Fly to lead Mullins charge
Willie Mullins' scintillating 2011 Champion Hurdle winner Hurricane Fly tops a list of 27 entries for the opening-day showpiece of this year's Cheltenham Festival, with the all-conquering champion trainer responsible for seven of the 11 Irish entries.
Having been slow to come to hand this term, Hurricane Fly is unraced since recording his sixth Grade One triumph on the spin at Punchestown in May.
However, a recent racecourse gallop at Leopardstown left Mullins more upbeat about the eight-year-old's progress, and Sunday week's BHP Insurance Irish Champion Hurdle at the same venue is now likely to be where he sets out on the road to defend his crown.
Unaccompanied, expected to be one of Hurricane Fly's chief rivals there, also features in the line-up for the two-mile highlight on March 13.
Dermot Weld's mare accounted for Thousand Stars and Oscars Well -- both of which have also been put in at Cheltenham -- when excelling in last month's Istabraq Hurdle at Leopardstown.
Unaccompanied is a 9/2 second favourite to deny Hurricane Fly (8/11) successive wins in the Irish version, yet she is as big as 12/1 to his 9/4 for Cheltenham. Yesterday, Stan Cosgrave, spokesperson for her owner Moyglare Stud, was upbeat about the four-year-old's prospects in both Grade Ones.
"Unaccompanied is due to run in the Irish Champion Hurdle and then she will hopefully head on to Cheltenham," he confirmed. "I think that Dermot is confident that she can run well against Hurricane Fly, and we have to take him on at some point.
"She was impressive in the Istabraq Hurdle and her run (when second) in the JCB Triumph Hurdle was very good at last year's Festival. She is better with a bit of give in the ground, but she beat St Nicholas Abbey on the Flat and I can see her as a serious contender for the Stan James Champion Hurdle."
As well as Hurricane Fly and Thousand Stars, Mullins has given last year's County Hurdle winner Final Approach the option of running, along with Mikael D'Haguenet, So Young, Flat Out and Zaidpour.
Edward O'Grady's Staying Article, beaten just once in four starts, and Sabrina Harty's Kalann are the remaining Irish contenders.
Dessie Hughes, who revealed that last weekend's Kilfeacle point-to-point winner Vic Venturi would turn out in a hunter chase at Leopardstown next month ahead of a possible third tilt at the Aintree Grand National, is hoping that Roberto Goldback can build on his Lexus Chase fourth when he tackles the Kinloch Brae Chase at Thurles today.
The two-and-a-half-mile Grade Two represents a drop in class and trip for the 10-year-old, and Hughes feels that it might be a good opportunity for him.
"He probably wants a bit further and a better track, but he's just in between," the Curragh handler suggested. "He has plenty of weight in handicaps and he has not shown us yet that he's a proper Grade One horse.
"When these races come along, they are the only chance he has, but he is a nice horse and is in good form. He ran well in the Lexus. It's a different job tomorrow, but it's a lesser race."
Tom Taaffe, meanwhile, is looking forward to his exciting Flat recruit Distant Memories' second hurdling start in the Irish Racing Writers Novice Hurdle at Naas on Saturday. Owned by the new Coolmore associates Jim and Fitri Hay, Distant Memories was impressive when scoring on his first start at Limerick after Christmas.
"He was a smart horse on the Flat and he enjoys his jumping," Taaffe said of the former Group Three-winning six-year-old. "The ground is not any great concern as I feel he handles any ground. It's another step for him and will tell us more about where to go."