The two-day International meeting takes centre-stage at Cheltenham on Friday and Saturday.
The £140,000 Grade Two Unibet International Hurdle, over two miles, is the highlight and has been won by some of jump racing’s finest, with Pendil, Bula, Comedy Of Errors, Sea Pigeon, Relkeel, Geos, Binocular, The New One and My Tent Of Yours, all featuring on the roll of honour.
However, no horse has won the International Hurdle and the Unibet Champion Hurdle in the same season since Rooster Booster (2002-03).
This year’s field features a new kid on the block and even as Australian raider. The going at Cheltenham is currently good, good to soft in places, with an unsettled outlook forecasting up to 20mm of rain through the week.
Here’s a guide to the ten possibles.
Official rating: 157. Cheltenham form: 481. Odds: 3-1
Ch'tibello was successful in the County Hurdle at this year's Festival
Rated 4lb superior to Pentland Hills and landed the County Hurdle over course and distance at this year’s Cheltenham Festival.
He culminated last season with a fine third over two and a half-miles in the Aintree Hurdle and has been readied for this race.
The eight-year-old will make this a test for his opponents, given he stays further and has form on testing ground. However, he just seems to come up short at Graded level and could be booked for a place finish behind a couple of more unexposed rivals.
Rating out of 5: 3
Official rating: 152. Cheltenham form: 2PU42. Odds: 10-1
Our experts analyse Gumball's run in the Greatwood Hurdle
A thoroughly likeable individual who is a multiple winner over jumps and on the Flat. Gave subsequent Ladbrokes Trophy hero Ben Jones a big win when landing a Listed event at Ascot in November, before backing that up with a cracking second to Harambe in the Greatwood Hurdle over course and distance at the November Meeting.
This looks a tough assignment, but he can certainly make his presence felt if getting an easy lead and will give his all for owner Terry Warner, whose colours were carried to glory by Rooster Booster and Detroit City in 2002 and 2006 respectively.
Official rating: 154. Cheltenham form: 41. Odds: 14-1
Four-time winner over hurdles for Dr Newland, which included a facile victory at the track in April over further.
Travelled powerfully to take the Swinton Hurdle at Haydock in May and was a respectable fourth on his return in the Ascot Hurdle.
That seasonal return should have teed him up nicely for this contest, but despite a progressive profile, he has to prove he can cut the mustard at this level. The seven-year-old may have hit his ceiling for now and with that in mind, others are preferred.
Official rating: 153. Cheltenham form: 211. Odds: 9-2
Elixir De Nutz has not been seen since winning the Tolworth Hurdle in January
Highly regarded by connections and looked one of the most exciting novice hurdlers in training when landing the Tolworth Hurdle in January, having gained successive victories at Cheltenham.
Has not been seen since, having been ruled out of the Cheltenham Festival because of injury. However, he is set to bypass this race with team Tizzard favouring a tilt at the Betfair Exchange Hurdle at Ascot on December 21
Official rating: 153. Cheltenham form: 1. Sponsor bets: 11-8
Watch how Pentland Hills landed the Triumph Hurdle
A two-time winner on the Flat, Pentland Hills finished last season as the highest-rated juvenile hurdler.
Unbeaten in three starts over jumps, the four-year-old captured the Triumph Hurdle over course and distance at the Cheltenham Festival before plundering further Grade One honours at Aintree in April.
This contest has always been the plan and the son of Motivator is possibly Nicky Henderson’s chief Champion Hurdle contender, with question marks surrounding Buveur D’Air’s participation and Fusil Raffles’ underwhelming victory on his seasonal debut at Wincanton.
This looks a perfect starting point and will provide an acid test for his Champion Hurdle credentials as he looks to become the eighth four-year-old to land this event.
Official rating: 151. Cheltenham form: 11344PUPU3. Odds: 10-1
Been a tremendous servant for connections and landed the 2016 Champion Bumper, before winning a Betfair Hurdle and finishing fourth in a Supreme a year later.
Recorded his first victory for 16 months at Uttoxeter in January and was a creditable third in this year’s Coral Cup.
Was being campaigned for the Stayers’ Hurdle, but a disappointing fourth in the bet365 Hurdle at Wetherby has caused a rethink. The immediate drop back to two miles is somewhat of a cause for concern and he looks to have too much to find.
Official rating: - Cheltenham form: - Odds: 50-1
Fascinating contender from Australia. He started his career with Andre Fabre and his biggest victory over timber Down Under came in the Galleywood Hurdle in May. Has not been given a handicap mark, thereby forcing connections to begin in a conditions race.
Has been in Britain for a month and has apparently taken well to his new surroundings.
His last run came last month when third on the Flat, having won the Randwick St Leger last season. Interesting to see how he gets on, but probably out of his depth.
Official rating: 160. Cheltenham form: - Odds: 5-1
He boasts form figures of 11123 at Sandown, but this is his first start at Cheltenham.
He annihilated his rivals by 16 lengths over two miles and five furlongs in the Select Hurdle at the Esher venue in April 2018 and finished a fine second on his return to action behind If The Caps Fits in the Ascot Hurdle last month.
Testing conditions would be a positive, but there are some causes for concern; chief among those is his liking for right-handed tracks, something acknowledged by Nicky Henderson.
With that in mind, a watching brief is advised, particularly given the confidence surrounding his stable companion Pentland Hills.
Official rating: 150. Cheltenham form: 103. Odds: 8-1
Monsieur Lecoq was narrowly denied in the Greatwood Hurdle
Very smart handicapper who finished second in the Imperial Cup at Sandown this year. Was only 10th behind Ch’tibello in the County Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival, but has improved again this term.
Recorded a battling success in the Welsh Champion Hurdle on his seasonal debut at Ffos Las, before finishing third in the Greatwood at Cheltenham in November.
He shaped nicely in that event, leading over the final flight despite pulling hard throughout. Needs more on these terms but he is firmly on the upgrade and cannot be dismissed lightly.
Official rating: 142. Cheltenham form: - Odds: 20-1
Purchased for £160,000 in 2018 and made the perfect start to life under Rules with three victories in three starts.
Came up short in Grade One company on his final start last term behind Reserve Tank at Aintree and subsequently underwent wind surgery.
Shaped nicely at Haydock in a competitive handicap hurdle on his seasonal return when he possibly didn’t quite see out the trip.
It’s far too early to be writing him off, but he has been thrown in at the deep end here, albeit his trainer won this with the unexposed Osana in 2007.
RACING TV BIG-RACE VERDICT:
An interesting renewal which is perhaps lacking a couple of star names. Pentland Hills will be looking to fill the void potentially left by Buveur D’Air in the Champion Hurdle picture for Nicky Henderson and it was hard not to be impressed with the attitude he displayed in three starts last season.
This is his sternest test to date, but despite the presence of Ch’tibello and Monsieur Lecoq, who should emerge as the biggest threats, he is the horse in the field with possible star potential. And with four-year-olds having a solid record in the race, he is hard to oppose.
1. PENTLAND HILLS 2. CH’TIBELLO 3. MONSIEUR LECOQ
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