Record Irish-Trained Entry of 21 for Smurfit Kappa Champion Hurdle
Having failed to make the frame in the past two renewals of the Smurfit Kappa Champion Hurdle, the Irish domination of the hurdling showpiece looks set to return with a vengeance in this year’s contest, with Irish trainers being responsible for 21 of the 34 entries for the highlight of the first day of The Festival on Tuesday, March 16.
Heading the challenge from across the Irish Sea is the Noel Meade-trained Go Native, who is seeking a second win at The Festival having triumphed in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle last season. The seven-year-old has already plundered two of Britain’s top hurdling prizes this season, following up a comfortable victory in the Grade One Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle in November with a hard-fought success over Starluck in the Grade One Christmas Hurdle at Kempton the following month.
Solwhit was third behind Go Native at Newcastle but the Charles Byrnes-trained six-year-old recorded a third Grade One victory when defeating the 2007 Smurfit Kappa Champion Hurdle victor Sublimity in the Leopardstown Christmas Hurdle. Both horses are set to re-oppose in this weekend’s Irish Champion Hurdle, where they could meet the progressive Donnas Palm, who landed the Grade Two Tara Hurdle on his latest appearance.
Voler La Vedette has been forced to miss her intended engagement in the Irish Champion Hurdle but the talented six-year-old, a 13-length winner over Go Native in a Grade Three Hurdle at Down Royal in November, may bid to become the first mare to land the Smurfit Kappa Champion Hurdle since Flakey Dove in 1994.
A trio of entries from the stable of Willie Mullins includes last season’s David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle heroine Quevega, while Philip Fenton has given an entry to the exciting novice Dunguib, who sauntered to a 10-length success in last year’s Weatherbys Champion Bumper and was an equally impressive winner of the Grade One Royal Bond Novice Hurdle on his latest start.
The home defence is set to be headed by last year’s JCB Triumph Hurdle winner Zaynar, who has posted two impressive Grade Two victories so far this season including a facile six-length verdict in the Unicoin Homes Relkeel Hurdle at Cheltenham’s Boylesports International in December.
A horse with a 100 per cent record at Cheltenham this season is Khyber Kim, trained by Nigel Twiston-Davies. The eight-year-old came with a tremendous run from way off the pace to land the Greatwood Hurdle at The Open in November and then successfully stepped up in class to land one of the leading trials for the Smurfit Kappa Champion Hurdle, the Boylesports.com International, in December when he had Celestial Halo, Medermit, Punjabi and Ebadiyan in arrears. If successful on March 16, Khyber Kim would collect a £200,000 bonus from Boylesports for winning both the Boylesports.com International and the Smurfit Kappa Champion Hurdle.
As well as Zaynar, Nicky Henderson could also be represented by last year’s winner Punjabi as well as Binocular, who was a close third in the same race. The latter, owned by J P McManus, was fifth behind Go Native on his seasonal return in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle but ran a better race to be third behind the Noel Meade-trained gelding at Kempton, when he went down by just over a length in total.
Frank Berry, racing manager to J P McManus, reported: “Binocular is still on course for the Contenders Hurdle at Sandown on February 6 and Nicky is very happy with him at the moment. He came out of the Christmas Hurdle in good shape and I thought that he ran a cracker there – he wasn’t beaten too far and it was a much better performance than Newcastle.
“We didn’t have any real excuses at Kempton so he has a little to find on Go Native on the formbook. We will get Sandown out of the way before focusing on The Festival but he looks in good form at the moment and we couldn’t be happier with him.”
The famous green and gold silks, carried to victory in the Smurfit Kappa Champion Hurdle on three occasions by the mighty Istabraq, may also be sported by French import Rock Noir, who recently joined the stable of Jonjo O’Neill after rattling off five consecutive wins at Auteuil for Marcel Rolland last year. On his latest start, the five-year-old got the better of Jumbo Rio in a thrilling finish to the Grade One Prix Renaud du Vivier in November.
Berry added: “Rock Noir hasn’t been back in training for very long and we would need to get a run into him before Cheltenham before deciding whether to go for the Smurfit Kappa Champion Hurdle. He has settled in well at Jonjo’s but we haven’t got any firm plans for him at the minute.
“His form in France is very good and it will be interesting to see how he stacks up against the English horses when he does run.”
Other notable contenders include last year’s runner-up Celestial Halo, who is set to start in Sunday’s Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown, the 2008 champion Katchit, and Medermit, who found only Go Native a neck too strong in last year’s Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.
THE SMURFIT KAPPA CHAMPION HURDLE
Form Horse Age Owner Trainer
2131/4-6 AL EILE (IRE) 10 Michael Ryan John Queally IRE
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