15:20 Cheltenham: Conor ready for Champion challenge
Hurricane Fly is bidding to become just the sixth horse to win the Champion Hurdle for the third time and Willie Mullins’ gelding is the one they all have to beat on form. He has won 21 of his 24 races since joining Mullins, and 19 of those successes have been in Grade 1 company.
The 10-year-old dug deep to win 12 months ago and has looked as good as ever in notching three wins this season. The latest of those came in the Irish Champion Hurdle where he beat Our Conor by 1 1/2 lengths, having looked vulnerable at the last when the runner-up cruised up front.
Hurricane Fly sets the standard for others to aim at, but could struggle given his age to some classy up-and-coming types.
Fellow Irish raider Our Conor has been brought along steadily by Dessie Hughes with this race solely in mind and looks a major player. The gelding ran out one of the most impressive winners in the history of the Triumph Hurdle 12 months ago, and has shaped well in two runs this season behind Hurricane Fly.
The five-year-old got beat 5 3/4 lengths into third in the Ryanair Hurdle at Leopardstown and then reduced that gap to 1 1/2 lengths when runner-up in the Irish Champion Hurdle at the same venue. Granted similar progress, he has every chance of finishing in front on this occasion. Likely to get a strong pace for the first time since his success in the Triumph, a return to this track is also a big plus.
The big hope of the home team is Nigel Twiston-Davies’ The New One. Last year’s Neptune Investment Management Novices’ Hurdle winner looked an unlucky loser when making a bad mistake at the last and going down by just 1/2 a length to My Tent or Yours when they met in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton on Boxing Day.
He lost little in defeat, and the stats reveal that those who have been beaten in that race have fared far better in the Champion Hurdle than actual winners. Prior to that, he had easily accounted for Zarkandar in the International Hurdle at this track.
A strong gallop and return to this venue are likely to see him go very close, and has a potent turn of foot. He will need holding up to the last possible moment by jockey Sam Twiston-Davies.
My Tent Or Yours was a top class novice last season, finishing runner-up in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle before cruising home at Aintree. Nicky Henderson’s gelding is unbeaten in two runs this term, having landed the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle and the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton.
He showed real battling qualities in the latter to beat The New One by 1/2 a length, but may have been a bit fortunate as that rival made a costly mistake at the last. My Tent Or Yours is bidding to become only the second horse to complete the Christmas Hurdle/Champion Hurdle double since Dawn Run in 1983/84, but suffered a late injury scare when pricking a hoof. He is said to be over that, but has to be seen as a negative.
Jessica Harrington’s Jezki is being fitted with the hood for the first time and has the ability to run a big race if the headgear has the desired effect. He finished a fine third in last year’s Supreme, just behind My Tent Or Yours, and also won three Grade 1 contests.
Jezki has finished behind Hurricane Fly in his last two runs when ridden by Tony McCoy in muddling run contests, but is now reunited with Barry Geraghty, who is unbeaten on him in four races over hurdles and clearly knows how to get the best out of him. This race is likely to be run to suit and, although considered to be owner JP McManus’ second-string, is no forlorn hope to spring a surprise.