sport

Fly set for Champion

Willie Mullins couldn't be happier with Hurricane Fly as he bids to regain his crown in the Stan James Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham.

A winner of 14 Grade One prizes, the nine-year-old is one of the most prolific two-mile hurdlers of the last decade.

However, he arguably returns to Prestbury Park with something to prove, having suffered a shock odds-on reverse when only third 12 months ago behind Rock On Ruby.

Although he has looked as good as ever in winning each of his three starts this season, most recently securing a third victory in January's Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown, many bookmakers have been keen to take on the deposed champion.

While Mullins is never the most outwardly confident of trainers, he appeared in relaxed mood on the eve of the showpiece meeting.

Mullins said: "He travelled well, he's in great form and I'm happy with conditions. I haven't even looked at the declarations. I'm just happy with how everything has gone with our horse so far."

Whereas last year Hurricane Fly suffered a truncated campaign, having just one run before Cheltenham due to various training problems, this year his preparation could hardly have been more smooth.

Mullins is hoping that will make a significant difference to which Hurricane Fly turns up.

He said: "He's doing everything right this year so I'm just hoping. I don't think (pace) is a worry for Hurricane Fly.

"He has had three runs under his belt, he has done everything right and bounced back for every run right compared to last year when we just got one run into him before we went over there. We're very pleased and hopeful at this point."

Ruby Walsh will be in the saddle aboard Hurricane Fly and he is confident he can silence the doubters.

"Everybody has to have an opinion and create an opinion. My opinion is that I love Hurricane Fly," he said.

"I can't understand why the bookmakers appear to be all out to get him. I'm delighted to be riding him - I'd hate to be laying him - and I think he'll take all the beating.

"I love the little horse - I've won a Champion Hurdle on him - and his form has been rock solid. He's had a great season and preparation from the word 'go' this year, compared to last year."

Defending champion Rock On Ruby kicked off the season with a fair third in the International Hurdle at Cheltenham's December meeting, picking up minor honours behind Zarkandar and Grandouet, who are both in the field on Tuesday.

He showed progress to win his most recent race at Doncaster, albeit in somewhat fortunate circumstances following the fatal final-flight fall of the exciting Darlan.

Although officially trained by Paul Nicholls a year ago, he was ably prepared by his then assistant Harry Fry, who has made a superb start to his own training career this season.

Fry said: "The nerves probably won't kick in until they're down at the start. At this stage, we're all just really looking forward to it. To have a horse like him running in a Champion Hurdle in my first season as a trainer is great and obviously very exciting.

"He has really come to himself the last week to 10 days and we really couldn't be happier with him. We'll walk the course in the morning and see what it's like. Ideally we would have liked better ground, but at the same time it could be worse.

"He came down the hill on heavy ground like the best horse in the race in the International and a lack of race-fitness caught him out at the end of the race.

"He's obviously much fitter now so while we would prefer better ground, I don't think it's totally against us."

Fry made a surprise announcement last weekend that Rock On Ruby would be fitted with blinkers for the first time at Cheltenham and he is hopeful it will help his stable star take his game to another level.

"We have been thinking about the blinkers for a while and after discussing it with Noel (Fehily) we decided if we were going to do it, first time in the Champion Hurdle is the right time," said Fry.

"We're hoping it will bring about an improved performance and after watching him in them at home, I can't see any reason why it won't."

Given there is an obvious lack of pace in this year's Champion Hurdle, many believe Rock On Ruby could end up making the running.

Fry is hoping this will not be the case, but is planning to leave tactics to his jockey.

"We won't know how the race is going to unfold until it's already under way, but Noel will do whatever is best for our horse," he said. "He'll have a plan A, B and C and we'll just have to see what happens."

Fry is in no doubt about which of Rock On Ruby's opponents poses the biggest threat.

He said: "I think a fully fit and revved up Hurricane Fly is obviously going to be heard to beat. His record is outstanding, he has obviously had a much better preparation this year and his team sound much happier.

"But, we beat him last year, and we're hoping we can do it again."

Despite losing Rock On Ruby, Nicholls still has a major Champion Hurdle contender in the shape of Zarkandar.

Winner of the 2011 Triumph Hurdle and fifth in last year's Champion, he has won each of his three starts this term.

With Walsh unsurprisingly choosing Hurricane Fly, Daryl Jacob comes in for the ride.

Nicholls said: "He's a seven-time winner from nine runs, he's won a Triumph and is unbeaten this year, but Ruby couldn't get off Hurricane Fly. But we don't need Ruby riding him, Daryl won the Triumph on him and gets on very well with him, it's no problem.

"He keeps on winning, he's not flashy. He's off the bridle for a long way and keeps on galloping up that Cheltenham hill, which is what you want. He's workmanlike - he does just enough - but you don't know what's left in the locker.

"I'm very happy with the horse, he worked great on Saturday and he loves Cheltenham. I was pleased the ground will be testing, as that's ideal for him."

Nicky Henderson has won the Champion Hurdle on five previous occasions and this year has a trio of runners in 2010 winner Binocular, Grandouet and Khyber Kim.

The enigmatic Binocular was fourth a year ago and has run just once this season, finishing third behind Hurricane Fly in the Irish Champion Hurdle.

Henderson said: "His history is fraught with fantastic moments and disappointments, many of which were not his fault at all.

"He's only had the one run and admittedly that doesn't stand out as a great feat in itself. We took him to Ireland in some bad ground and Hurricane Fly was impressive that day and has been all season. Ireland was all right - he needed it - and everything has gone very well since.

"Historically, there's not much between him and Hurricane Fly any way. If we're anywhere near our best, he's in there with a very good chance. He's in really good form."

Binocular's owner, JP McManus, said: "I know he's probably written off in a lot of people's minds but my advice would be if you back something in the race, perhaps you should have a saver on Binocular. I've a soft spot for him."

Binocular's jockey Tony McCoy appears less confident about his chances, claiming the soft ground tips things very much in favour of