Neil King is keeping his fingers crossed Lil Rockerfeller can earn a deserved return to the winner’s enclosure with victory in the Dornan Engineering Relkeel Hurdle at Cheltenham.
The Grade Two contest has attracted a strong field of nine runners, but King’s stable star arguably sets the standard on recent form.
Last season’s National Spirit Hurdle winner kicked off the campaign by finishing third in the West Yorkshire Hurdle at Wetherby, before giving subsequent Christmas Hurdle winner Yanworth a run for his money in the Coral Hurdle at Ascot.
Lil Rockerfeller stepped up to three miles for the first time in the Long Walk Hurdle back at Ascot a fortnight ago and filled the runner-up spot once more behind the prolific Unowhatimeanharry.
King said: “We were not originally planning to run but he came out of the Long Walk so well that we thought we better pop an entry in. He was second last year and it looks a good race for him.
“I thought it was a very good run in the Long Walk and he seems to be getting better with each start this year. He improved last season and is continuing on an upward curve.
“His form looks pretty strong now having seen what Yanworth did on Boxing Day, and we all know what Unowhatimeanharry is about.”
Cole Harden has failed to get his head in front since his tremendous World Hurdle victory in 2015.
Warren Greatrex’s charge was beaten at odds-on by Its’afreebee on his chasing debut at Wetherby in early December and is fitted with cheekpieces for the first time on his return to hurdling.
“I think he was beaten by a good horse at Wetherby,” said Greatrex.
“The owners are going away from January 5 and there was no novice chase they wanted to go to, so we are going back over hurdles. It is only two and half miles, but he is in great nick.”
The Robert Walford-trained Camping Ground was a dominant winner 12 months ago, albeit in far more testing conditions. He is another horse switching disciplines, having failed to run up to expectations in two starts over fences this term.
Walford said: “We started off this season planning to run over fences, but although he looks like a chaser and he’s built like a chaser, you can’t make mistakes like he has, at the level he’s running at, and get away with it.
“We’ve decided to switch back to hurdles and we’ll see what happens, but it looks a competitive race.
“Lil Rockerfeller sets a good standard. I thought he ran a fantastic race at Ascot last time.
“Hopefully our horse will run well.”
L’Ami Serge is a fascinating contender for Nicky Henderson. The son of King’s Theatre won twice over fences last January before going on to be placed in Grade One events at Cheltenham and Aintree in the spring.
He was beaten into second by the smart Le Prezien on his reappearance at Exeter and reverts to hurdles for the first time since finishing fourth behind the brilliant Douvan in the 2015 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.
Anthony Bromley, racing manager for the owners Simon Munir and Isaac Souede, said: “He needs to go left-handed and there were very few options for him over fences apart from big-field handicaps.
“It’s an interesting angle as he went straight from novice hurdles to novice chases. I’d imagine it’s a one-off but if he were to run really well, we might review it.
“I think it’s a very good renewal of the Relkeel. Lil Rockerfeller will be a tough nut to crack, but he is giving us a bit of weight. Cole Harden is obviously a class act and he’s on level weights with us.
“Nicky says our horse is working very well and it will be interesting to see how he gets on.”
The Seven Barrows handler also saddles Protek Des Flos, while Paul Nicholls fires a twin assault with three-time course winner Old Guard joined by Adrien Du Pont.
Old Guard was last seen finishing third in the International Hurdle here three weeks ago, while Adrien Du Pont was a close third in a Grade One in France on his latest appearance in November.
The champion trainer’s assistant Harry Derham said: “Both horses are in good form. I thought Old Guard ran really nicely last time on ground softer than ideal.
“Adrien Du Pont ran really well in France and we’d probably like softer ground for him.”
The Nick Williams-trained Agrapart and Leoncavallo from Ben Pauling’s yard have also been declared.