Hurricane Fly ready to stand among greats
All the leading fancies have stood their ground for tomorrow's Stan James Champion Hurdle – an intriguing nine-runner feature on day one of a Cheltenham Festival that promises so much.
Willie Mullins' Hurricane Fly is one of three previous winners on duty, with the 2010 hero Binocular joining him in the quest to become the first horse since Comedy Of Errors in 1975 to win back the two-mile hurdling crown.
Rock On Ruby, so authoritative in victory under Noel Fehily last year, is the third, and it's worth noting that half a dozen horses have managed to retain the title in the 38 years since one managed to regain it.
The latest was Dessie Hughes' Hardy Eustace, which sported first-time blinkers when seeing off Rooster Booster in 2004.
In many ways, he and Rock On Ruby are strikingly similar, both grinding sorts that excelled in the Neptune a year prior to their Champion victory.
They are/were two frequently underestimated, game, unflashy horses that come into their own in the Cotswolds in the spring. As such, the decision of rookie trainer Harry Fry to put first-time blinkers on the reigning champion in tomorrow's Grade One is deeply significant.
Indeed, it is the sort of inspired, forward-thinking move that is a hallmark of his former employer Paul Nicholls, who employed the very same tactic in masterminding his first Gold Cup success with See More Business in 1999.
The potential negative for Rock On Ruby is that the ground will be soft tomorrow, as he might well be happiest on a drier surface.
Hurricane Fly, on the other hand, will relish the conditions, with just three of his 14 stunning Grade One triumphs achieved when the words soft or heavy weren't in the official going description.
There is no doubt that the 2011 winner has been on far better terms with himself this term compared to last, but that doesn't mean that this will simply fall his way, either.
History tells us that horses of his vintage – nine – struggle to cope with the intense demands of this unrelenting test of speed and agility.
Only one, Rooster Booster in 2003, has achieved glory at that age in the past 20 years, with just one other doing so in the previous 10 years.
That said, Ruby Walsh's mount appeals as being far more likely to buck the trend than Binocular, especially now that the ground has gone.
Of the six runners charged with felling the former champions, Binocular's Nicky Henderson-trained stable-mate Grandouet cannot be underestimated with Barry Geraghty up, likewise Nicholls' Daryl Jacob-ridden Zarkandar.
Jason Maguire is on last year's Supreme Novices' Hurdle winner Cinders And Ashes, with Denis O'Regan on the Triumph victor Countrywide Flame.
All told, it is a tip-top renewal, though the feeling persists that Hurricane Fly really needs to come up trumps to justify any claim to his being one of the two-mile hurling giants of recent times.
Despite ill-fortune costing him his place at the Festival in 2009 and 2010, many of us have been moved to compare him favourably with the mighty Istabraq. However, Hurricane Fly has accumulated much of his record by bulldozing the same old tired faces on home soil.
By and large, he has always done so with imperious style, but, for good or bad, champions that return to Cheltenham and beat the best around on an annual basis are the ones that we elevate to the loftiest pantheon of all.
Hurricane Fly had his excuses 12 months ago, so tomorrow is a glorious opportunity for him to add real substance to his legacy.
Irish hopes boosted for Champion Bumper
THE prospect of a 16th Irish-trained winner of the Champion Bumper since its inception in 1992 has been boosted by the scratching of Jeremy Scott's Empiracle.
A runaway winner of its only start at Huntingdon in October, Empiracle was backed into a share of favouritism last week.
However, Scott revealed that a minor leg injury has thwarted plans, with a tilt at next month's Punchestown equivalent now on the agenda.
Liz Doyle's Le Vent D'Antan and Tony Martin's Golantilla remain to the fore in betting for Wednesday's event, with Leopardstown winner Le Vent D'Antan trading between 5/1 and 7/1, just ahead of Cork scorer Golantilla at a best-priced 8/1.
Of Willie Mullins' three intended runners, Union Dues (8/1) will be ridden by the champion trainer's son Patrick, with Ruby Walsh on Briar Hill (25/1) and Andrew Lynch on Sizing Tennessee (25/1).
In the same race, champion Flat jockey Joseph O'Brien will ride 16/1 shot Shield, a first Festival runner for his father Aidan since Charlie Swan pulled up Istabraq in the 2002 Champion Hurdle.
Richard Hughes – the Kildare native who's reigning champion Flat jockey across the water – will ride Sgt Reckless for Mick Channon, with Flat convert Graham Lee, who needs five more National Hunt winners to join an elite club to have ridden 1,000 in Britain, on Jim Goldie's Caledonia.
De Bromhead waiting on Sizing Europe decision
HENRY de BROMHEAD plans to walk the course at Prestbury Park this morning before deciding whether to commit Sizing Europe to Wednesday's Queen Mother Champion Chase or Thursday's Ryanair Chase.
That task, however, won't be the most straightforward, as weather forecasts predicting a drop in temperature to as low as -6 tonight prompted officials to protect the entire surface on the New and Old courses with frost covers. No fewer than 630 individual covers were laid across a 65-acre surface the equivalent of 45 football pitches, all of which will be removed by up to 60 people from the Old course tomorrow morning and from the New course on Thursday.
Showers are forecast into tomorrow, with the cold snap set to last until Thursday.
The going, officially soft, will be the slowest at the meeting since Alderbrook and Master Oats gave Kim Bailey and Norman Williamson a famous Champion Hurdle-Gold Cup double in 1995.
Lieutenant backed into Ryanair favouritism
If the market is anything to go by, First Lieutenant will contest the Ryanair Chase rather than the Betfred Gold Cup after usurping Cue Card as general favourite for the Ryanair yesterday.
Mouse Morris had been eager to go for Gold on Friday, but last year's RSA Chase runner-up is now the only Gigginstown Stud-owned contender left in the race that its owner Michael O'Leary sponsors.
He has been cut to as low as 3/1 market leader in most bookmakers' lists for a Grade One that has never been won by an Irish-trained horse in its eight-year history.
The same owner's Bog Warrior remains in the Gold Cup and Thursday's Ladbrokes World Hurdle. Tony Martin said yesterday that a final decision had yet to be made on his target, but the World Hurdle is believed to be the favoured option. David Pipe's Dynaste will run in the Jewson Chase rather than the RSA Chase, while Ruby Walsh is to ride Paul Nicholls' Unioniste ahead of Willie Mullins' Boston Bob in the RSA.
Sweeney bids for historic Foxhunters hat-trick
CASTLELYONS' Colman Sweeney will become the first amateur rider to win three Foxhunters' Chases if he can secure back-to-back triumphs on his father Rodger's Salsify come Friday.
Among those out to deny him will be Conna's Jane Mangan, whose first Festival bookings include her father Jimmy's two-time Foxhunters' third Oscar Delta, and Tony Martin's Edeymi in the Coral Cup.
The talented seven-pound claimer rode her fourth winner for Edeymi's Gigginstown owner when Lockdown (5/1) took the bumper at Gowran Park on Saturday.
21.45 – Time that a new Mick Kinane documentary titled 'It's Written In The Stars' will be shown on a free-to-air Setanta broadcast on Wednesday. It will be repeated on Friday at 3.50.
@JayPeeMcM – This is the week where the magic happens – horses who couldn't win in my colours around Carlisle will win in Cheltenham.
– A parody JP McManus twitter account predicts big things for the legendary Limerick gambler over the next four days.