By Barry McEneaney

3.20 Stan James Champion Hurdle Challenge Trophy

Hurricane Fly bids for another National Hunt first in what has developed into the most eagerly-anticipated race of the Cheltenham Festival.

Hatton’s Grace (1949, 1950, 1951), Sir Ken (1952, 1953, 1954), Persian War (1968, 1969, 1970), See You Then (1985, 1986, 1987) and Istabraq (1998, 1999, 2000) each landed a hat-trick of Champion Hurdle crowns, but victory for Hurricane Fly would mark him out as the first horse to achieve the record-equalling feat in non-consecutive years, a fitting highlight of an already historic season.

Willie Mullins’ charge kicked off his campaign with a win in the Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown, where he set a new record for Grade One victories. His 17th success at the top level surpassed the record previously held by Kauto Star in the National Hunt domain and John Henry on the Flat.

However, the manner of his victory and the calibre of the field stripped some of the gloss of his headline-grabbing achievement. Three of his four outmatched rivals were stablemates, while his laboured performance was arguably the least impressive win in his illustrious career.

As they get older, many horses become harder to get fit. Subsequent races showed that Hurricane Fly could and would come on massively for this pipe opener, but it was still disappointing that he couldn’t put away the opposition in more emphatic fashion.

The slow-fast pace scenario that played out should have suited him ideally, but that devastating trademark turn of foot was absent.

His best performance of the season came on his penultimate start in the Ryanair Hurdle at his beloved Leopardstown over Christmas.

The son of Montjeu started at odds-against (11-10F) on Irish soil for the first time in four years as he faced formidable adversaries in the form Jezki and Our Conor. But the pretenders to his crown failed to land a blow as he ran out an ultimately comfortable two-and-a-half-length winner.

Jezki and Our Conor came back for more in the Irish Champion Hurdle at the end of January, but the final outcome was the same as Hurricane Fly racked up his eighth win at the track.

It’s harsh to criticise the Cheltenham record of a two-time Champion Hurdle winner, but Ruby Walsh’s mount hasn’t blown away the opposition - or the public - on the other side of the Irish Sea in the way he has on home turf. So why hasn’t he?

Hurricane Fly has had to display a good degree of versatility during his career, but it’s likely that his absolute optimum conditions involve softish ground and a slowish early pace, both rarities in a Champion Hurdle.

His first win in 2011 came in a renewal which was run at a slightly slower pace than could have been anticipated, a scenario which played to the strengths of Hurricane Fly but which would have inconvenienced many of those behind him, most notably Oscar Whisky who finished third.

The defending champion failed to read the script 12 months later when disappointing in third behind Rock On Ruby. Some ascribed defeat to the lively ground, but a lack of race fitness is a more likely explanation for the reversal.

Hurricane Fly had delivered one of his most scintillating displays 44 days earlier in romping to a six-and-a-half length success in the Irish Champion Hurdle, but that was his sole start of the campaign.

His decimation of a small field on heavy ground in a slowly-run race was never likely to be sufficient to bring him to peak fitness for his title defence.

History would strongly suggest that Champion Hurdle contenders need to have raced at least twice that season to hold realistic aspirations of landing hurdling’s blue riband event. His Cheltenham failure was followed by a laboured victory at the Punchestown Festival and it’s probably safe to put a line through what was a truncated campaign.

Last year, he became the first horse since Comedy of Errors (1973, 1975) to regain the Champion Hurdle crown. A brutal early tempo led to the winner clocking a slower time than Champagne Fever registered in his win the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle over the same trip earlier on the card.

Racing on ground slightly softer than generally prevails at the Festival, Hurricane Fly ground out a two-and-a-half length win over defending champion Rock On Ruby.

Walsh, always his own harshest critic, admonished himself afterwards for sticking a little too closely to the strong early gallop, but the fact remains that his mount received a more sympathetic ride than those afforded to the second, third or fourth-place finishers.

Zarkander and the ill-fated Countrywide Flame couldn’t be regarded as two-mile specialists, and while Rock On Ruby would fall into that bracket, his chance was massively compromised by setting an unsustainable tempo after getting lit up by the application of first-time blinkers.

He displayed admirable tenacity to limit the winning margin to two-and-a-half lengths, but his proximity to the winner, given how inefficiently he raced, could prompt you to downgrade the champion’s performance somewhat.

This year, the hat-trick seeking Hurricane Fly faces a host of emerging two-mile specialists in what is surely his stiffest task to date. He may prove vulnerable.

