Ante-post favourite My Tent Of Yours will face 11 rivals in the William Hill Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham today.
Nicky Henderson’s six-year-old obliterated a field of top-drawer handicappers in last month’s Betfair Hurdle at Newbury and with Tony McCoy on board, he is going to be a warm order to claim the Festival curtain-raiser.
Leading owner JP McManus has a formidable hand, with My Tent Or Yours joined by Jessica Harrington’s Irish raider Jezki, unbeaten in four starts over obstacles.
Irish champion trainer Willie Mullins saddles Un Atout, Champagne Fever and Pique Sous, ridden by Davy Russell, Ruby Walsh and Paul Townend respectively.
Walsh passed over the Paul Nicholls-trained Dodging Bullets, who will now be ridden by Daryl Jacob.
One significant absentee is Jeremy Scott’s Tolworth Hurdle hero Melodic Rendezvous, who misses the race following a dirty scope.
Scott tweeted: “Melodic Rendezvous didn’t scope well today so will have to miss Cheltenham. We tried our best but it’s not to be.”
Henderson also saddles River Maigue, Philip Hobbs runs 2011 Champion Bumper winner Cheltenian while the field is completed by Puffin Billy, Fire King, Ostentation and Cause Of Causes.
McCoy is certainly not picking holes in My Tent Or Yours, who has also won at Huntingdon and Ascot.
He has yet to visit Prestbury Park and must also overcome the statistic that no market leader has enabled punters to cash in since Brave Inca in 2004.
“The ground was pretty testing at Newbury, he coped with it OK, and it’s going to be testing at Cheltenham again,” said McCoy.
“He’s got a rating of 162, I can’t remember many in the Supreme Novices’ with that high a rating. That’s not to say he’s definitely going to win but it’s a good start.
“I’m happy riding him. Obviously there’s Un Atout in there, Jezki and Dodging Bullets, who has a high rating too, and the way the ground is riding might give Champagne Fever a bit more of a chance, but I’m not going to say anything negative about My Tent Or Yours.”
Henderson also fears the Irish trio of Jezki, Un Atout and Champagne Fever as well as Dodging Bullets.
“Cheltenham is totally different to what he’s done before,” Henderson said.
“All he has known is flat tracks but he is learning all the time to relax. I think the top four or five in the betting are very interesting – it’s a seriously good race.”
Henderson has not won the race since 1992 and has more recently seen Binocular and Darlan take the runner-up spot in the same colours of JP McManus.
The leading Festival trainer has an able second string in River Maigue, winner of a small event at Kempton but second to Dodging Bullets at this course in November, and most recently to Nicholls’ Triumph candidate Far West at Ascot.
Henderson said: “River Maigue has had an up-and-down winter but the race at Ascot was slightly unsatisfactory.
“He’s in good order, probably better than I’ve known him all year.”
Dodging Bullets has visited the Festival before, running well in the Triumph 12 months ago, but his novice status remained intact for this season and he mopped up a couple of events at the course in the early part of the winter.
Nicholls, who has taken two of the last seven renewals through Al Ferof and Noland, said: “We’ve trained him for this race since he ran behind Darlan in the Christmas Hurdle and he wants an end-to-end gallop, which he hasn’t had this year.
“It should be a good test of stamina, which will suit us, although I could have done without all this rain that has fallen.
“He worked very well on Saturday and was fourth in last year’s Triumph.
“He has done nothing wrong, he has won twice at Cheltenham, albeit on different ground, and this will be an interesting race.”
Such has been Mullins’ domination of Irish racing this season, he has three credible candidates for the prize.
Walsh has picked last year’s Champion Bumper hero Champagne Fever, who was beaten by Jezki before Christmas but bounced back to form at Leopardstown last time.
This leaves Townend aboard Pique Sous, third in the same bumper and arriving off a fairly low-key campaign. Russell, retained jockey for Gigginstown Stud, gets the leg-up on Un Atout, who has not been challenged in a bumper and two hurdles but takes a serious jump in class.
On choosing the Supreme for Champagne Fever over other Cheltenham engagements, Mullins said: “The ground has been a big factor. I hope with the way the ground is, he’ll be fine (over two miles).
“I think the ground will suit him and Un Atout, it probably won’t suit Pique Sous but like Champagne Fever he has the course and distance form.
“I won’t be choosing between them. I just hope they get their share of luck and can be competitive in what is probably one of the hottest races of the week.”
Russell is very keen on Un Atout but made the same point about the ground.
“I’ve been excited about him since last year,” he told At The Races. “I was a little bit worried about his jumping the first day, that he needed to improve to be a contender as a hurdler this year, and he’s done that. He jumped exceptional in Naas.
“Heavy ground doesn’t bring out the best in him though.”
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