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The two latest winners of the Stan James Champion Hurdle, Faugheen (2015) and Annie Power (2016), headline 28 entries, the highest level since 2013, for the 2017 renewal of the £400,000 Grade One hurdling showpiece at Cheltenham on the first day of The Festival, Champion Day, Tuesday, March 14.
Faugheen led home a one-two-three for Ireland's champion Jump trainer Willie Mullins in 2015, but was unable to defend his crown last year due to a tendon injury. In his absence, Annie Power, who also carries the colours of Susannah Ricci, stepped in to become the first mare since Flakey Dove in 1994 to win the two-mile hurdling championship.
Sponsor Stan James makes Faugheen its 2/1 favourite, with Annie Power next best at 5/1. Both horses are yet to run this season.
Mullins has nine entries in total as he bids for a record-equalling fifth success in the Stan James Champion Hurdle. His formidable hand is strengthened by seven-time G1 victor and last year's third Nichols Canyon (25/1 with Stan James), 2016 OLBG Mares' Hurdle winner Vroum Vroum Mag (16/1), who is also entered in the three championship chases, and 2015 County Hurdle scorer Wicklow Brave (33/1), successful in the G1 Irish St Leger on the Flat in September. Galway Hurdle winner Clondaw Warrior (50/1), Diakali (40/1), Ivan Grozny (40/1) and Footpad (50/1) are also engaged.
The other four Irish-trained entries feature 2014 Stan James Champion Hurdle victor Jezki (Jessica Harrington, 40/1), who has not raced since April, 2015, Petit Mouchoir (Henry De Bromhead, 8/1), who thrashed Nichols Canyon by eight lengths in a G1 contest at Leopardstown over Christmas, and G1 Hatton's Grace Hurdle heroine Apple's Jade (Gordon Elliott, 25/1).
The leading British-trained challenger is Yanworth (Alan King, 5/1) after his three and a quarter-length victory over The New One (Nigel Twiston-Davies, 25/1), third, fifth and fourth in the last three Stan James Champion Hurdles, in the G1 Christmas Hurdle at Kempton Park.
Yanworth has won six of his seven starts over hurdles, with his sole defeat coming at the hands of Yorkhill in last year's Neptune Investment Management Novices' Hurdle at The Festival.
Nicky Henderson has enjoyed five Champion Hurdles wins, more than any other current trainer, and his five 2017 contenders are headed by Brain Power (12/1). The progressive six-year-old has a rating of 162 following a five-length success in a valuable G3 handicap hurdle at Ascot just before Christmas. My Tent Or Yours (50/1), runner-up in both 2014 and 2016, Buveur D'Air (33/1), L'Ami Serge (33/1) and Top Notch (40/1) complete his hand.
An unknown quantity among the entries is Cyrus Darius (50/1), who has a 100 per cent record over obstacles. Trained by Malcolm Jefferson, the eight-year-old is unbeaten in three starts over hurdles including a 10-length demolition of his rivals in the 2015 G2 Top Novices' Hurdle at Aintree's Grand National Festival. Cyrus Darius has not raced since scoring on his chasing debut at Perth in September, 2015.
Jefferson said: "Cyrus Darius is doing great. He is entered in the StanJames.com Champion Hurdle Trial at Haydock at the weekend and, all being well, he will go there.
"We have decided to go back over hurdles for now. He improved a lot over hurdles and ended up being quite impressive at Aintree.
"The owners have said they would like to have a go over hurdles, so we will see how things go on Saturday before deciding what we do for the rest of the season.
"He is a big horse and is as ready as I can get him at home. He has done a lot of steady work, which has gradually built up, and his schooling has been very good. He is in great nick, but it is his first run for a long time and, at this time of year, you are meeting race-fit horses on testing ground.
"I am expecting him to run a real nice race, although if he does need it he won't be knocked about."
Other Stan James Champion Hurdle contenders include last year's County Hurdle winner Superb Story, 16/1), one of three horses entered by Dan Skelton, Stan James Elite Hurdle victor Sceau Royal (Alan King, 33/1) and Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle favourite Moon Racer (David Pipe, 33/1).
Brett Williams, PR spokesperson for StanJames.com, said: "We are delighted with the 28 entries for the Stan James Champion Hurdle, the final leg in our Road To Cheltenham series.
"With the previous three winners, Annie Power, Faugheen and Jezki, among the possible contenders along with last season's exciting novice Yanworth, this year's contest has maintained its status as the premier hurdle race in the horseracing calendar and is shaping up to be real corker.
"It is also great to see Stan James Jump ambassador Nicky Henderson with strong entries including the improving Brain Power and L'Ami Serge, not to mention the admirable My Tent Or Yours,
"Stan James is extremely proud to once again support Jump racing's hurdling crown and look forward to seeing the how the shape of the race develops over the coming weeks."
Stan James Champion Hurdle - Stan James prices: 2/1 Faugheen; 5/1 Annie Power, Yanworth; 8/1 Petit Mouchoir; 12/1 Brain Power; 16/1 Vroum Vroum Mag, Superb Story; 25/1 The New One, Nichols Canyon, Apple's Jade; 33/1 Wicklow Brave, L'Ami Serge, Buveir D'Air, Sceau Royal, Moon Racer; 40/1 Jezki, Top Notch, Diakali, Ivan Grozny; 50/1 Gwafa, Clyne, My Tent Or Yours, Ch'tibello, Cyrus Darius, Ivanovich Gorbatov, Clondaw Warrior; 66/1 Mister Miyagi, Footpad.