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festival for fly catchers

Cheltenham's Stan James Champion Hurdle attracted 34 entries as the race closed yesterday and the last four winners will all bid to join an elite group and win the coveted two-mile hurdle for a second time.

As expected, Nicky Henderson dominated the list with eight entries and among them are two of the last four winners, Binocular and Punjabi, while Hurricane Fly heads the 10 Irish-trained horses.

Last year's winner, Rock On Ruby, will bid to emulate Hardy Eustace, who was the last horse to win back-to-back runnings of the Champion Hurdle.

Paul Nicholls, who trained Rock On Ruby but lost him to fledging trainer Harry Fry over the summer, has two entries in Pearl Swan and Zarkandar.

Last year's JCB Triumph Hurdle winner Countrywide Flame was also among the 34, while Donald McCain has a seemingly strong team with 2012's Supreme Novices' Hurdle winner, Cinders And Ashes, joined by Overturn and Peddlers Cross.

Not since the 1970s has a horse won the Champion Hurdle and retained it after being dethroned, but that is the task set to Punjabi, Binocular and Hurricane Fly, with the latter the most prominent in the betting as he heads it with Nicky Henderson's Darlan.

Mick Winters' Galway Hurdle winner Rebel Fitz has earned an entry, while Ladbroke Hurdle and last Sunday's Navan winner Cause Of Causes could earn a place in the final line-up if he is to complete the hat-trick in his next intended start, the Betfair Hurdle.

Dermot Weld may try and add the race to his impressive portfolio with Hisaabaat, while Steps To Freedom, Trifolium and King Of Queens complete the Irish representation.

Going to print this morning, Hurricane Fly was Boylesports' market leader at 7/2 with Darlan a 4/1 chance and both Grandouet and Zarkandar back on 7/1. Rock On Ruby is 8/1, while Binocular is 16/1 and Punjabi is 50/1.

Going into a weekend with a Champion Hurdle trial scheduled at Haydock and a severe cold snap forecasted for tomorrow, Alan King and Nicky Henderson have led the voices of concern over losing the Grade Two at Haydock.

Henderson is sweating over both Haydock and Ascot where Sprinter Sacre is due to line up in the Victor Chandler Chase.

He said: "If Sprinter Sacre or Grandouet don't get a run this weekend it changes everything for the others as well."

King was due to run Balder Success at Haydock and Raya Star at Ascot, but could be forced to run both at Ascot with that looking the more likely meeting, if any, to get the go ahead.