle] or at Wincanton on February 16 [Kingwell Hurdle], weather permitting, as I’m not sure what the winter is going to bring next. He is not going to run on heavy ground between now and Cheltenham.
“If the ground is decent, he will have a prep run but, if not, he will have a racecourse gallop instead.
“He is in great form at the moment and his run in the International has brought him on a ton – I am very pleased with him.
“[Jockey] Noel [Fehily] felt he was on the winner the whole way at Cheltenham. He travelled like the best horse in the race but the lack of a recent run at that level in those conditions counted against him turning in and over the last.
“I think he will have had to have improved since last year’s Champion Hurdle to win this year’s race but he has improved and is much bigger and stronger. My assistant, Ciara O’Connor, who rides Rock On Ruby every day, has been saying that all season, and Noel felt exactly the same after the run in December.”
Binocular and Punjabi account for just two of Nicky Henderson’s five Champion Hurdle triumphs along with three from See You Then. The Seven Barrows trainer holds a formidable hand with eight entries and his others include Christmas Hurdle victor Darlan, Grandouet and Oscar Whisky.
Now without Rock On Ruby, Nicholls will look to 2011 JCB Triumph Hurdle scorer Zarkandar and Pearl Swan. Donald McCain’s possible representatives include last year’s runner-up Overturn, 2011 second Peddlers Cross and 2012 William Hill Supreme Novices’ Hurdle winner Cinders And Ashes.
Hurricane Fly, trained by Willie Mullins, heads ten potential Irish challengers and is 7-2 favourite with the sponsors following his emphatic win in the Istabraq Festival at Leopardstown last month, with Darlan next best at 4-1.
Rory Jiwani of StanJames.com said: “Hurricane Fly has been the subject of considerable support since his facile win at Leopardstown over Christmas with Willie Mullins insisting the 2011 Champion is back to his best.”
Meanwhile, Saturday’s big card at Haydock is subject to an 8.30am inspection this morning.
With temperatures having dipped to as low as minus 4.5°C overnight, the forecast heading into the weekend is similarly bleak.
There is also the continued risk of snow towards the end of the week.
1.00 Gift Of Dreams
1.30 Milgen Bay
2.00 Natural Spring
2.30 Call Back
3.00 Tour D’Argent
3.30 Dollar Bill
4.00 Moll Flanders
1.50 Well Hello There
3.20 Brick Red
3.50 There’s No Panic
4.30 Beach Candy
5.00 Priestley’s Reward
5.30 Black Rider
7.00 Dubawi Island (nap)
7.30 Monsieur Pontaven