The Irish representation once again looks set to be strong at the Cheltenham Festival for 2016.
With Willie Mullins’ remarkable team in strong shape to build another assault on the festival after last year’s record tally of eight winners, there are no shortage of Irish challengers this time around.
Douvan is odds-on to maintain his unbeaten record in the Arkle while Un De Sceaux is at the time of writing 8/11 in the Paddy Power Cheltenham betting odds to add the Queen Mother Champion Chase to his CV.
But what of the British prospects? Here are three leading candidates to carry Britain’s hopes at the 2016 extravaganza in the Cotswolds.
Neptune Novices’ Hurdle: Yanworth
A high-class bumper horse last season, Alan King’s charge has really come into his own as a novice hurdler. By no means devoid of speed, Yanworth has been spared the task of taking on Min in the Supreme and will instead go 2m4f in the Neptune.
A perfect four from four over hurdles this term, Yanworth delivered the most authoritative performance of his career on trials day at Cheltenham in January.
With Barry Geraghty in the plate, Yanworth cruised upside the leaders hard on the bit, jumping the final hurdle before effortlessly moving away up the hill for a deeply impressive success.
That ensured his place at the top of the betting for the Neptune and, on day two of the festival, the JP McManus-owned six-year-old looks a rock solid proposition to bid for Neptune glory.
World Hurdle: Thistlecrack
The staying hurdles division was considered by many to be quite weak this season, seemingly crying out for a star to emerge. Step forward Colin Tizzard’s Thistlecrack.
A winner over three miles at Aintree last spring, Thistlecrack was deemed unlucky not to follow up at the Punchestown Festival behind Killultagh Vic.
It is this season, however, that he has been a racing revelation. Pre-Christmas, he took the two key long distance trials at Newbury and Ascot, seemingly well within himself.
A trip to Cheltenham – where he had previously run poorly – was deemed likely to expose any chinks in the armour on trials day. Instead, Thistlecrack turned the Cleeve Hurdle into a procession, rubber stamping his festival credentials in the process.
Tizzard says he can’t see his rivals ‘getting near him’ and, on the form Thistlecrack has shown this season, he could just be right.
Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle: Barters Hill
Perhaps the most ‘under the radar’ of this trio, Ben Pauling’s charge remains unbeaten in seven career starts – three of them this season over timber.
Barters Hill racked up an impressive sequence of bumper successes last term, culminating with top-level honours at Aintree’s Grand National meeting.
He began this season with an easy success at Huntingdon and followed up at Newbury in December, claiming the Challow Hurdle to give his trainer a maiden Grade One success.
Some have questioned his hurdling technique and there is no questioning the fact Barters Hill is still learning his trade.
That said, the manner in which he stuck to his task gamely to win an Albert Bartlett trial at Doncaster bodes well. Barters Hill was given every chance to fold on Town Moor but he rallied to get the job done.
Pauling remains ultra-confident on his chances and, if his Doncaster run is anything to go on, it will require a herculean effort to take him down.