With the countdown to the 2014 Cheltenham Festival well underway, we begin our more in depth look at some of the meeting's feature races, starting with the Champion Hurdle. Tell us who you think will win the first of the Championship races using the poll below.
Hurricane Fly may have reached veteran status, but the Willie Mullins-trained superstar has shown this campaign that he still oozes the class and ability that has seen him land two Champion Hurdle crowns in recent years and the Co. Carlow wonder will return to the Cheltenham Festival on March 11 to try and make it a hat-trick of wins in what is set to be a memorable showpiece on the opening day of the Prestbury Park extravaganza.
With 20 wins out of 22 career starts, the Fly has certainly propelled into legendary status, but he will have a whole new battalion of exciting stars to beat this season and he will have to be at his imperious best to cement his place at the head of the hurdling hierarchy in a race that is expected to be one of the races of a generation.
The young pretenders are spearheaded by Nicky Henderson’s My Tent Or Yours, who outbattled another exciting talent in the shape of last year’s Neptune Novices’ Hurdle winner The New One in a cracking duel in the Christmas Hurdle, but can the JP McManus-owned raider frank the form when the pair lock horns in Gloucestershire in the spring?
A heavily backed favourite for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle last season, My Tent Or Yours was just outstayed up the energy-sapping Cheltenham hill by Champagne Fever and the Seven Barrows star may just lack that final furlong grit to land this coveted crown and Nigel Twiston-Davies will certainly believe The New One can turn the tables from the aforementioned Kempton Park clash.
A last flight blunder by The New One in the Christmas Hurdle handed the initiative to My Tent Or Yours, but with proven festival-winning form over 2m 5f shows that the Naunton inmate will have no issue with finishing off his race and with the breakneck gallop likely to test the resolve of each gladiator it could well be the local star who comes out on top in this mini battle.
Twiston-Davies’s six-year-old has amassed four wins from his six outings at Cheltenham and he duly eased six lengths clear of a decent yardstick in Zarkandar in the International Hurdle at the December meeting, but Paul Nicholls’ former Triumph winner has often found it tough at the highest level over two miles and has now been sent to tackle the World Hurdle later in the week, so The New One should’ve beaten the Ditcheat runner with ease if he is to be regarded as a genuine Champion candidate.
He may be able to oust My Tent Or Yours, but The New One will have to produce a career best to outdo Hurricane Fly, who was at his domineering best when getting the better of Our Conor and Jezki for the second time in a month when landing his fourth consecutive Irish Champion Hurdle crown at Leopardstown.
Yet again Hurricane Fly showed a sensational turn of pace and duly asserted late on to emerge victorious and it’s tough to see him not doing the same at Cheltenham, even with Our Conor returning to the track that saw him emphatically land the JCB Triumph Hurdle last March in superb fashion for Dessie Hughes.
It is often touched on by many racing aficionados that the Fly is a superior horse at Leopardstown, but his resolve at Prestbury Park is equally as impressive and if he can produce his A game on the big occasion on March 11 then he has to be the one they all have to beat and that is why he is at the head of the 2014 Champion Hurdle Betting.
Our Conor ran admirably when finishing closer to Hurricane Fly in the Irish Champion and he showed that he excels around Cheltenham’s undulations, but he has just lacked that top class turn of pace to land a blow at the highest level and he may have to settle for the minor honours, whilst Jezki, who was behind My Tent Or Yours in the aforementioned Supreme, is another who could just struggle against the elite and may be outclassed in this mouth-watering event.
Annie Power has catapulted into the elite hurdling division with a multitude of facile successes, but her destination is still unknown and whilst many feel that she could be sent over the minimum distance it’s hard to see Mullins putting her up against Hurricane Fly and she could well be seen later in the week doing battle in the Ladbrokes World Hurdle.
A much more prominent rival to the Fly and another unknown quantity is Un De Sceaux, who has steamrollered his opposition this campaign and whilst he has beaten trees in his few starts, has looked like he could be the real deal and his front-running tactics are sure to make it a cut-throat gallop from the flag fall.
Messrs Mullins and Walsh have often alluded to this gelding’s engine and that he could be “anything” and at 14/1 with Bet Victor at the moment has to be the genuine each-way play and along with the The New One could be the biggest danger to Hurricane Fly and adds another sensational string to the travelling Irish bow.
Jeremy Scott’s Melodic Rendezvous is another who could be regarded as an each-way play in the race, but he has yet to shine at the highest level in his career and may find it tough in a race that will set the pulses racing and more importantly get the 2014 Cheltenham Festival off to a dramatic start with the winner sure to be etched into the great category of the classic contest.
Whilst it’s tough to look away from Hurricane Fly landing a third Champion Hurdle crown, the statistics don’t all bode well for fans of the Irish speedster as the last 10-year-old to land this prize came in 1981 with the mighty Sea Pigeon and prior to that it was the sensational Hatton’s Grace who defied his years to land the crown as a 10-year-old in 1950.
However, some could say that the Fly can well and truly be uttered in the same breath as such hurdling heavyweights as Sea Pigeon and Hatton’s Grace and he can duly emulate the legendary Istabraq by landing his third Champion Hurdle victory and cement his place as one of the finest hurdlers of all time.
Predicted 2014 Champion Hurdle Finishing Order
1st Hurricane Fly 2nd The New One 3rd Un De Sceaux