Eyes on the prize
Mullins and Fenton set sights on Champion Hurdle glory
Cautious optimism was the prevailing sentiment last night emanating from the two camps charged with returning jump racing's most prized hurdling crown to Irish shores on the opening day of the 2011 Cheltenham Festival this afternoon.
Having succeeded in getting Hurricane Fly to the Festival at the third time of asking, Willie Mullins, who has been cut to 11/4 from 4/1 to end the week as leading trainer for a first time, expressed his satisfaction with the way the horse's preparation had gone ahead of his biggest test yet, while Philip Fenton was likewise pleased with Dunguib's progress.
The Champion Hurdle has been the most lucrative of the four championship races at Cheltenham for Irish horses of late, with seven of the last 12 renewals going our way. However, it is now four years since Sublimity scorched to victory for John Carr.
With the JP McManus-owned Binocular scratched in controversial circumstances, the one certainty today is that a new champion will emerge. Hurricane Fly, which has pushed Menorah for favouritism following Binocular's withdrawal, was easy to back at 7/2 yesterday, possibly due to Mullins' tempered appraisal of his prospects.
"I'm not confident, my focus all season has been (just) to get him there," the Co Carlow handler said of Hurricane Fly, which has missed his two previous appointments at Cheltenham because of injury.
Of the perceived disadvantage due to the horse's lack of a previous run at Cheltenham, Mullins added: "Most of our Cheltenham winners never ran there before and I don't think it's a huge problem. It would have been nice to have done it, but it just didn't lend itself as we had other things to do here."
Mullins also commented on his decision to replace Hurricane Fly's regular rider Paul Townend with Ruby Walsh, who last year overtook Pat Taaffe at the top of the list of Cheltenham-winning jockeys. "We had a decision to make regarding the jockey, but it's very difficult to leave the leading jockey around Cheltenham off," he explained.
Fenton, meanwhile, stated that Dunguib has come on for his triumphant reappearance at Gowran Park three weeks ago. The 2009 Champion Bumper winner was making a belated low-key reappearance, and he has not generated anything like the hysteria he did prior to his defeat in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle 12 months ago.
"I am sure that he has improved since winning at Gowran Park," Fenton said, "but I am also well aware that he needs to if he is going to run well at Cheltenham. There is obviously less talk and hype about the horse compared to last year, but things are running smoothly and we are very happy with him at the moment."