Sat, Nov

Racing Focus

Defending champion Hurricane Fly headlines 18 entries for the £400,000 Grade One Stan James Champion Hurdle over an extended two miles, the highlight on the first day of The Festival, Champion Day, Tuesday, 11 March.

The Willie Mullins-trained star will be bidding to become the sixth three-time winner of hurdling's top race and the first since Istabraq, who triumphed for Aidan O'Brien in 1998, 1999 and 2000 and the first not in successive years.

Hurricane Fly captured his first Stan James Champion Hurdle in 2011 and became only the second horse to regain the crown when getting the better of the 2012 victor Rock On Ruby in a thrilling finish to last year's renewal.

After confirming his superiority over Rock On Ruby at the Punchestown Festival in April, Hurricane Fly returned this season with a gutsy victory in the Grade One Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown in November – a record-breaking 17th Grade One success.

The 10-year-old extended that sequence to 18 with a decisive two and a half-length success over Jezki (Jessica Harrington) and JCB Triumph Hurdle hero Our Conor (Dessie Hughes) in the Grade One Ryanair Hurdle at Leopardstown on 29 December.

Jezki did not enjoy the clearest of runs in the Ryanair Hurdle and his trainer Jessica Harrington is keen for the six-year-old to take his chance in the Stan James Champion Hurdle. Jezki has run twice before at The Festival, finishing third in the Sky Supreme Novices' Hurdle last year and eighth in the 2012 Weatherbys Champion Bumper.

Jessica Harrington commented: "At the moment, the Stan James Champion Hurdle is very much the aim for Jezki.

"I have been delighted with him since Christmas. Maybe he was a bit unlucky there, but he ran a very good race and it was the first time he had come up against that class of horse.

"He runs a week on Sunday in the Irish Champion Hurdle. His preparation has gone very well and we will have to wait to see if he can get closer to Hurricane Fly – it all depends on luck in running and how the race goes.

"He went to Cheltenham last year and was beaten by two very good horses. His jumping was probably a little bit sloppy on the day, but he gets two and a half miles and I see no reason why he won't run very well in the Champion Hurdle."

Mullins is also responsible for Grade One-winning mare Annie Power, who recorded a ninth straight success in the Dornan Engineering Hurdle at Cheltenham on New Year's Day, and French import Un De Sceaux, who has won all six of his career starts in facile fashion. Three-time Grade One victor Thousand Stars completes the quartet for Ireland's champion trainer.

Hurricane Fly is joined at the top of the Stan James betting by The New One, who annexed last season's Grade One Neptune Investment Management Novices' Hurdle at The Festival.

The six-year-old announced himself as a serious contender for the Stan James Champion Hurdle with a 10-length demolition of Rock On Ruby at Kempton Park in October and a six-length victory in the Grade Two International Hurdle at Cheltenham in December.

Nigel Twiston-Davies' charge went down by half a length to Fighting Fifth Hurdle hero My Tent Or Yours, unbeaten this season and trained by Nicky Henderson, in a vintage renewal of the Grade One Christmas Hurdle at Kempton Park on Boxing Day.

Henderson, the most successful current trainer in the Stan James Champion Hurdle with five victories, has also entered Grandouet and Rolling Star.

Other notables engaged include Ptit Zig (Paul Nicholls), a Grade One winner at Auteuil in October, Grade Two Elite Hurdle victor Melodic Rendezvous (Jeremy Scott)and 2012 Supreme Novices' Hurdle hero Cinders And Ashes (Donald McCain).

Rory Jiwani of sponsor said: "We're delighted to see such a high-class entry for this year's StanJames Champion Hurdle.

"It's shaping up to be the race of The Festival with reigning champion Hurricane Fly sharing favouritism at 3/1 with last year's Neptune Investment Management Novices' Hurdle winner The New One.

"We laid Willie Mullins' star heavily after his lacklustre reappearance in the Morgiana but he looked as good as ever in the Ryanair Hurdle over Christmas and he's by far our worst result in the book. Nicky Henderson's My Tent Or Yours is next best at 4/1 despite beating The New One at Kempton last time out.

"Outside the big three, Ireland adds real depth with runaway Triumph winner Our Conor, Jezki and Willie Mullins' unexposed pair of Annie Power and Un De Sceaux all holding live chances.

"Paul Nicholls' sole entry Ptit Zig and Melodic Rendezvous will demonstrate their credentials in Saturday's Champion Hurdle Trial at Haydock, while last year's runner-up and 2012 Champion Hurdler Rock On Ruby is also in the 18-strong entry list although his target appears to be the Racing Post Arkle Chase, also on Day One."