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Triumph Hurdler Countrywide Flame heads a field of eight for Wednesday's Christmas Hurdle at Kempton

Updated: Sunday, 23 Dec 2012 12:01 | Comments

Darlan must go close in the Christmas Hurdle if he's to establish himself as a Champion Hurdle contender
Darlan must go close in the Christmas Hurdle if he's to establish himself as a Champion Hurdle contender

Countrywide Flame, winner of the Triumph Hurdle and the Fighting Fifth Hurdle, features in a fascinating eight-strong field for the williamhill.com Christmas Hurdle at Kempton on St Stephen's Day.

Trainer John Quinn opted for this race rather than go to Ireland for the Istabraq Festival Hurdle at Leopardstown on 29 December.

The decision means he will face Cinders And Ashes, the horse he beat at Newcastle at the beginning of the month.

Donald McCain's five-year-old won the Supreme Novices' Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival.

Darlan, who was second that day, re-opposes, and his trainer Nicky Henderson is also represented by Punjabi, who has not raced for 978 days.

Darlan's owner JP McManus also has the Jonjo O'Neill-trained Get Me Out Of Here.

Paul Nicholls saddles Dodging Bullets, winner of both his starts this term, while Raya Star and Mad Moose complete the line-up.

Brampour, Cotton Mill and Qalinas were the three defections at the final declaration stage.

"He's (Darlan) a mighty strong horse now. Physically he's much stronger than last year," - Nicky Henderson

Tony McCoy feels Darlan has to go close in this to warrant a place in the Champion Hurdle itself.

"The ground will probably be soft enough for him, but it's the time of year when he needs to get out - hopefully he can make up into a good horse," said McCoy.

"He's a narrow-framed sort of horse and hopefully he will improve with time.

"He's got to step up a lot to be a champion hurdler, and as yet he's got a lot to prove.

"We're working with the hope he is going to be a good horse, but in terms of ratings if he were to run in a handicap against the likes of Zarkandar or Rock On Ruby he'd be getting plenty of weight off them.

"At the 1same time, the Christmas Hurdle is the right race for him if he is going to make up into a Champion Hurdle horse.

"He needs to be performing pretty well, even if the ground is not in his favour."

Henderson has seen a physical improvement in Darlan since last season.

"We didn't run him in very soft ground at Cheltenham, but everything has gone fine and he went to Kempton for a racecourse gallop and worked well with Riverside Theatre," he said.

"He's in great form and it's going to be a fascinating race.

"We've kept him over hurdles and he's a mighty strong horse now. Physically he's much stronger than last year.

"There was a temptation to go chasing but we are going to take the hurdle route."

Henderson also runs Punjabi, who has not raced since April 2010 and fell in this race four years ago.

"We were going to go novice chasing, but we're going to give him a run over hurdles so he can go and enjoy himself," he told At The Races.

"He's been off a fair old while, obviously."

Donald McCain is not unduly concerned Cinders And Ashes went down to Countrywide Flame in the Fighting Fifth.

"We had to run him (at Newcastle), the ground wasn't suitable, we got the run in, he got beat, big deal," said the Cholmondeley handler.

"He was beaten coming past me first time and if we'd waited for Cheltenham we would still have ended up with the same ground.

"We know where we want to be, his work his great and he's come on for the run.

"We're very happy with where we are."

The Supreme Novices' Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival is the long-term target for Dodging Bullets.

"He's done really well this year, he's won two from two at Cheltenham and he's being aimed for the Supreme Novices' Hurdle," Nicholls said.

"He's in good form at the moment so I'm going to let him take his chance in the Christmas Hurdle.

"He's rated 150 and I think he deserves to run in it. I've got the luxury of being able to run him in that and then step him back to novice hurdles.

"I think he'll be a cracking chaser next year."

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