Which horse will taste victory this year?
A select field of eleven horse are entered to compete: ten geldings, one mare. Their ages range from five to ten years. In a tight betting heat, bookmakers detail five leading fancies: Hurricane Fly, The New One, My Tent Or Yours, Our Conor & Annie Power.
The Willie Mullins-trained Hurricane Fly knows this race well. In fact, this ten-year-old gelding - a son of Montjeu - became the first horse to reclaim the Champion Hurdle Trophy in 38 years, since Comedy Of Errors in 1975. Last year's old adversary Rock On Ruby heads for the Arkle Chase. This Irish-bred horse is a true racing champion running in the familiar silks of George Creighton & Mrs Rose Boyd. A winner 21 times from 24 contests over hurdles, this bay has achieved total win prize money of £1.5m. However, some punters remain unconvinced his three Cheltenham races compare to his Irish form, where he is unbeaten since 2009. Some of his performances at Leopardstown have been particularly impressive.
Ruby Walsh [jockey] said:''He was too free the first year. I sat too far back on him the second year - he wasn't 100 per cent - and last year they were going too fast in front and I followed them. I shouldn't have. "I don't think I've done things right on him at Cheltenham. The day I'll get it right, he'll show England what he's shown Ireland."
Speaking to the Irish Examiner, Walsh added: "I think he's in really good form, he's dug in twice to win, beaten Our Conor and Jezki in Leopardstown and I think the two harder races than he usually would have had is going to stand to him and I think he's an outstanding chance."
On this recent Leopardstown form, Hurricane Fly looks to hold Our Conor and Jezki. Official ratings detail that Willie Mullins' star turn will take all the beating.
Those two defeats haven't stopped Dessie Hughes, trainer of Our Conor, from giving a bullish statement of his five year old.
He said: "Our Conor got closer to him [Hurricane Fly] than he did at Christmas and showed the improvement I expected from him. He improved a lot between his Grade 1 win at Leopardstown last season and the Triumph, so we're in a good place with him now. "We know he handles Cheltenham well and he will appreciate the better ground we should get there. We're positive and he should go there with a fighting chance."
It is true to say Our Conor has found life harder taking on the older horses. However, he has been far from disgraced. His sheer dominance when winning last year's JCB Triumph Hurdle might just prove Prestbury Park is the place he loves to race.
My Tent Or Yours & The New One are closely matched on their last battle.
My Tent Or Yours, a gelding trained by Nicky Henderson, races in the famous J P McManus silks. This seven-year-old son of Desert Prince is quite lightly races for his age and a progressive sort. He has improved 43lbs in less than two years with an official rating of 167. This bay has never been out of the first two placings, with eight wins to his name. Last year saw a narrow loss in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle at Cheltenham. Tony McCoy has stated he will ride this horse in favour of Jezki who will run in the same colours.
McCoy said:"He pulled too hard off a steady enough gallop on heavy ground. He had every chance to fold between the last two but really toughed it out. Because he was so keen he never had chance to get into a rhythm but when I really needed him over the last he delivered. The New One really quickened on the bend and I was pretty impressed with the horse. He showed a great will to win. He was never going to win the Champion Hurdle if he didn't beat The New One round here. He's definitely improved from Newcastle but probably needs to step up again to win a Champion Hurdle."
He is closely matched with The New One on their running of the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton. Only half a length separating the two. The New One, trained by Nigel Twiston-Davies, blundered at the last, where his jockey lost an iron.
Sam Twiston-Davies said:"It [the mistake] certainly made a difference but it was an annoying race for me. Nothing we did suited him. He's beaten us today but Cheltenham will suit us much more."
Nigel Twiston Davies, trainer of The New One, said:"You don't really want to make your own running like he had to do. That won't happen in the Champion Hurdle and I think My Tent will struggle to beat him at Cheltenham with a decent pace.''
Along side Hurricane Fly, Willie Mullins fields three other runners: Annie Power, Un DeSceaux & Thousand Stars.
Annie Power is unbeaten in ten starts and the only filly in the field. This daughter of Shirocco is a versatile type who has won from two miles plus. This six-year-old chestnut mare is one of the leading fancies in the betting but faces a stiff task against these stronger geldings. She would need to defy the history books, too. The last mare to win the Champion Hurdle was the incomparable Dawn Run (1984). [Annie Power now heads for the World Hurdle]
Melodic Rendezvous, Ptit Zig & Grumeti also take part but need to find improvement to trouble the main contenders.
Conclusion: A fascinating race with a number of exceptional talents. Hurricane Fly has proven his worth by reclaiming the Champion Hurdle. Ruby Walsh seems adamant that he hasn't ridden to his best in previous years but still return victorious on two out of three occasions. If odds allow, Hurricane Fly looks a great each way selection.