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Watering at Cheltenham pleases Willie Mullins ahead of Stan James Champion Hurdle


Hurricane Fly (R): Defending champion in 'nice form'

Hurricane Fly (R): Defending champion in 'nice form'

Hurricane Fly (R): Defending champion in 'nice form'

WILLIE Mullins is pleased to see the taps being turned on at Cheltenham ahead of Hurricane Fly's defence of the Stan James Champion Hurdle.

The eight-year-old returns to Prestbury Park having won his last seven starts at Grade One level and some argue he faces an easier task than he did 12 months ago.

Although the gelding's well-documented fragility prevented him running for the first half of the current campaign, he looked better than ever when making a breathtaking return in January's Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown.

Mullins reports his pride and joy to be a far more relaxed individual than last year after seeing him take to the famous Cheltenham turf for a spin on the eve of the Festival, and is pleased officials have decided to water after walking the course himself.

"He travelled over well, he rode out nicely this morning and seems in nice form," said Mullins.

"He seems much more relaxed on the gallop over here than he was last year.

"They are watering the track at the moment, which I think is a good thing. They are calling the ground good, good to soft in places but after walking the track this morning, I'd say there is a lot of good.

"With the way the temperatures are - it's a cloudless day today - that probably prompted them to water and I'm glad to see it. If it's softer it's safer."

The Irish champion trainer is unsure whether the classy French recruit has improved since his comeback run at Leopardstown, but will be more than satisfied if he lines up in the same form as that day.

"I think he's just holding his form and I'm happy with that," he added.

Mullins has a second string in Zaidpour, who is unbeaten in his last four starts.

He disappointed in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle on the opening day of the Festival last year, but his trainer feels there were excuses.

"The ground is probably too dry for him, but what ever chance he has the ground would be way too dry for him by Thursday (World Hurdle), so we'll let him take his chance tomorrow," he added.

"He has Grade One form over two miles, so we have to give him his chance to do it.

"He wasn't right last year coming to the Festival and we think he's in good order this year."

Connections of Binocular are expecting a big run from the 2010 winner, who was unable to defend his crown 12 months ago.

The JP McManus-owned eight-year-old landed the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton before supplementing that with victory in the Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton last month.

"I know AP (McCoy) came back happy after Wincanton and I was thrilled. He looked like his old self the way he jumped," said trainer Nicky Henderson.

"He has got to be back where he was (to win), but it was the positive vibes that told us he was something near the same horse. It has put us right in the mix."

Binocular's regular partner Tony McCoy was also delighted with the Wincanton performance and is looking forward to taking on Hurricane Fly at Cheltenham.

"He jumped very well at Wincanton. At times he has never given the impression he's the same horse that won the Champion Hurdle," said the champion jockey.

"His run at Kempton (in the Christmas Hurdle) was better but he gave me a better feel at Wincanton.

"I think he's got a long way to go to beat Hurricane Fly, he's an exceptional horse who has won 10 Grade Ones and never looked like getting beat.

"But it is Cheltenham, and at Wincanton he felt better than he has done for a long time."

Champion trainer Paul Nicholls is responsible for four of the 10 runners as he seeks to win this race for the first time.

Zarkandar, who lifted the Triumph Hurdle last year, is the pick of his quartet thanks to victory in the Betfair Hurdle at Newbury.

"Zarkandar won at Newbury and is in really good form. He's four from four and you wouldn't know how much improvement he might make," said Nicholls.

"Rock On Ruby is a great price seeing how he ran against Binocular and Cheltenham will suit him better.

"I don't think there's much between the two, but maybe Zarkandar has more room for improvement.

"Celestial Halo didn't run his race last time and was quiet for a few days afterwards. He doesn't want the ground testing.

"Brampour isn't a forlorn hope of picking up some crumbs and getting placed. He had some hard races before Christmas but is back to form now."

Celestial Halo chased home Binocular in the Kingwell and has finished second and fourth in two previous Champion Hurdles.

His owner Andy Stewart would be chuffed with another top-four spot.

"If Celestial Halo is third or fourth we'll be very happy," he said.

Jessica Harrington believes the expected fast pace will suit Oscars Well, who she feels is coming to hand at the right time.

The seven-year-old was runner-up to Hurricane Fly in the Irish Champion Hurdle and would probably have won the Neptune Investment Management Novices' Hurdle at the 2011 Festival but for a mistake at the last.

"Oscar has been improving with every run this year and I feel he has improved again since his run at Leopardstown when runner up to 'The Fly'," the County Kildare trainer told her website, www.jessicaharringtonracing.com.

"I think the stronger pace that will be set in the Champion Hurdle will suit him better and hopefully play into our hands. He has such a high cruising speed.

"Realistically I do feel Hurricane Fly is going to be very hard to beat but it's racing, you never know what can happen.

"Look what happened to Oscar at the last hurdle last year, would he have won? We will never know.

"But I do feel he will run a big race on Tuesday and all his preparation hasn't led me to think otherwise."

Jockey Robbie Power also thinks Oscars Well has plenty going for him.

"One thing about him is he has a fantastic cruising speed," he said.

"He almost travelled too well in the Neptune last year and we were thinking after Cheltenham we should have gone for the two-mile race (Supreme), but he's just a horse that as the season went on got quicker and quicker.

"He's done the same this year and there's the old saying you should never be afraid of one horse.

"It will be very hard to beat Hurricane Fly, but if something goes wrong, hopefully we'll be there to pick up the pieces.

"If we get a place we'll be over the moon."

Kalann is the outsider of the field, but his trainer Sabrina Harty is not without hope.

"He scoped badly (after Gowran) so we put him on antibiotics and he is fine now," said the County Kildare handler.

"He did it very easily when he won at Cheltenham in October and the way he did it was very impressive, but he was quite a small horse then and he has got bigger and stronger since then.

"He is a good-ground horse and all his runs in Ireland are on soft ground so we just put a line through them. He has never won on ground with soft in the description.

"In the Irish Champion Hurdle, the ground was yielding the day before but on the day it was almost unraceable, so we just let him hack round and he had a short break after Down Royal anyway.

"He is a laid-back horse and that is why we hold him up as it appears to suit him."