The 2015 Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown will doubtless be billed as the latest shootout in the entertaining rivalry between Hurricane Fly and Jezki.
Yet, it’s a far deeper contest than the hype machine would have you believe, with both Arctic Fire and Fiscal Focus progressing with alacrity.
Willie Mullins’ 21-time Grade-1-winner heads the betting to land his fifth successive running of the Leopardstown showpiece, while Jezki is 11/8 second-favourite.
Next to the feted pair, Arctic Fire and particularly the Desmond McDonogh-trained Fiscal Focus are arguably more intriguing, both in terms of this contest and ante-post betting for the 2015 Cheltenham Festival.
Mullins-inmate Arctic Fire is a distant 12/1 third-favourite for the upcoming race despite coming home like a train to claim a one-and-three-quarter-length third behind the Fly and his perennial rival at Punchestown in December.
That was just his ninth outing over timber and given he appears to finally be learning to settle early on in races punters are entitled to expect some improvement.
Will he still be 25/1 for the Champion Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival if he equals his effort over the Christmas period? Unlikely…
However, Fiscal Focus is, if anything, even more interesting from an ante-post perspective, having won a Grade 2 juvenile hurdle on his debut over obstacles.
The son of Dewhurst winner Intense Focus (out of a mare by Breeders Cup Mile winner Royal Academy) is already as short as 14/1 for the Triumph Hurdle.
In winning that course and distance contest, he took down Kalkir, himself a 10/1 bet for the Festival’s top juvenile race, with the pair 14l clear of the third.
Heavy ground may have been blamed for the latter’s defeat, but Fiscal Focus was a scorer on good ground on the flat so is unlikely to be too reliant on a bog underfoot.
The fact that he is being pitched in at the highest level just one run later speaks volumes about connections’ estimations of his ability.
As for the Irish Champion, a weight-for-age allowance means McDonogh’s four-year-old is in receipt of a hefty 16lbs from those ahead of him in the betting.
Already boasting the third-highest Racing Post rating in the field, there will be far worse 25/1 bets this season.
All Odds and Markets are correct as of the date of publishing.
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