Champ headlines seven entries for the Cleeve Hurdle on Trials Day at Cheltenham on Saturday as Nicky Henderson’s star prepares for a potential shot at the Stayers’ Hurdle.
The three-mile event is a key prep event for the Festival and Champ is currently the general 4/1 second-favourite for the big race in March after landing the Long Walk Hurdle before Christmas.
Nicky Henderson’s charge was returning from a lengthy lay-off at Ascot having disappointed in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, but while the stayers’ route appears his likeliest target he is again in the Gold Cup and connections stress no decision has been made yet.
Frank Berry, racing manager to owner JP McManus, said: „He’s ready to go, Nicky’s happy with him. Hopefully he’ll go there in good form and we hope for the best.
„It’s an ideal prep race and hopefully all goes well.“
As for whether he goes for the Stayers’ Hurdle or Gold Cup, Berry added: „Nothing is set in stone.
„We’ll see how he goes on Saturday and Nicky will make the call after that.“
Paisley Park, the 2019 Stayers’ Hurdle winner, finished third at Ascot for Emma Lavelle and could be in opposition again, along with the Rebecca Curtis-trained Lisnagar Oscar.
Curtis’ nine-year-old was a shock 50/1 winner at the Festival in 2020 but has failed to repeat that kind of form subsequently, being pulled up in the Long Walk on his most recent run.
Curtis said: „He’s fine, obviously it wasn’t a great day at Ascot, but he does seem to come to form from Christmas onwards and he loves Cheltenham.
„We’re going to give him a run in the Cleeve Hurdle and see how he goes there.
„If he runs well and seems back to himself then we’ll think ahead to March, but we’ll use the Cleeve Hurdle for a bit a guidance as to what we do with him next.“
Relkeel Hurdle runner-up McFabulous, Dandy Mag and Evan Williams’ pair of Dans Le Vent and Coole Cody complete the list of possibles, although the latter has also been entered in both the Cotswold Chase and Paddy Power Cheltenham Countdown Podcast Handicap Chase on the same card.
Simply The Betts from Paul Nicholls’ yard is the top-rated contender in that Grade Three handicap, with 18 in the mix at present.
Another Henderson Festival hope set to put his credentials to the test is Balco Coastal in the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle.
He has won each of his two starts over hurdles to date, with Frere D’Armes, whom he beat a length and a quarter at Ludlow last time, subsequently hacking up by six and a half lengths at Huntingdon.
Hillcrest is unbeaten in three hurdles runs for Henry Daly and is another key name on a list of 11 entries having landed a Listed race at this track in style on New Year’s Day.
A Different Kind is yet to be topped in five runs for Donald McCain this season, hosing up in two bumpers before landing three on the bounce over timber with an average winning distance of nine lengths.
Iceo made quite a splash when winning by 17 lengths on his British debut at Kempton over Christmas and Paul Nicholls could test his claims in the JCB Triumph Trial Juvenile Hurdle.
The Grade Two has attracted 12 contenders with Gordon Elliott’s Pied Piper, who was bought for 225,000 guineas in the autumn, and Nick Williams’ Cheltenham winner Interne De Sivola also to the fore in the ante-post betting for the championship race in March.