IRELAND can dominate the opening round of Cheltenham Festival action today as the greatest four-day jumps meeting of the entire year finally bursts into life at Prestbury Park.
The all-conquering Willie Mullins looks sure to be heavily involved at the sharp end of the action throughout the afternoon, but the focus may shift to his fellow countryman Dessie Hughes come the featured Champion Hurdle as Our Conor is fancied to topple Mullins’ Hurricane Fly and also prevail against the best of the home team.
The Stan James-sponsored showpiece promises to be one of the best Champion Hurdles we have seen in recent years.
Nine go to post and Hurricane Fly, the reigning champion and dualwinner of this race, will be a popular choice to win again. But he is ten years old and he will need to emulate a superstar like North Yorkshire’s very own Sea Pigeon to clinch another Champion at a double-digit age.
It may prove just beyond him.
Admittedly, Hurricane Fly has beaten Our Conor twice this season already and also beaten Jezki. But Our Conor, four-fromfour last season and one of the most impressive 15 length winners of the Triumph Hurdle ever witnessed, seems to have been trained with only one race – this race – in mind.
The New One, trained by Nigel Twiston-Davies, and Nicky Henderson’s My Tent Or Yours, are closely matched this season and are very much the new guard of top hurdlers ready to seize their moment. Both horses look primed and each will have a strong team of supporters.
But the sight of Our Conor winning the junior title so sublimely last year is hard to erase and although he is only a five-year-old – an age-group with a poor record in the Champion Hurdle – he is a horse of extraordinary talent. He is selected to come good on the day that matters most.
Whatever Mullins’ fate with Hurricane Fly, he is fancied to enjoy a resounding start to the meeting. Ireland’s top trainer can win the opening Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle with Vautour, who is napped to make it four straight wins this season and prove too strong for the similarly unbeaten Irving from the Paul Nicholls stable.
Champagne Fever, a winner at the last two Cheltenham Festivals, can complete a notable hat-trick in the Racing Post Arkle Challenge Trophy, while Quevega will raise the roof if she can clinch the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle for a sixth consecutive year.
Up against the mighty Quevega is John Quinn’s Cockney Sparrow, who has already enjoyed a fine season, winning at Wetherby and finishing second to My Tent Or Yours in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle.
None the worse for falling at Doncaster on her latest start, Cockney Sparrow has strong claims of a place, but she will need to produce remarkable improvement to beat Quevega.
While Ruby Walsh has a whole host of top rides for Willie Mullins, his sister, Katie, will be under the spotlight in the Terry Biddlecombe National Hunt Chase for amateur riders, riding Foxrock for her father, Ted. The six-yearold has won Grade 2 contests at Naas and Navan on his last two starts and will be hard to beat.
Malcolm Jefferson’s Attaglance has each-way claims on his favoured ground in the Rewards4Racing Novices’ Handicap Chase, but preference is for Present View.
1.30 Vautour (NAP), 2.05 Champagne Fever, 2.40 Pacha Du Polder, 3.20 Our Conor, 4.00 Quevega, 4.40 Foxrock, 5.15 Present View.
1.45 Maison De Ville, 2.20 Tiny Dancer, 2.55 Grate Fella, 3.35 Lebanna, 4.15 Prince Blackthorn, 4.55 Bob’s Dream, 5.25 Inside Out.
Today’s other meetings: Southwell and Wolverhampton.
Tomorrow’s meetings: Cheltenham, Huntingdon, Kempton and Southwell.