Champion crop line up to clip Fly's wings
During a campaign littered with high-profile injuries to some of jump racing's biggest stars, an initial Champion Hurdle entry totalling just 18 reaffirms the sense that the two-mile hurdling division boasts by far the most concentrated pool of quality.
Hurricane Fly, Willie Mullins' brilliant dual hero of the Stan James-sponsored Grade One, is one of four that the all-conquering champion trainer will choose from in the £400,000 Cheltenham Festival feature on March 11.
As expected, Mullins has also put in his hugely exciting unbeaten duo Un De Sceaux and Annie Power, with stable stalwart Thousand Stars completing the quartet.
Dessie Hughes' runaway Triumph Hurdle victor Our Conor and Jessica Harrington's classy Jezki are the only other Irish-trained entries.
Having come up short against Hurricane Fly in a thrilling contest at Leopardstown over Christmas, the young pretenders are first set to have another stab at the reigning champion in the BHP Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown later this month.
Nicky Henderson's My Tent Or Yours, which, like Jezki, is owned by JP McManus, is also due to have one more outing before a March event that is beginning to take on epic proportions.
The New One, successful for Nigel and Sam Twiston-Davies in the Neptune Novices' Hurdle last year but toppled by My Tent Or Yours at Kempton on St Stephen's Day, could head straight to the Festival. The two English-based horses continue to press Hurricane Fly at the head of the ante-post market.
Mullins' 10-year-old, which will be bidding to become the first horse to win three Champion Hurdles not in successive years, is a top-priced 10/3, but the sponsors make him a 3/1 joint-favourite with The New One, while My Tent Or Yours' price varies between 7/2 and 4/1.
Jezki, Our Conor, Annie Power and Un De Sceaux trade at between 7/1 and 14/1. It is 25/1 bar. Intriguingly, despite 18 constituting by far the smallest entry for any of the Festival's championship events so far -- the World Hurdle entries will be unveiled today -- all of the leading players that have promised to make the Champion Hurdle such a breathtaking spectacle since last year remain at large.
Of course, injury or alternative options could yet rob the race of some of its allure. Still, with the likes of Simonsig, Sir Des Champs, Solwhit, Flemenstar and Analifet among those already sidelined and Sprinter Sacre also experiencing a scare on his comeback, there is little doubt as to which race is capturing the public imagination right now.
Paul Nicholls' decision not to book Daryl Jacob for the plum mount on the returning Big Buck's has also generated no end of debate recently.
Ruby Walsh, who partnered the exceptional stayer to all four of his World Hurdle victories and turned down the opportunity to be reunited with him on his return from injury, wouldn't be drawn on the issue but left no doubt that he is a ride to die for.
"If he's the horse that won in Newbury 14 months ago, it doesn't really matter who is riding him," Walsh said of the horse that he was beaten on just once in 19 outings. "He doesn't take much riding. He's a very good horse and I'd be more interested in seeing how the horse is.
"You'd cut your right hand off to ride a horse like Big Buck's. That's a choice I made. He's an exceptional horse, he's a standard-bearer in jump racing and he's an exciting ride for Sam Twiston-Davies."
Meanwhile, Henry de Bromhead has said that his former champion chaser Sizing Europe might not have another run before contesting either the Champion or Ryanair Chase at the Festival. The 12-year-old finished out of the first two for a first time in nearly three years at Leopardstown last month, with De Bromhead suggesting that the trail-blazing tactics that were adopted that day backfired.