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Cheltenham Festival can get off to a Hurrican Flyer
HOPES are high in the John Quinn camp that Countrywide Flame can win the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham tomorrow.
However, the pride of North Yorkshire may have to play a supporting role to the might of Willie Mullins and Hurricane Fly, who is fancied to blow a chilly wind around the Highfield raider.
Twelve months ago at this prestigious Festival meeting, Countrywide Flame won the Triumph Hurdle for Quinn at 20-1. He has since looked an improved horse on the Flat – he finished second in the Cesarewitch – and over jumps, given his Grade 1 victory in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle.
But he has come up short in his two latest outings and, unless he raises his game back at Cheltenham, he may not be able to become one of the few five-year-olds to win and the first horse since Katchit in 2007/8 to win the Triumph Hurdle and Champion Hurdle in successive seasons.
Hurricane Fly also has to rewrite the record books. Only one horse – Comedy Of Errors in 1973 and 1975 – has regained the Champion Hurdle crown after losing it. Successful in 2011, the Irish challenger could finish only third last year to Rock On Ruby.
He has, though, been unbeaten in three outings this season and, on the prevailing soft ground, he is selected to gain his revenge on Rock On Ruby, who is more effective on a sound surface.
Mullins has been enjoying a good campaign in Ireland and latest reports from the astute trainer suggest that he is more than happy with his prolific Grade 1 winner as he returns to Cheltenham in a bid for championship honours.
Interestingly, Harry Fry, in his first season as a trainer, is preparing to fit blinkers for the first time on Rock On Ruby, who appears to have been brought to concert pitch at precisely the right time. He will be a tough nut to crack, but ground conditions may not be ideal for him.
Nine horses have been declared for the race, including the Paul Nicholls-trained Zarkandar, who is three-from-three this season. The mount of Daryl Jacob, he commands huge respect.
Nicky Henderson saddles three of the nine, including previous winner Binocular, the mount of Tony McCoy.
Henderson’s Grandouet is closely matched with Zarkandar and Rock On Ruby on form, but he has been restricted to only one outing this season and his alarming drift in the market at the weekend, despite Henderson’s assurance all was well with him, was off-putting to say the least.
The Champion Hurdle provides a wonderful showpiece to the first day of the Cheltenham Festival. A fascinating race, it could be run at a less than generous pace, given the lack of a genuine front-runner in the field.
Consequently, a tactical battle could unfold and, if so, Hurricane Fly may be better equipped to cope than Countrywide Flame and the rest of his rivals.
Tomorrow is the first of four superlative days’ racing at Cheltenham. Quinn will have further chances with the likes of Kashmir Peak and Hidden Justice in the Triumph Hurdle.
The North Yorkshire challenge is strengthened by Malcolm Jefferson’s Cape Tribulation in the Gold Cup, the Brian Ellison-trained Viva Colonia in the Grand Annual and David O’Meara’s Ifandbutwhynot in the County Hurdle.
At Plumpton today, Wilde Ruby is awarded the nap vote in the Aspen Insurance Mares’ Handicap Hurdle.
The Seamus Mullins-trained six-year-old can make her class tell under Andrew Thornton.
Tom O’Ryan’s tips
2.10 Broadway Buffalo, 2.40 Callhimwhatyouwant, 3.10 Wilde Ruby (NAP), 3.40 Rosoff, 4.10 Maccabees, 4.40 Beware Chalk Pit, 5.10 Bathwick Junior.
Precautionary inspection 8am.
Today’s other meeting: Taunton (precautionary inspection 8am).
3.20 Hurricane Fly.
• A full preview of tomorrow’s opening day at Cheltenham will be carried in tomorrow’s paper, with declared runners for all the races.
Tomorrow’s other meetings: Southwell, Sedgefield and Wolverhampton.