Faugheen heads select Irish quintet in Champion Hurdle
Irish horses dominate the ante-post betting for the Stan James Champion Hurdle in March despite the smallest number of cross-channel entries in recent years being unveiled for the £400,000 feature event yesterday.
Willie Mullins's reigning title-holder Faugheen spearheads an overall list of 19 for the two-mile centrepiece on the Cheltenham Festival's opening day.
Already a prohibitively priced 4/7 favourite to retain his crown, he is joined on the list of potential starters by stablemate and 2015 runner-up Arctic Fire. Nichols Canyon, the only horse to beat Faugheen, is one of five that Mullins has engaged in the race.
Faugheen, Nichols Canyon and Arctic Fire are the first three in the betting for the Champion Hurdle, and all three are likely to clash in a mouthwatering dust-up in the Irish version at Leopardstown on Sunday.
Sempre Medici, successful at Naas on Saturday, completes the champion trainer's quartet, with Henry de Bromhead's progressive Identity Thief (as low as 10/1 fourth favourite) the only other potential raider as of now.
Since at least 1995, when there were six cross-channel prospects, that is the smallest delegation of potential Irish starters at the same early stage.
In that time, the figure peaked at 21 in 2010, while there were 12 engaged at the same point last year, when the overall entry stood at 23.
The drop in entries in general will have a lot to do with the strength in depth of Mullins's hand, which has also ultimately reduced Sunday's Leopardstown feature to a case of establishing which is the best of the elite Closutton trio.
Meanwhile, JP McManus's Paul Nicholls-trained Modus heads the betting for the Betfair Hurdle on February 13. Desoto County, third in a similar event at Leopardstown on Sunday, is one of two that Gordon Elliott has engaged in what is the most valuable handicap hurdle in Britain with a purse of £155,000. Having been allotted a weight of 10st 4lb, he is the lowest priced Irish contender at odds of 14/1.
Vercingetorix (10st 1lb) is Elliott's other entrant, while Kalkir (11st), runner-up in the same race on Sunday, is one of 13 that Mullins has put in, with Sempre Medici (11st 10lb) also in the mix for the Newbury handicap.
Nicky Henderson's Peace And Co, the leading British Champion Hurdle hope, has been given a top-weight of 11st 12lb. He will seek to leave behind a poor seasonal bow when he tackles a Grade Two at Haydock on Saturday.