Punjabi still one to beat, says Barry
Barry Geraghty believes Punjabi has been underestimated ahead of his bid for back-to-back victories in the Smurfit Kappa Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham today.
The Irish jockey felt he could not desert Raymond Tooth's gelding for stablemate Zaynar and reports the seven-year-old to be in tip-top form.
“There is no way I could desert Punjabi when you consider what he's achieved and more important — how he is right now,” he said.
“He looks well, feels well and just seems to be telling you that this is his time of year.
“I was going through the race again on Monday morning and whichever way you look at it, he's going to be bang there.
“He'll come up that hill and knows what it takes to win and I'm beginning to think he's been an undervalued Champion Hurdler. He has a real big chance.
“As for the opposition, you couldn't have any confidence in Solwhit after his problems.
“I still see Go Native as my biggest threat — especially now that the ground is drying which will really suit him. And with 12 runners there shouldn't be any traffic problems.
“Khyber Kim comes right into it as an improving horse and, as you know, it wasn't easy for me to desert Zaynar.
“He'll be right there but stamina is his strength and the Champion Hurdle is run on a much sharper course than the Triumph on Friday.”
Nicky Henderson has a powerful hand as he also saddles Zaynar and Binocular.
“Punjabi might lack sex appeal, but he has won the race before and wears a crown that says Champion Hurdle on it,” said the Seven Barrows trainer.
“Zaynar was beaten at 1-14 at Kelso but he hated the ground that day and was in need of the run.
“It wasn't an ideal preparation, but I am glad we ran him and I have been happy with him at home since.”
Binocular was touched off by a neck and a head from Punjabi and Celestial Halo 12 months ago and is back in the frame after being virtually ruled out last month.
“We have had a funny time with Binocular. I said he wasn't going to run and he went on his travels, but is back now and the key to him is his hurdling,” explained Henderson.
“He won easily at Sandown the last time, but everyone knew that both AP (McCoy) and I were not happy with him as his jumping was all wrong.
“He schooled 12 hurdles last Wednesday and he looked like the old Binocular, he was very, very quick — like an Olympic athlete.”
The Paul Nicholls-trained Celestial Halo is back to improve on his narrow defeat but owner Andy Stewart is not expecting fireworks.
He said: “I think you can put a line through last year's one-two-three as they have not really franked the form since.
“Go Native sets the standard and he is the one we have all got to beat.”
Noel Meade and his team could be forgiven if they were a little more nervous than usual ahead of Go Native's bid for glory.
As well as statistics being against them — no horse has won the Supreme Novices' Hurdle and Champion Hurdle in consecutive years since Bula in 1970-71 — there is an extra £1million bonus on the line.
“Everything is good, the horse travelled great, he's in great order and I couldn't be happier with him,” said the Navan trainer.
“It's all systems go. He looked great this morning, he had a little breeze out on the track and he was nice and fresh.
“His last piece of work was pretty good all right, we were very happy with it.”