Responsible for nine of the 28 horses currently entered for the Stan James Champion Hurdle in just under eight weeks time the Closutton stable of Willie Mullins could hardly find itself in a stronger position in an effort to win hurdling’s championship contest for a fifth time and the third in a row following Faugheen in 2015 and Annie Power last March. However, with doubts surrounding the possible participation of one or both of the last two winners and with most of Mullins’ other entries having alternative targets at the festival it is anyone’s guess just how many runners Ireland’s leading handler will rely on come Tuesday 14th March.
Neither of the Rich Ricci-owned pair of Faugheen and Annie Power have been seen on a racecourse this season and it is looking increasingly likely that the duo could well be having their first start of the present campaign at National Hunt’s showpiece meeting at Prestbury Park. Both horses have been given an entry in the BHP Insurance Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown on Sunday week, although neither have been confirmed an intended runner at this stage.
Speaking about his possible Champion Hurdle team, Mullins said: “ I’ve a nice team to choose from in the Champion Hurdle. Faugheen and Annie Power are still on course for Cheltenham. Vroum Vroum Mag will probably have more options than any other horse at Cheltenham. She’s very versatile. Ivan Grozny is entered in the Champion Hurdle Trial at Haydock on Saturday but I’ve yet to make up my mind whether or not to let him take his chance. I’ll decide closer to the weekend.”
The Mullins’ entry is completed by Clondaw Warrior, Diakali, Footpad, Nichols Canyon and Wicklow Brave. Due to the uncertainty regarding running plans bookmakers have Faugheen at a top price 9-4 ( Skybet, Ladbrokes, Coral and Betfair Sportsbook ) although the nine-year-old is only 5-4 ( non-runner no bet ) with Bet365 and Paddy Power. Stablemate and reigning champion Annie Power is a little bit more generous at 2-1 with both of those firms but anyone willing to risk an early Cheltenham betting wager on the mare can avail themselves of the 5-1 available with several layers including Stan James and William Hill. The possible home challenge is headed by Yanworth, a standout 5-1 with the race sponsor at this moment in time.