The New One is likely to vie with the defending champion for favouritism, and last season’s Neptune Novices’ Hurdle winner has more than justified the decision to drop him down in trip.

His Festival victory came in a slowly-run affair and he was always going to be too pacey to consider going down they staying route. Neptune winners have an excellent record in this race, albeit from a small sample size, with Istabraq and Hardy Eustace going on to become multiple winners, while Danoli, French Holly and Peddlers Cross all ran into the places.

Nigel Twiston-Davies’ stable star quickened brilliantly to brush aside the challenge of Rock On Ruby on his seasonal debut at Kempton before accounting for Zarkandar in less impressive display at Cheltenham on his subsequent outing.

A return to Kempton saw him face My Tent Or Yours in the Christmas Hurdle where a bad blunder at the final hurdle saw him snatch a likely defeat from the jaws of victory after a sustained two-way battle with Tony McCoy’s mount up the home straight.

It’s impossible to be too dogmatic about what would have happened had he negotiated the last flight more professionally; the horse didny come to a juddering halt, perhaps the winner would have responded and still scored, but the rider’s loss of an iron and the horse’s loss of momentum probably cost him more than the half-length he was beaten by.

That’s the common consensus. Groupthink also dictates that he’ll be better suited to a galloping course like Cheltenham than a sharp circuit like Kempton, but it may be unwise to be too rigid on this point as his race record doesn’t bear that out. Six of his nine victories have come at speed-favouring courses, with his only defeat a half-length loss behind Zarkandar as a novice in last season’s Aintree Hurdle.

His lack of a recent prep race is mildly off-putting, but that was always the plan, and he does run well fresh. Rock On Ruby arrived here on the back of a similar narrow defeat in the Christmas Hurdle before landing his Champion Hurdle in 2012, proving that a recent spin isn’t always necessary.

My Tent Or Yours still insists on doing things the hard way. Despite pulling hard in his races, he’s managed to rack up eight victories and four second-place finishes in his 12 lifetime starts. An argument can be made that he’d be 11/12 if he could use his energy in more efficient fashion. If he consents to settle he has strong claims in this spot.

The Nicky Henderson inmate looked a superstar in his victories at Newbury and Aintree last term, but sandwiched in between those wins was a narrow defeat to Champagne Fever in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at the Festival. The winner, who thrives at Prestbury Park, received a masterful front-running ride from Walsh that day, while My Tent Or Yours paid the price for wrenching his rider’s arms out for much of the trip.

His victories this season in the Fighting Fifth and the Christmas Hurdle were solid rather than spectacular, but his recent annihilation of a bumper field on Kempton’s all-weather surface may have been an ideal, if unorthodox trial for this race.

My Tent Or Yours only poor run to date came in heavy ground and trainer Henderson astutely reasoned that asking for a big effort on testing ground so close to the Festival could take the edge of his charge.

He was long odds-on for his Kempton assignment, but the time and manner of his victory was impressive. Kempton’s Polytrack surface resembles a fast-ish turf surface, and the prospect of drying conditions at Cheltenham seems certain to play to this strong-travelling sort’s strengths.

Connections are confident that a minor foot problem sustained last week won’t  have a major impact on the horse’s prospects, but any hold-up so close to a big race has to cause some cause for concern.

The sight of Our Conor storming up the Cheltenham hill provided one of the indelible images of last season’s Festival. The ultra-competitive nature of the meeting makes a wide-margin victory all the more meritorious, and Our Conor’s 15-length drubbing of the Triumph Hurdle field propelled him towards the top of the ante-post market for this race.

Dessie Hughes’ hurdling neophyte had already recorded two wins over timber when he arrived at Leopardstown for last season’s Spring Juvenile Hurdle, but it was his performance in that contest which marked him out as one of the brightest prospective talents in the hurdling ranks.

The key feature of that race, and perhaps the key to Our Conor, was the presence of a strong early pace and habitual frontrunner Diakali ensured a more generous gallop than he had experienced on either of his two previous outings. Travelling better than any of his opponents into the straight, he coasted to a five-length success in a fast time.

His meteoric rise continued at the Festival where once again he capitalised on Diakali’s trailblazing exuberance, stalking that rival for much of the trip before sauntering effortlessly clear.

The galloping nature of the track, allied to the strong early pace, suited him perfectly and it’s likely that his best performances in the years ahead will come at Prestbury Park.

