Defending champions Al Boum Photo, Altior, Frodon, Paisley Park and Roksana headline a host of stars on course for the Cheltenham Festival following the latest scratchings deadline for the six non-novice Grade One races.
Al Boum Photo provided Ireland’s champion trainer Willie Mullins with a first success in the Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup in 2019 and the eight-year-old heads 20 acceptors for the feature race on day four of The Festival, Friday, 13th March.
His rivals in chasing’s blue riband are set to be headed by Santini (Nicky Henderson), who comfortably accounted for Bristol De Mai (Nigel Twiston-Davies) in the Paddy Power Cotswold Chase at Cheltenham on Festival Trials Day.
Delta Work (Gordon Elliott IRE) finished third in the RSA Novices’ Chase at The Festival in 2019, but the seven-year-old will return to Cheltenham on the back of two Grade One victories at Leopardstown this term.
The 2018 Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Native River (Colin Tizzard) will be bidding to emulate the mighty Kauto Star and become only the second horse to regain the chasing crown.
Tizzard has also left in Betfair Chase winner Lostintranslation, while Kauto Star’s trainer Paul Nicholls has engaged dual Ladbrokes King George VI Chase victor Clan Des Obeaux as he seeks a record-equalling fifth success in the race.
This year’s Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase on day two, Wednesday, 11th March, could provide one of the most-eagerly awaited clashes of the week between Altior and Defi du Seuil, after the latter was taken out of the Ryanair Chase.
Altior, whose four wins at the Cheltenham Festival for Nicky Henderson include back-to-back victories in the two-mile showpiece in 2018 and 2019, returned to winning ways over his favoured distance in the Game Spirit Chase at Newbury on 8th February.
Defi du Seuil is also no stranger to the winner’s enclosure at the Cheltenham Festival, having taken the 2017 JCB Triumph Hurdle and last year’s Novices’ Chase, and is unbeaten in three starts for Philip Hobbs this season, including two top level successes.
The 18 remaining contenders also include up-and-coming star Chacun Pour Soi (Willie Mullins IRE), who beat Defi Du Seuil at Punchestown in May and heads to the race on the back of victory in the Ladbrokes Dublin Chase at Leopardstown on 1st February.
Frodon provided one of the moments of last year’s Festival when gamely taking the Ryanair Chase under Bryony Frost and the Paul Nicholls-trained chaser features among 29 horses remaining in the two-mile, five-furlong contest on day three, Thursday, 12th March.
Other horses going forward include Frodon’s stable-companion Cyrname, the highest-rated chaser in Britain, as well as A Plus Tard (Henry de Bromhead IRE) and Min (Willie Mullins IRE).
J P McManus is seeking a fourth consecutive G1 Unibet Champion Hurdle (31 acceptors) and the legendary Irish owner is responsible for Epatante, a decisive victory in the Ladbrokes Christmas Hurdle at Kempton Park in December. McManus is the most successful owner of all time in the Unibet Champion Hurdle with eight wins.
Her trainer Nicky Henderson has also left in last year’s Triumph Hurdle victor Pentland Hills, Fusil Raffles, Call Me Lord, successful in the Unibet International Hurdle at Cheltenham in December, and top mare Verdana Blue as he chases an eighth win in the feature contest on day one, Tuesday, 10th March.
Four mares have triumphed in the Unibet Champion Hurdle. In addition to Epatante and Verdana Blue, a strong female challenge this year could feature Irish Champion Hurdle heroine Honeysuckle (Henry de Bromhead IRE) and 11-time Grade One winner Apple’s Jade (Gordon Elliott IRE).
Honeysuckle and Apple’s Jade also feature among 27 acceptors for the other non-novice championship race on day one, the Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle. Willie Mullins has dominated the roll of honour for the two and a half-mile contest with nine victories and his eight potential challengers this year include the 2018 winner Benie des Dieux, Stormy Ireland and Laurina, an 18-length winner at the Cheltenham Festival two years ago.
Roksana became only the second British-trained horse to win the Close Brothers’ Mares Hurdle last year and the Dan Skelton-trained eight-year-old will be aiming to defend her crown, with Lady Buttons (Phil Kirby) also featuring highly among the home team.
Paisley Park lit up the Cheltenham Festival 12 months ago with an impressive display in the Paddy Power Stayers’ Hurdle and Emma Lavelle’s stable star returns to The Festival in top form for another crack at the hurdling highlight on Thursday, 12th March.
Challengers to Paisley Park could include Benie des Dieux and the 2018 winner Penhill, who is also trained by Willie Mullins, with Dornan Engineering Relkeel Hurdle scorer Summerville Boy (Tom George) also among 29 horses going forward.