The Festival is now almost here and the countdown steps up a gear today with the publication of the six-day confirmations for the opening day, Tuesday, March 10. Binocular heads the 24 acceptors for the highlight of day one, the £370,000 Smurfit Kappa Champion Hurdle (3.20pm). The Nicky Henderson-trained five-year-old is chasing a £200,000 bonus offered by Irish bookmakers Boylesports having taken the Boylesports.com International on his latest appearance at Ascot in December and is currently the warm favourite to give the master of Seven Barrows a fourth success in the championship event following See You Then’s hat-trick in 1985, 1986 and1987. Henderson could also run last year’s third Punjabi.
However, Binocular is set to face some stiff opposition, with four previous winners of the race also among today’s acceptors - the 2004 and 2005 scorer Hardy Eustace, 2006 victor Brave Inca, the 2007 winner Sublimity and Katchit, triumphant 12 months ago. Other leading contenders include last year’s JCB Triumph Hurdle winner Celestial Halo, who is aiming to give champion trainer Paul Nicholls his first Smurfit Kappa Champion Hurdle success and the David Pipe-trained Osana, runner-up behind Katchit last year. Another Festival winner from 2008 out to record a second success at Jump racing’s greatest event is Crack Away Jack, successful in the Fred Winter Juvenile Novices’ Hurdle last year.
There are 10 Irish-trained acceptors. In addition to the aforementioned Hardy Eustace and Brave Inca, these also include the 2005 runner-up Harchibald, last seasons’s leading novice Jered, Won In The Dark, third to Celestial Halo in the JCB Triumph Hurdle last season and Sizing Europe, who disappointed when starting favourite in 2008.