The countdown to The Festival stepped up another level today with the unveiling of the six-day confirmations for Champion Day at Cheltenham, Tuesday, March 13, the first of four days at Jump racing’s biggest meeting
Hot favourite Hurricane Fly, 8/11 with the sponsors, put up a brilliant display to emerge victorious in last season’s £370,000 Stan James Champion Hurdle (3.20pm) and this year he is one of three entries remaining for Ireland’s champion trainer Willie Mullins, who could also saddle Grade One winners Thousand Stars and Zaidpour.
Jessica Harrington is set to run Oscars Well, who finished second to Hurricane Fly in the Irish Champion Hurdle on his most recent start. The 12 six-day confirmations also include 2010 victor Binocular, who warmed up for The Festival with an authoritative success in Wincanton’s Kingwell Hurdle, and last season’s JCB Triumph Hurdle hero Zarkandar, successful at Newbury on his seasonal reappearance last month.
Kalann, who was an impressive winner over the course and distance in the Masters Holdings Hurdle at The Showcase in October, is likely to take his chance in the Stan James Champion Hurdle according to trainer Sabrina Harty. The outsider finished a respectable second to Zaidpour at Gowran Park on February 18 in a Grade Two contest on his latest start.
The Co Kildare handler said: “We are leaning towards the Stan James Champion Hurdle. He has been in good form since Gowran, but he scoped badly afterwards so we put him on antibiotics and he is fine now.
“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.”
The five-year-old has been running well on softer ground since his Cheltenham success, finishing a length and a quarter behind The Real Article at Down Royal in November, before finding the ground too heavy behind Hurricane Fly in the Irish Champion Hurdle.
Harty continued: “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 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.”
As well as Zarkandar, Paul Nicholls could saddle Rock On Ruby, who was second to Binocular in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton last time out, while Greatwood Hurdle winner Brampour is also a possible starter for the champion trainer along with 2009 runner-up Celestial Halo.
Donald McCain saddled Peddlers Cross to finish second last year and he could be represented by the front-running Overturn, who gained his first success at Grade One level in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle in November. The six-day confirmations are completed by Olofi, who was second behind Brampour in the Greatwood Hurdle in November.
Latest Stan James Champion Hurdle betting:
Hurricane Fly 8/11, Binocular 5/1, Zarkandar 5/1, Rock On Ruby 8/1, Oscars Well 9/1, Thousand Stars 20/1, Overturn 28/1, Zaidpour 33/1, Brampour 50/1, Celestial Halo 66/1, Olofi 100/1, Kalann 200/1
The £100,000 William Hill Supreme Novices’ Hurdle kicks off proceedings on Tuesday at 1.30pm, and 33 horses go forward at the six-day confirmation stage. In what looks a wide open renewal, all the leading protagonists have remained engaged including Nicky Henderson’s Darlan and McCain’s Cinders And Ashes, while the two leading Irish hopes Galileo’s Choice and Steps To Freedom also stood their ground.
For many Sprinter Sacre is the banker of the meeting in the £130,000 Racing Post Arkle Chase (2.05pm) after three effortless victories at Doncaster, Kempton and last time at Newbury where he broke the track record on the bridle. He could face a maximum of nine rivals including the 2010 Weatherbys Champion Bumper winnerCue Card.
A maximum field of 24 for the JLT Specialty Handicap Chase (2.40pm) looks assured after 41 entries remain at the six-day confirmation stage. Hold On Julio, who has been ultra impressive with two victories at Sandown this season, is engaged for Alan King, looking for a second successive win in the race after Bensalem’s gritty victory last year. Quantitativeeasing, winner of the Spinal Research 4Atlantic Gold Cup at Cheltenham in December, has also been confirmed.
Quevega heads 24 entries remaining in the Grade Two OLBG Mares Hurdle (for the David Nicholson Trophy) as she chases her fourth consecutive victory in the £70,000 race. Possible challengers to her crown includeAlasi and fellow Irish raider Our Girl Salley.
Last season’s Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase (4.00pm) victor Sizing Australia is on course to defend his crown in the £40,000 event, in which 28 horses have stood their ground including previous winners A New Story (2010), Garde Champetre (2009 & 2008) and 15-year-old Heads Onthe Ground (2007).
A maximum field of 20 looks guaranteed in the concluding Pulteney Land Investments Novices’ Handicap Chase (5.15pm) with 44 horses still engaged at the six-day confirmation stage.
The going at Cheltenham is currently:
Chase & Hurdle Courses – Good, good to firm in places (watering)
Cross Country Course – Good to firm, good in places (watered in parts)
Simon Claisse, Director of Racing and Clerk of the Course at Cheltenham, said today: “We are watering the Old and New Courses over the next three days, so that will take us up to Friday afternoon.
“Hopefully, we will have been able to water the ‘good to firm’ out of the ground.
“Then we will assess the ground and take a look at the forecast again, but my hunch is we will be watering at the weekend so we can start the meeting on the slow side of good, or good to soft.”