Pentland Hills bids to confirm himself a serious Champion Hurdle contender in the Unibet International Hurdle at Cheltenham.
Formerly trained by Chris Wall, the son of Motivator did not make his hurdling debut until late February, but made huge strides in landing a minor event at Plumpton, the Triumph Hurdle at the Festival and a second Grade One at Aintree in the space of less than six weeks.
Nicky Henderson’s charge is the general 7-1 third-favourite for a Champion Hurdle that is very much up for grabs following the sad loss of last year’s hero Espoir D’Allen and the recent injury suffered by Henderson’s dual winner Buveur D’Air.
The Seven Barrows handler is hopeful Pentland Hills can enhance his credentials on his return to Prestbury Park on Saturday.
“He has got to start somewhere and this has always been the plan, as Fusil Raffles was going to go for the Elite Hurdle and Buveur D’Air the Fighting Fifth,” said Henderson.
“He went to Henrietta Knight’s before he ran for us and she told me after a week he was the best she had seen for ages – she was dead right and she taught him brilliantly.
“He had a few silly things which kept him off the track for a while, but then he went to Plumpton and he was so good I thought, ‘he can run in the Triumph’. He wasn’t a green juvenile at Plumpton, he was like an arrow.
“He is in good shape and has been working very well. He has done very well physically and is a much more burly horse than he was last season. He is not much higher, but he is stronger.”
Henderson has a second string to his bow in the high-class Call Me Lord, who sets the standard with an official rating of 160.
The six-year-old also has the benefit of a recent outing, having pushed Harry Fry’s If The Cap Fits all the way in last month’s Coral Hurdle at Ascot.
Henderson added: “Call Me Lord is an experiment really. He is fine over two miles and fine over further. We’ve always said we don’t think he is fine going left-handed because he has always hung right.
“This year at home he hasn’t hung right at all, so we are going to give it one try left-handed to see if we can give ourselves more options. If we can go left-handed it will make life a lot easier and open a lot of doors.”
The main threat to the Henderson pair in the Grade Two contest appears to be Dan Skelton’s Ch’tibello.
Winner of the County Hurdle in March, the eight-year-old was last seen finishing third behind Supasundae and Buveur D’Air in the Aintree Hurdle.
Skelton said: “We’re happy with him. He won around this track in March and probably put up an even better run in the Grade One at Aintree.
“We’ve had this race in mind since he came in and we were never running him anywhere before here really. We half-considered the Fighting Fifth, but not with any determination.
“He is fit, ready, happy and healthy, so there should be no excuses.
“This is the Gold Cup and Grand National rolled up into one for him.”
Colin Tizzard’s Elixir De Nutz makes his first first start since winning the Tolworth Hurdle at Sandown in January.
Tizzard said: “Elixir De Nutz is in good form. He tweaked the back of his knee last year and we have given him plenty of time off to prepare him for a campaign for the second-half of the season.
“We’re running here to tell us if he is a Champion Hurdle horse. He won a Grade One as a novice, but this is another step up and will tell us a lot.”
Elixir De Nutz is one of two runners for owner Terry Warner along with the Philip Hobbs-trained Gumball – runner-up in last month’s Greatwood Hurdle. Warner has previously claimed this prize with Rooster Booster (2002) and Detroit City (2006).
Greatwood Hurdle third Monsieur Lecoq (Jane Williams), Le Patriote (Dr Richard Newland), Ballyandy (Nigel Twiston-Davies) and Australian challenger Big Blue (Ciaron Maher and David Eustace) complete the line-up.
Grade Two honours are also up for grabs in the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle.
Henderson saddles a pair of recent winners in Valtor and Igor, and said: “Igor is a promising young chaser for the future,
whereas Valtor is at the other end of the scale. Valtor should appreciate going back up in trip – they are both strong stayers.”
Twiston-Davies is another double-handed, with Mossy Fen and Redford Road featuring among eight runners.
“Mossy Fen is two from two and has done nothing wrong so far. We’ve got to hope he keeps improving and if he does, he will be alright,” said the Naunton-based trainer.
“Redford Road ran really well at Ascot last time behind Valtor. It looked like he might win that day but he didn’t quite.
“They are not very similar to one another, but they are both, we hope, good staying novice hurdlers.”