His return to the racecourse in a Flat handicap at Naas in October yielded a slightly underwhelming fourth-place finish, but he did become embroiled in a barging match with two of his rivals that day. The cuts and bruises sustained meant he missed work for a number of weeks and a mouth-watering clash with Hurricane Fly in the Morgiana Hurdle  had to be aborted.

Having recovered from his battle scars, the two finally got the chance to meet for the first time in the Ryanair Hurdle at Leopardstown at Christmas. A notable late drifter in the betting on that occasion, he ran like an animal some way off peak fitness. Having taken a keen hold in the early stages, he travelled well into the straight before folding a little tamely, almost certainly blowing up through lack of fitness.

The pedestrian early pace he encountered in the Irish Champion Hurdle on his most recent outing resulted in a near-sprint finish, which wouldn’t have been ideal for him, but you couldn’t help but be taken by his performance in defeat behind Hurricane Fly. The son of Jeremy led briefly at the last before going down by just a length-and-a-half.

The winner was extending his advantage as he reached the line, but the result did signal that he’s coming to the boil at just the right time ahead of his ultimate target. Those supporting him for the Champion Hurdle will cite his affinity with the course and his love of a strong pace as reasons why he can continue his upward trajectory and turn the tables on the defending champion.

Jezki’s last two starts also came in the Ryanair Hurdle and the Irish Champion Hurdle, but both runs were unsatisfactory with regard to weighing up his Champion Hurdle prospects.

He was boxed in by Captain Cee Bee and Our Conor at a crucial stage before the last flight on his penultimate start, before picking up well and staying on into second. Regardless of the interference he suffered he was never going to get to Hurricane Fly, who was at his imperious best that day, but he could possibly have eroded the winner’s advantage granted a clearer run.

 He received an abject ride last time out, where he was held up off a dawdling pace to finish last of four. Jockey error aside, Jessica Harrington’s charge had already compromised his own chances by running with the choke out throughout and he was a spent force as the finish unfolded.

As JP McManus’ retained rider, Tony McCoy was always likely to favour My Tent Or Yours over Jezki, but Barry Geraghty is a more than able deputy. Geraghty’s quieter style might suit the horse and he’s unbeaten in his four rides on the son of Milan. A return to racing at championship pace on better should show him in a good light.

For a two-mile specialist, Melodic Rendezvous doesn’t do anything quickly. But in a field brimming with both human and equine star names there’s a chance he’s gone under the radar, and you could make a plausible case for him as an interesting outsider.

He hails from the comparatively unfashionable yard of Jeremy Scott, and Nick Schofield wouldn’t have anything like the profile of many of the other riders in this race. A narrow, workmanlike win over Zarkandar was better than it looked as he had to make up a significant amount of ground at the end of a slowly-run a race. The caveat that tempers enthusiasm for him is his pronounced preference for testing ground. The eight-year-old has won five of his six starts on ground officially described as heavy, but is two from four on a faster surface.

Hurricane Fly is generally regarded as the second best two-mile hurdler since Istabraq. His performance here will have a major impact on his legacy. At the age of ten, progression is unlikely. The most connections can hope for is that he’s as good as ever and that he hasn’t regressed. His three victories this year remain inconclusive in that regard. We witnessed a sub-par win in the Morgiana, an imperious one in the Ryanair and a solid one in the Irish Champion.

If the king is to be deposed, it could well be Our Conor who wrestles his crown of him. The main fear is that this race could come a year too soon. Five-year-olds have a lamentable record in this race, with Katchit the only member of that age group to win the race since 1985. His diminutive stature may offer a clue as to why he was able to buck the trend. Many five-year-olds won’t have reached the peak level of physical maturation needed to score here.

However, Katchit, hardly bigger than a pony, had already ready grown and filled out his flimsy frame as much as he was ever going to. He also boasted an abundance of experience under both codes, despite his tender years. Alan King’s winner was also an emphatic winner of the previous year’s Triumph Hurdle, and Our Conor’s backers can take solace in the fact that wide-margin winners of the juvenile race have run well in the Champion Hurdle, with another emphatic winner in Oh So Risky going agonisingly close to completing the notable double in the early 1990s. Our Conor surpassed their Triumph exploits by some way in last year’s rout and can deliver again for a trainer well- versed in getting a horse to peak for this contest.

Hurricane Fly may have to battle it out with Jezki, The New One and My Tent Or Yours may for minor honours, with the latter the best-value alternative to Our Conor, given the likelihood of drying ground.

Selection: Our Conor
Alternative: My Tent Or Yours

Advised staking policy
Our Conor, 2pts each-way @ 9-2