Binocular is one to beat
It is hardly surprising that, for just the third time in the race's history, a maximum field of 24 are declared to run in the 2009 Smurfit Kappa Champion Hurdle.
Although the likely defection of Sizing Europe means that the feature event on day one of the Cheltenham Festival will now be just shy of the full quota, it is significant that so many horses are set to challenge for the season's defining two-mile championship race.
Binocular's uncontested place at the top of a lopsided market has been a matter of much debate and there's no shortage of contenders ready to take him on.
Twenty-four hours later, just eleven horses tackle Master Minded in the Champion Chase, which gives some idea of the extent that Binocular is perceived vulnerable.
The possibility of the ground riding on the soft side saw the favourite drift to 7/4 yesterday.
Beaten after leading over the last in the Supreme Novices' last year when in receipt of 8lbs from Captain Cee Bee — on ground similar to what today's could be like — there has to be a doubt as to whether Binocular will again be found out at the highest level.
While there is a chance that the French-bred has developed sufficiently and could turn this into a procession, he hasn't done enough to fully convince.
A reluctance to believe without hard evidence may yet prove costly, but he is trading too short.
Alternatives abound, with the winners of the past five Champion Hurdles lining up alongside a variety of improving sorts.
If the forecasts are accurate, then it is vital to find something that handles a bit of cut. Rain would, of course, aid the returning Brave Inca's cause, but it is hard to see the old soldier pulling it off, despite his Leopardstown heroics.
2008 Triumph-winner Celestial Halo is another to consider, but David Pipe's pair, Osana and Ashkazar, appeal most.
The latter is favoured on the basis that he has scope for improvement and brings winning form into the race, which the stats suggest is crucial.
Although Ashkazar ran a stinker on his seasonal debut, Pipe's were in poor form at the time, and he looked to have really matured when he won the Kingwell Hurdle last month.
With three of the last six English-trained winners of the Champion taking the Kingwell en route to glory, the race is an established stepping stone and Ashkazar's only run at Cheltenham was solid.