3.20 Stan James Champion Hurdle The Stan James Champion Hurdle is the highlight on day one of the Cheltenham Festival and always provides a thrilling spectacle featuring the fastest jumpers around. Run over eight flights of hurdles, usually at a frenetic gallop, the Champion Hurdle has produced some of the most famous names in the history of National Hunt racing. Hatton’s Grace, Sir Ken, Persian War, See You Then and Istabraq all won it three times while Bula, Comedy of Errors, Night Nurse, Monksfield, Sea Pigeon, Dawn Run and Hardy Eustace also have their places among the pantheon of greats. These are the leading contenders for the 2013 Champion Hurdle: Hurricane Fly (trained by Willie Mullins) The 2011 Champion Hurdle hero was not at his best when defending the title last year and beaten into third place – his only defeat in his last 12 starts. Otherwise he has looked as good as ever at the age of nine and it will need a special performance, or him to be off colour, for him to be beaten this time.
Zarkandar (trained by Paul Nicholls)
Finished fifth last year when, like Hurricane Fly, he was below par and apart from a fall at Aintree, he has won all his other starts over hurdles. Never looks impressive in his races with a grinding style but has the happy knack of knowing where the winning post is and goes to Cheltenham with solid claims.
Rock On Ruby (trained by Harry Fry)
Sprang a minor surprise by winning the 2012 Champion Hurdle in clear-cut fashion and is now officially trained by Harry Fry, who has taken out his own licence. A tough, consistent eight-year-old, he lacks the brilliance of Hurricane Fly but looks guaranteed to put in his usual honest performance.
Grandouet (trained by Nicky Henderson)
Brilliant on his day but not the easiest to train, he had to miss last year’s Champion Hurdle and another small setback cost him the chance of a prep race this time. Beaten by Zarkandar at Cheltenham in December but that was his first run for a year and it would be no surprise to see him right in the mix at the final flight.
Binocular (trained by Nicky Henderson) – 14/1
Seems to have been around forever although still only a nine-year-old and enjoyed his Champion Hurdle moment of glory in 2010. May not be quite the force of old but there was promise in his comeback run behind Hurricane Fly at Leopardstown and aims to fare better than last year’s fourth place.
Cinders And Ashes (trained by Donald McCain)
Won last year’s Supreme Novices’ Hurdle so clearly likes Cheltenham and has got stuck in the mud on his two starts this season. Connections will hope the ground dries out before March 12 and if it does, the six-year-old could be a contender to go one better than stable companions Overturn and Peddlers Cross.
Countrywide Flame (trained by John Quinn)
Another to have won at last year’s Cheltenham Festival, this tough sort landed the Triumph Hurdle and kept up the good work by taking the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle in December. Never runs a bad race and his liking for Prestbury Park means he goes back there with a chance of capturing the big one.