Fly heads Champion Hurdle 18
Reigning champion Hurricane Fly headlines just 18 entries for the £400,000 Stan James Champion Hurdle on Tuesday March 11.
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The contest, which is already shaping up to be the highlight of the whole Cheltenham Festival, features four possible starters from Willie Mullins, with Hurricane Fly - the 3/1 joint-favourite with the sponsors - joined by Annie Power, Un Des Sceaux and Thousand Stars.
Hurricane Fly will be bidding to become the sixth three-time winner of hurdling's top race and the first since Istabraq, who triumphed for Aidan O'Brien in 1998, 1999 and 2000 and the first not in successive years.
However, great race though it should still be, the disappointing figure of 18 is the lowest number of entries for the race in recent times - last year there were 34 and the previous lowest total was 24 in 1995.
Hurricane Fly captured his first Stan James Champion Hurdle in 2011 and became only the second horse to regain the crown when getting the better of the the previous year's winner Rock On Ruby in a thrilling finish last March.
He returned this season with a gutsy victory in the Grade One StanJames.com Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown in November - a 17th Grade One success and extended that sequence to a record-breaking 18 with a decisive two and a half-length success over Jezki and Our Conor, both of whom are also among the Champion entries, in the Grade One Ryanair Hurdle at Leopardstown on December 29.
Jezki's trainer Jessica Harrington confirmed on Wednesday: "At the moment, the Stan James Champion Hurdle is very much the aim for Jezki.
"I have been delighted with him since Christmas. Maybe he was a bit unlucky there, but he ran a very good race and it was the first time he had come up against that class of horse.
"He runs a week on Sunday in the Irish Champion Hurdle. His preparation has gone very well and we will have to wait to see if he can get closer to Hurricane Fly - it all depends on luck in running and how the race goes.
"He went to Cheltenham last year and was beaten by two very good horses. His jumping was probably a little bit sloppy on the day, but he gets two and a half miles and I see no reason why he won't run very well in the Champion Hurdle."
Mullins' star is joined at the top of the Stan James betting by The New One, who took last season's Grade One Neptune Investment Management Novices' Hurdle at the Festival and confirmed himself as a serious contender for Champion Hurdle with a six-length victory in the International Hurdle at Cheltenham in December.
However, Nigel Twiston-Davies' charge went down by half a length to StanJames.com Fighting Fifth Hurdle hero My Tent Or Yours, unbeaten this season and trained by Nicky Henderson, in a vintage renewal of the William Hill Christmas Hurdle at Kempton Park on Boxing Day.
Henderson, the most successful current trainer in the Stan James Champion Hurdle with five victories, has also entered Grandouet and Rolling Star.
Other notable names engaged include Ptit Zig, a Grade One winner at Auteuil in October, Elite Hurdle winner Melodic Rendezvous and 2012 Supreme Novices' Hurdle hero Cinders And Ashes.
Rock On Ruby has also been entered, but only as a back-up, according to trainer Harry Fry.
"Rock On Ruby has been entered in the Champion Hurdle purely as a fall-back plan if we weren't able to get the experience in or weren't happy with how we'd progressed over fences," Fry told StanJames.com.
"The focus is very much on chasing and hopefully a tilt at the Arkle but if you're not in it, you can't win it so it's purely a back-up plan.
"We're very much on target for the Lightning a week on Saturday but we just need a bit of help from the weather. That will be the determining factor at the end of the day and we're looking forward to seeing him out over fences again."
Rory Jiwani of sponsors StanJames.com said: "We're delighted to see such a high-class entry for this year's StanJames Champion Hurdle.
"Outside the big three, Ireland adds real depth with runaway Triumph winner Our Conor, Jezki and Willie Mullins' unexposed pair of Annie Power and Un De Sceaux all holding live chances."
Stanjames.com Champion Hurdle entries (18):
ACT OF KALANISI. Trainer: Dr Richard Newland
ANNIE POWER. Trainer: Willie Mullins
CINDERS AND ASHES. Trainer: Donald McCain
COTTON MILL. Trainer: John Ferguson
GRANDOUET. Trainer: Nicky Henderson
GRUMETI. Trainer: Alan King
HURRICANE FLY. Trainer: Willie Mullins
JEZKI. Trainer: Jessica Harrington
MELODIC RENDEZVOUS. Trainer: Jeremy Scott
MONTBAZON. Trainer: Alan King
MY TENT OR YOURS. Trainer: Nicky Henderson
OUR CONOR. Trainer: Dessie Hughes
PTIT ZIG. Trainer: Paul Nicholls
ROCK ON RUBY. Trainer: Harry Fry
ROLLING STAR. Trainer: Nicky Henderson
THE NEW ONE. Trainer: Nigel Twiston-Davies
THOUSAND STARS. Trainer: Willie Mullins
UN DE SCEAUX. Trainer: Willie Mullins
Sky Bet betting: 3/1 The New One, Hurricane Fly, 4/1 My Tent Or Yours, 8/1 Jezki, 9/1 Our Conor, 10/1 Annie Power, 12/1 Un De Sceaux, 33/1 Bar.