The highlight on the first day of the Cheltenham Festival 2015. All eyes will be on this Grade 1 National Hunt hurdle race over 2m 110y on good to soft ground.
The inaugural winner came in 1927 with Blaris trained by Bill Payne, ridden by George Duller in the racing silks of owner Mrs H. Hollins.
A number of horses have won this race three times including: Hatton's Grace, Sir Ken, Persian War, See You Then & Istabraq.
The leading jockey with four wins (1951 - 1954) is Tim Molony.
Leading trainers with five winner apiece are Peter Easterby & Nicky Henderson.
The owner with most victories, and someone who could be a force this year, J P McManus has five successes with class horses Istabraq, Binocular, Jezki.
This year's renewal sees eight class geldings including winners 2014 (Jezki), 2011 & 2013 (Hurricane Fly).
If the market is anything to go by this looks a four-horse race:
Faugheen is a bay gelding sired by Germany out of Miss Pickering, trained by Willie Mullins for owner Mrs S Ricci. This seven-year-old bay gelding has been a sensation, unbeaten in eight races, after winning a point-to-point over three miles in the hands of R P Quinlan. He has been favourite for all victories, the majority of time ridden by Ruby Walsh. In the last four races his official rating has risen from 152 - 169. Priced at 11/10f, punters will be hoping this serial winner over course and distance can raise a cheer at this highest grade.
Nigel Twiston-Davies' The New One may be seven-year-olds but this son of King's Theatre has raced fifteen times over hurdles with eleven victories and never out of the frame. He's been a consistent winner when racing off an official rating of 167. A regular racing at Cheltenham with eight starts with five successes. The New One is no stranger to this contest after finishing third last year behind Jezki with Hurricane Fly fourth. After being badly hampered early in the contest he ran on well in the closing stages. There's little doubt if not suffering that interference he would have gone very close. Priced 4/1 with leading bookmakers.
Another old adversary Hurricane Fly and twice-winner of this Grade 1 hurdle. He won in 2011 & 2013 respectively. This eleven-year-old Irish-bred gelding finished 4th behind Jezki last year which may indicate that age is catching up with this old warrior. Only two horses have won this race at his age of eleven: Hatton's Grace (1951), Sea Pigeon (1981). Willie Mullins' charge has been exceptional over hurdles with twenty-four victories from twenty-nine starts. Only once out of the first three, when fourth in last years contest. Twenty-one of his wins have come at Grade 1 class. From four starts in the Champion Hurdle this star has won twice, a third and fourth. With a highest official rating of 175 it would be fair to say he has never run a poor race. With Ruby Walsh taking the ride on stablemate Faugheen you have to consider connections feel the Hurricane may need to defy the stats, which only the greatest individuals have surpassed. At 10/1 he may sneak a place.
Jezki has raced at the highest level. This bay gelding won last year's Champion Hurdle 2014 at odds of 9/1. By all accounts his last three starts have been disappointing - suffering multiple losses against Hurricane Fly. This seven-year-old hasn't helped himself when making costly mistakes and connections will be hoping this 5/1 shot jumps for fun on the big day.
Conclusion: A fascinating Champion Hurdle. With Hurricane Fly and Jezki setting the standard being previous winners this will be a true test. By all accounts there may not be a great deal between Jezki, The New One & Hurricane Fly. Each have their strength and weakness. Jezki has fluffed his lines in the build-up suffering multiple defeats against Hurricane Fly which brings concern. I wonder if Jezki's win was as much to do with others making mistakes. Hurricane Fly was held in last year's renewal. However, this old timer has beaten Mrs John Harrington's charge on his last three starts. The New One will not be far away if he puts in a clear round. The interesting contender is Faugheen. Unbeaten. That word in itself favours many punters. It pays to appreciate Willie Mullins' star will need to shine at this level to win. It's telling Ruby Walsh takes the ride over warhorse Hurricane Fly.
Faugheen (win bet) 11/10
Hurricane Fly (each-way) 10/1