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Picture: Constitution Hill winning last year’s Cheltenham Champion Hurdle (Skysports.com)

David Carr (Racing Post)

Defending champion Constitution Hill may be “flawless” according to Ruby Walsh but he has not frightened away the opposition in the Unibet Champion Hurdle.

He was among 22 horses entered for the Cheltenham showpiece when it closed on Tuesday, five more than last year when the brilliant two-miler saw off rivals with a dismissive nine-length triumph at 4-11.

It is one fewer entry than the total put in the race in 2022, when Michael Buckley’s star was still a novice.

The Nicky Henderson-trained seven-year-old has won all his eight races over hurdles by a combined total of just under 100 lengths and scored his seventh straight Grade 1 success in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton last month.

Walsh, who won the Champion Hurdle four times as a jockey, said of Constitution Hill in a Paddy Power podcast: “He’s just flawless. He’s damned close to perfect. At Kempton he was perfect and he’s such a good jumper.

“It’s like he just lifts his knees at a gallop and just takes the jump in a galloping stride. You barely notice him getting off the ground, he’s that good at it.”

Those handed the thankless task of trying to beat a horse who is a best-priced 1-3 favourite include last year’s runner-up State Man (9-2), who gained his seventh Grade 1 win in the Matheson Hurdle at Leopardstown last month.

Triumph Hurdle favourite Burdett Road is among the entries for the Champion but trainer James Owen said: “We put him in the Champion Hurdle in case something happened but the Triumph is the aim for this season and it’s all systems go for that.”

Matheson second Impaire Et Passe (14-1) is in the Champion and also among 36 entries for the Paddy Power Stayers’ Hurdle.

The initial field for that contest over three miles is eight up on last year and the race has attracted its highest entry since 2021.

Reigning French champion hurdler Theleme heads the betting at a best-priced 9-2.

There are 25 entries for the Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle, beating last year’s figure by one, with 2023 Triumph Hurdle winner Lossiemouth heading the betting at a top-priced 11-4, although she has also been put in the Champion.

Notable omissions

Name: Rubaud
Race: Unibet Champion Hurdle
Explanation: Being aimed at either the Kingwell or Betfair Hurdle.

Name: Marine Nationale
Race: Unibet Champion Hurdle
Explanation: He had looked a potential rival to Constitution Hill when winning the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle last year and was still quoted in many ante-post lists, but made an impressive chasing debut at Leopardstown last month and is staying over fences.

Name: Facile Vega
Race: Unibet Champion Hurdle
Explanation: The Supreme Novices’ Hurdle runner-up made a successful chasing debut at Navan and is clearly being kept to fences despite a subsequent defeat at Leopardstown.

Name: Kateira
Race: Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle
Explanation: Last season’s Mersey Novices’ Hurdle second was runner-up in Listed mares’ company at Kempton but has not been seen out since and trainer Dan Skelton said: “She’s being aimed at Aintree, with a prep run depending on ground conditions.”

2024 Cheltenham Festival: big-race entries

Unibet Champion Hurdle (March 12)

Total entries: 22
The key horses: Constitution Hill, State Man
Ante-post favourite: Constitution Hill (1-3f, generally)

Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle (March 12)

Total entries: 25
The key horses: Lossiemouth, Gala Marceau
Ante-post favourite: Lossiemouth (11-4f, generally)

Paddy Power Stayers’ Hurdle (March 14)

Total entries: 36
The key horses: Theleme, Teahupoo
Ante-post favourite: Theleme, Teahupoo (7-2f, William Hill)

Long-range shout:

By Harry Wilson, tipster

Magical Zoe
Mares’ Hurdle (March 12)
Ante-post odds: 20-1 (bet365)

It was hard not to be drawn to Magical Zoe in the Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham last year, when, despite losing her unbeaten record, she fared much the best of those held up and finished well to take second.

She may have got even closer to the winner had she not been forced to switch multiple times in the run to the last and was also jumped across at the final hurdle, so you can easily mark that effort up.

She left a poor effort at Fairyhouse in April firmly behind when comfortably winning a Gowran Listed race before forcing Irish Point to pull out all the stops in the Grade 3 Bottlegreen Hurdle at Down Royal in November.

Irish Point emphatically franked the form when taking the Grade 1 Jack de Bromhead Christmas Hurdle at Leopardstown over the festive period and is now rated 158 (11lb higher than when beating Magical Zoe), which suggests the Henry de Bromhead-trained mare can rate even higher still than her mark of 137.

She’s given no indication to suggest that she won’t stay the two and a half miles and given five-year-olds have only won three of the 16 runnings of this race, Magical Zoe looks a good each-way punt against the top two in the market.