Defending champion Hurricane Fly features among a total of 27 entries for this year’s £370,000 Grade One Stan James Champion Hurdle, highlight of the first day of The Festival at Cheltenham, Champion Day, Tuesday, March 13.
The Willie Mullins-trained eight-year-old recorded an authoritative length and quarter victory in the extended two-mile championship contest last season before going on to capture a ninth Grade One success at Punchestown in May. He is currently the 2/1 favourite for the Stan James Champion Hurdle with the race sponsor as he bids to become the first horse since Hardy Eustace (2004 & 2005) to win back-to-back renewals.
Hurricane Fly is due to make his seasonal return in the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown on January 29, when his main opposition is set to come from last year’s JCB Triumph Hurdle runner-up Unaccompanied, who gained a second success at the highest level when taking the Grade One Istabraq Festival Hurdle at Leopardstown on December 29 and is bidding to emulate the two other mares to win the Stan James Champion Hurdle – Dawn Run (1984) and Flakey Dove (1994).
The five-year-old, a 12/1 chance for Cheltenham glory with Stan James, is trained by Dermot Weld and owned by Moyglare Stud, who have enjoyed numerous successes together on the Flat with horses such as 2,000 Guineas winner Refuse To Bend and Belmont Stakes hero Go And Go.
Stan Cosgrove, manager of Moyglare Stud, commented: “Unaccompanied is due to run in the Irish Champion Hurdle and then she will hopefully head on to Cheltenham. I think that Dermot is confident that she can run well against Hurricane Fly and we have to take him on at some point.
“She was impressive in the Istabraq Festival Hurdle, when she was given a great ride by Paul Townend, and her run in the JCB Triumph Hurdle was very good at last year’s Festival. She is better with a bit of give in the ground but she beat St Nicholas Abbey on the Flat and I can definitely see her as a serious contender for the Stan James Champion Hurdle.”
Zarkandar, who beat Unaccompanied by two and a quarter lengths in last year’s JCB Triumph Hurdle, may return to Cheltenham for trainer Paul Nicholls alongside the third from the same race, Grandouet, who features among a formidable quartet of entries from the stable of Nicky Henderson that also includes the 2010 Stan James Champion Hurdle victor Binocular, last year’s William Hill Supreme Novices’ Hurdle runner-up Spirit Son and Oscar Whisky, third behind Hurricane Fly last year.
Other entries of note include Hurricane Fly’s stable companion Thousand Stars, the Nicholls-trained trio of Brampour, Celestial Halo and Rock On Ruby, plus the Donald McCain pair of Overturn and Peddlers Cross, who was second to Hurricane Fly in last season’s Champion Hurdle.