Ruby Walsh and Willie Mullins believe today’s Stan James Champion Hurdle can boast its best line-up in years, but the pair are oozing confidence ahead of two-times winner Hurricane Fly’s bid to retain his crown on day one of the Cheltenham Festival.
With a world-record 19 Grade One victories to his credit, the ten-year-old now bids to become only the sixth horse to land this sought-after prize three times. “I rode Hurricane Fly and he seems to be in good form,” said Walsh. “He has obviously travelled over a good few times, so he knows what it is and you would be more worried about one of the younger horses that hasn’t travelled before. The Champion Hurdle line-up is what it is – it was never going to be any different. He has been here and done it twice before and if we are being clinical about it, the others have got something to prove in a Champion Hurdle, whereas he hasn’t. It looks as if Captain Cee Bee will make the running, but there could be a curve-ball or two.”
Mullins could not be happier with his pride and joy after assessing his well-being at the track on the eve of the Festival. “His preparation has gone well and he has travelled over well,” said the County Carlow handler. “He looks very good and appears in good form. It is a very hot race, as a Champion Hurdle should be, but we are just focusing on our own horse and we are very happy with where we are with him.”
The horse rated by bookmakers as the biggest threat to Hurricane Fly is local hope The New One, trained by Nigel Twiston-Davies and ridden by his son, Sam. The six-year-old has saved his very best efforts for Cheltenham, winning four of his six course starts, including when successful in the Neptune Investment Management Novices’ Hurdle 12 months ago. He has won twice from three starts this season and was last seen running fellow Champion Hurdle candidate My Tent Or Yours close in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton on Boxing Day, despite a mistake at the last. Twiston-Davies snr said: “Preparations have gone smoothly and it must be a plus that he has done so well at the course. I think it’s the hottest (Champion Hurdle) there has been for a very long time.”
My Tent Or Yours, runner-up behind the Mullins-trained Champagne Fever in last year’s Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, has won the Fighting Fifth, the Christmas Hurdle and a jumpers’ bumper so far this term. Nicky Henderson, who has saddled five previous winners of the Champion Hurdle, said: “The Christmas Hurdle was good, it showed there’s not very much between him and The New One and they are the best of the Brits. Hurricane Fly is still the one to beat. Each year we come in here and everyone is trying to find reasons to beat him.”
In the Racing Post Arkle Challenge Trophy, Harry Fry could not be happier as Rock On Ruby attempts to continue his excellent Festival record at Cheltenham. The seven-year-old has finished in the first two in all his three previous visits, winning the Champion Hurdle on this day in 2012 and finishing runner-up 12 months ago, as well as going down by a short head in the Neptune Investment Management Novices’ Hurdle in 2011. Critics will point to the fact Rock On Ruby has only had the two runs over fences, winning both, but that was due to the trainer avoiding the incessant heavy ground during the winter. With conditions drying out just at the right time, Fry goes to Prestbury Park full of confidence. “We couldn’t have wished for a better run-up on the weather front,” the Seaborough handler said. “It’s been fantastic with all this warm weather. Drying ground is a huge positive for him and we’re really excited about his chances.”
Alan King knows what it takes to land this prize, having struck with Voy Por Ustedes and My Way De Solzen in 2006 and 2007. He has high hopes with Valdez, who is undefeated in three starts over fences, while Champagne Fever has a perfect Festival record, winning the Weatherbys Champion Bumper in 2012 and the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle last year.
The opening race is the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and connections of Irving believe there is even more to come from the unbeaten six-year-old. Paul Nicholls’ runner goes into the race with a record of four wins from as many starts over jumps and jockey Nick Scholfield said: “It’s very exciting to be riding the favourite in the Supreme. He’s four out of four and you can’t dismiss what he’s done.”