03/12/2005 1:00AM

Hardy Eustace seeks to repeat


Irish trainers are likely to dominate the Smurfit Champion Hurdle, over 2 1/16 miles at Cheltenham on Tuesday, as they supply the top seven horses in the betting.

Last year's winner, Hardy Eustace, was 33-1 then but more like 3-1 now, and will vie for favoritism with Back in Front. Hardy Eustace has won twice at Cheltenham and Back in Front three times.

The other Irish hopes have also made winning trips to England in the past 12 months, and both Accordion Etoile and Brave Inca have scored at Cheltenham.

Harchibald won at Newcastle and Kempton at the end of last year but confidence in his chances for this race were shaken when he did not perform to expectations in a recent public gallop. He had been the favorite until then.

Essex, an improving son of Sadler's Wells, won a rich handicap hurdle at Newbury last month, while Mac's Joy beat three of his fellow invaders, Brave Inca, Hardy Eustace (a winner since), and Accordion Etoile, in a close finish at Leopardstown on Jan. 23.

Mac's Joy is trained by Jessica Harrington, whose record at the Cheltenham Festival is 3 wins from 8 runners in the past five years.