A star-studded list of equine brilliance swamps the roll of honour for the Champion Hurdle, but this season there will be a new kid on the block aiming to etch his name alongside some of the National Hunt greats like Hatton's Grace, Persian War and Istabraq. Willie Mullins's Faugheen will be the star attraction in this year's renewal, as the Irish superstar aims to maintain his unblemished record in the opening day showpiece.
Main Champion Hurdle Contenders
Eight wins out of eight have propelled Faugheen into the elite category of hurdlers and he showed with an exquisite victory in last season's Neptune Novices' Hurdle that he is a horse for the big occasion and the Co. Carlow hotpot will bid for back-to-back Cheltenham Festival wins and is the red-hot 5/4 favourite with Paddy Power for the Stan James Champion Hurdle on March 10.
A four-and-a-half length winner of the Neptune last season, the son of Germany then eased to a facile 12-length win at the Punchestown Festival to enhance his already lofty reputation. Whilst he had dominated a host of novice hurdlers last season, he was handed his first test against experienced campaigners in the Coral Hurdle at Ascot.
Sent off as a 1/4 favourite, the seven-year-old was never tested by a relatively mediocre field, but it was the manner he quickened in soft ground after the final hurdle that got punters purring, as he stormed clear to win in impressive fashion.
Handed a festive date at Kempton Park next up, Faugheen yet again blew his rivals away in the Christmas Hurdle, with his most likely danger Irving pulling up in the middle of the race, but the way he tanked through the race suggests he could be a true great of the sport and that's why he is now hovering just above Even money for the Champion Hurdle.
Yes, he's going to be very tough to beat, but he is yet to test himself against top class hurdlers and he's sure to be tested off a fierce gallop in the Champion and at 5/4 with just under six weeks to go is not a betting proposition for what is a race that oozes class at the top of the market.
His first major adversary will be reigning champion Jezki, who will relish a return to Prestbury Park and for some could be the biggest danger to his Emerald Isle rival at 6/1 with Betfred. Jessica Harrington's stable star has suffered a hat-trick of defeats to Hurricane Fly this season, but the spring ground is sure to aid the JP McManus-owned runner and he can't be discounted.
Having just been edged out by the aforementioned Hurricane Fly in the Morgiana Hurdle at the start of the season, Jezki was then forced to play second fiddle to the Fly in the Ryanair Hurdle, as Willie Mullins's charge showed a better turn of foot in softer conditions.
A glaring mistake at the final flight when eye-balled by Hurricane Fly in the Irish Champion Hurdle saw Jezki's chance in that Grade 1 disappear, but he showed last season that he has the measure of Mullins' veteran at Prestbury Park and it's tough to see the Fly franking their Irish form.
Many believed that Hurricane Fly would be unable to feature prominently again at the highest level when he came fourth in last season's Champion, but that triumvirate of aforementioned victories over Jezki has seen the 22-times Grade 1 trimmed to 8/1 with most firms, as he attempts to win the Champion Hurdle trophy for the third time in his illustrious career.
However, Ruby Walsh has often touched on the fact that the 11-year-old is not at his best at Cheltenham and he could well just lack that final burst of speed to get up the hill in the latter stages, and with Walsh potentially getting the leg up on Faugheen then he may just have to settle for the minor honours once again.
The New One makes up a sparkling quartet of top class hurdlers at the head of the betting and Nigel Twiston-Davies' charge is currently trading as a 3/1 second-favourite, as he aims to build on last season's third place finish in the blue riband event.
Hampered at a crucial stage by the ill-fated fall of Our Conor saw The New One's chance vanish last season, but an eye-catching surge up the hill late on to grab third had connections dreaming that this season could be the year for the former Neptune winner.
Four wins out of four this season has seen him pick up some valuable prizes, but whilst he was electric in his International Hurdle romp, he was rather workmanlike when reeling in Bertimont in heavy going at Doncaster in the Champion Hurdle Trial, as his stamina kicked in late on to land the prize.
He undoubtedly oozes quality, but the jury is certainly out on whether he just lacks that tactical speed at the crucial moment, and he could just be vulnerable if the pace quickens on the front end. He will stay on up the hill and should make the frame, but the Naunton inmate may just be tapped for toe by his rivals and the 3/1 in the win market is worth avoiding.
Worth A Second Look
There's a significant gulf in prices between the abovementioned quartet than the others and this is where punters will be trying to get that each-way value in what could be a race that only sees a relatively small field go to post on the opening day of the Cheltenham Festival.
Arctic Fire could make it a hat-trick of Willie Mullins-trained geldings lining up and he produced a career best when finishing a two-length third in the Ryanair Hurdle over the festive period. Capitalising on Jezki's final flight blunder in the Irish Champion he stayed on for a runner-up spot, but it's hard to see him turn any of that Irish form round and at 16/1 with most firms is woeful value.
One that could outrun his odds on the day is Paul Nicholls's Irving, who at 40/1 with bet365 is worth a significant each-way bet as he has the potential to improve on what has been a real topsy-turvy season for the Ditcheat inmate.
A leading contender for last year's Supreme Novices' Hurdle, he failed to land a blow and then the seven-year-old duly crashed out in the closing stages of the Elite Hurdle at Wincanton, a race won by Purple Bay (50/1). A comfortable one-and-three-quarter length win over Mares' Hurdle candidate Aurore D'estruval in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle showed he can produce the goods at Graded level, but another no-show in the Christmas Hurdle left many people doubting his ability.
He was found to have an abscess in his foot following his failure to complete at Kempton Park, but Nicholls is set to let him take his chance in the Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton before a pop at the Champion, and if the real Irving can turn up on the day then he is somewhat the unknown quantity and could challenge his older rivals for the place money and at 40/1 is worth siding with.
Vaniteux (40/1) struggled to deal with Rock On Ruby at Cheltenham's New Year's Day fixture and will struggle if he takes his place, whilst the likes of last season's Triumph winner Tiger Roll (50/1) and Kitten Rock (40/1) will find things tough in what is a red-hot division.
Faugheen is entitled to be a short-priced favourite for the Stan James Champion Hurdle, as he has been stunning throughout his hurdling career and he could well be the next superstar and dominating figure of the hurdling sphere.
However, with six weeks to go and not many Champion Hurdle trials to take place then his price of 5/4 is rather skinny and you'd have to think if he is going to be much shorter on the day should all the big players take their chance in the race.
Nigel Twiston-Davies will hope that there's a fierce gallop from the outset as The New One will aim to use his stamina, but he could just lack that bit of toe to win a Champion, whilst the same could be said about Hurricane Fly, who may just struggle to get up the hill at the highest level.
Then you come on to reigning champion Jezki, who should turn his Irish form around with Hurricane Fly, but at 6/1 is no each-way price, and then you have to look elsewhere for a value play and Irving at 40/1 with bet365 could be worth a nibble to hand Paul Nicholls victory in the race.
If the Ditcheat runner can produce the goods in the Kingwell Hurdle next month then he's sure to shorten in price significantly for the Champion Hurdle and the 40/1 currently available will be long gone, so why not take a punt on Irving being able to sparkle in the spring and making the frame in what is a vintage renewal.