03/13/2010 12:00AM

Champion Hurdle up for grabs


The world's best steeplechase and hurdle meeting gets under way at Cheltenham on Tuesday with the Smurfit Kappa Champion Hurdle the highlight on the first day of the four-day stand. The meeting culminates on Friday with the long-awaited third clash between Kauto Star and Denman in the Gold Cup.

Unlike the Gold Cup, the Champion Hurdle appears to be an extremely open race. A year ago it resulted in a tight three-way battle between Punjabi, Celestial Halo, and Binocular, who finished in that order. All three line up again, but Punjabi was beaten at odds of 1-14 in his final prep race, Celestial Halo has lost his form and will be equipped with first-time blinkers, and Binocular has not been at his best of late with a muscle problem.

The likely favorite is Go Native, one of a clutch of classy Irish raiders. He won a ridiculously slowly run Fighting Fifth Hurdle in November, and his head victory over Starluck in the Christmas Hurdle means the 7-year-old is in line for a $1.5 million bonus if he can add the Champion to those two showpiece trial races.

A second Irish challenger with very strong credentials is Solwhit, who is reportedly well again after a recent sickness scare. He was third in that unsatisfactory Fighting Fifth but has won his two subsequent starts to take his career tally of Grade 1 successes to four.

But perhaps the most brilliant hurdler this season has been Khyber Kim. Formerly with Nicky Henderson, the trainer of Punjabi and Binocular, he is now with Nigel Twiston-Davies and has won twice at Cheltenham this season.