Star mares Epatante and Honeysuckle are among a final field of 10 horses declared for the Unibet Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham.
Nicky Henderson’s Epatante is the defending champion, having provided her trainer with a record eighth victory 12 months ago.
However, the JP McManus-owned seven-year-old will return to the Cotswolds on a recovery mission on Tuesday after suffering a shock defeat in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton on Boxing Day.
Contrastingly, the Henry de Bromhead-trained Honeysuckle will put her unbeaten record on the line under Rachael Blackmore – who is bidding to become the first female rider to claim Champion Hurdle glory.
Simon Claisse gave a going up date on Luck On Sunday
Honeysuckle produced what is widely regarded as the best performance of her career to date when powering clear in last month’s Irish Champion Hurdle and is the marginal favourite to follow up at Cheltenham, where she won the Mares’ Hurdle last season.
Speaking on Racing TV’s Luck on Sunday programme, Honeysuckle’s owner Kenny Alexander said: “I’m pretty pumped up for it! I’d always be pumped up, because I think it’s the best week of the year, but particularly this year – and particularly for the big one on Tuesday.
“I’m very excited and really looking forward to it – and pretty confident.
“I’m lucky to have a horse as good as that (Honeysuckle) who is going into the Champion Hurdle as favourite. If you can’t enjoy this sort of occasion, you shouldn’t own horses, I don’t think.
“She’s never been beaten, and that obviously fills you with confidence. I think her last run was spectacular, although there were a few horses that didn’t quite run to form and will probably run materially better on Tuesday.
Alexander was a guest on Luck On Sunday
“Henry seems quite confident. He’s always very cautious, but he seems very confident in her.”
Alexander added: “She’s 9-4, so she’s got a 30 per cent chance of winning, (but) that does mean she’s got 70 per cent chance of losing!
“She’s favourite, and I think she should be, but it’s going to be a huge battle to win the race.
“Irrespective of what happens on Tuesday, she’s been a brilliant mare to own – and I’ve been very lucky to have her.
“I think it’s going to be a fantastic Festival – I can’t wait for it really.”
De Bromhead has a second string to his bow in Aspire Tower, while Willie Mullins runs last year’s runner-up Sharjah, as well as Saldier and intriguing French recruit James Du Berlais.
Denise Foster’s Abacadabras completes the Irish challenge.
The home team is headed by Gary Moore’s stable star Goshen, who agonisingly exited at the final flight when set for a wide-margin win in the Triumph Hurdle last year – and got his season back on track with victory in the Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton recently.
Epatante’s Christmas Hurdle conqueror Silver Streak (Evan Williams) and Not So Sleepy (Hughie Morrison) are the other hopefuls.
Appreciate It will face just seven rivals in his bid to get favourite-backers off to the perfect start at this year’s Cheltenham Festival with victory in the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.
Runner-up to his stablemate Ferny Hollow in the Champion Bumper 12 months ago, the seven-year-old is all the rage to go one better on his return to the Cotswolds and provide trainer Willie Mullins with a seventh success in the traditional curtain-raiser.
Appreciate It is unbeaten in three starts over hurdles this season, including back-to-back Grade One wins at Leopardstown.
Mullins also saddles Blue Lord, who finished six lengths behind his stablemate when third at last month’s Dublin Racing Festival, while the runner-up Ballyadam is also in opposition again, having moved from Gordon Elliott’s yard to Henry de Bromhead.
The chief hope for the home team is Harry’s Fry’s unbeaten Tolworth Hurdle winner Metier, closely followed by Jonjo O’Neill’s Betfair Hurdle victor Soaring Glory.
De Bromhead’s second-string Irascible, the Alex Hales-trained For Pleasure and Grumpy Charley from Chris Honour’s yard complete the octet.
Shishkin is the undoubted star attraction in a six-strong line-up for the Sporting Life Arkle Challenge Trophy.
Last year’s Supreme Novices’ Hurdle has not put a foot wrong over fences thus far and will be long odds-on to claim a second Festival win for Nicky Henderson.
Dan Skelton’s Allmankind can be expected to set a strong gallop, while Mullins will rely on Franco De Port following the enforced withdrawal of Energumene earlier this week due to injury.
Captain Guinness (De Bromhead), Eldorado Allen (Colin Tizzard) and Numitor (Heather Main) also feature.
Cepage heads a field of 16 declared for the Ultima Handicap Chase, with leading fancies Happygolucky and the ultra-consistent Aye Right both in the mix.
Mullins has dominated the Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle over the years and once again houses the hot favourite in Concertista, with the Skelton-trained Roksana seemingly the biggest threat among her 10 opponents.
A maximum field of 22 will go to post for the Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle, including the Mullins-trained Saint Sam, Joseph O’Brien’s Busselton and Paul Nicholls’ Houx Gris.
The concluding Sam Vestey National Hunt Chase has been rendered far more competitive following news likely favourite Royal Pagaille is instead set to bid for glory in Friday’s Cheltenham Gold Cup.
In his absence, Galvin will head the market ahead of the likes of Escaria Ten (Denise Foster), Next Destination (Nicholls) and Remastered (David Pipe).
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