Nicky Henderson expects to see significant improvement from Fusil Raffles on his return to top company in the Ladbrokes Christmas Hurdle.
The Simon Munir and Isaac Souede-owned four-year-old is one of three horses, along with defending champion Verdana Blue and Epatante, bidding to give the Lambourn handler his ninth victory in the Boxing Day Grade One at Kempton.
Fusil Raffles, who made his British debut a winning one at the track in February before taking the Champion Four Year Old Hurdle at Punchestown, scrambled home on his seasonal return in the Elite Hurdle at Wincanton.
But Henderson is confident there is plenty more to come.
He said: “He is in very good shape, and I couldn’t be happier with him.
“He has come on a considerable amount, but a lot of ours were needing a run at the time .
“He was very short going into that Wincanton race – and he did well to win, given the circumstances. He has certainly improved a lot since.
“He won well at Kempton in February, and I would hope to see more of the same from him.”
Henderson reports Verdana Blue, recently purchased by Michael Tabor, to be in good order for her attempt to become the first horse since Faugheen in 2014 and 2015 to claim back-to-back victories in this race.
“Verdana Blue won the race last year – but the ground will be completely different, because last year it was unseasonably dry,” added the Seven Barrows trainer.
“I wasn’t totally happy with her earlier in the year, but I think she is in very good form – and she has to run here, because she has nowhere else to go.
“I was very pleased with her work last week, but our gallops never really get that wet. There is plenty of competition, but I hope she will run well – and we need to get a run into her.”
Henderson warns impressive Gerry Feilden winner Epatante will need to step forward again if she is to be competitive.
He said: “I thought she was one of our best chances at the Cheltenham Festival, and she disappointed, but she really bounced back in the Gerry Feilden.
“She will have to take another step forward.
“I think looking at Hughie Morrison’s horse (Not So Sleepy), it would have been difficult giving him all that weight at Ascot on Saturday, so I hope we have made the right decision (choosing Kempton instead).”
Paul Nicholls is counting on a switch to hurdles reviving the fortunes of Getaway Trump, following back-to-back defeat over fences this term.
He said: “He was rated 155 over hurdles at the end of last season – but it hasn’t quite worked out over fences, because the ground has been so testing, so we thought we would try him back over hurdles.
“We will see how we get on, and that will tell us what we do for the rest of the season. He has schooled over hurdles and jumped well, and he is fit and ready to go.”
Evan Williams believes a return to a more suitable surface can boost the chances of Champion Hurdle third Silver Streak – who was also third on heavy ground last time to shock winner Cornerstone Lad in the Betfair Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle.
Williams said: “The winner ran a blinder in the Fighting Fifth, but there is no doubt that second and third gave him too much rope.
“If you had told me before the race that we would have finished third on heavy ground, I would have taken it, but the experience of running in another Grade One won’t be lost on him.
“The horse is fit and well, and I’ve been pleased with how he has been going at home, so we go there firing on all cylinders.”
Connections of the Colin Tizzard-trained Elixir De Nutz hope a change of tactics can have the desired effect.
Assistant trainer Joe Tizzard said: “He ran with the choke out the other day at Cheltenham, and he just got tired from the back of last. We were not massively disappointed, because we expected him to need the run.
“We are going to try to ride him a bit differently and switch him off and try to get a lead.
“I know he has done a lot of his winning around tracks like Cheltenham, but this should be fine for him.”
Dan Skelton is represented by County Hurdle hero Ch’tibello, and said: “He had to give away a penalty in the International at Cheltenham, but he doesn’t in this race.
“As long as that race has not left a mark on him, he should be very competitive.”
Quick Grabim makes his first start for Fergal O’Brien since joining his team from Willie Mullins.
O’Brien said: “He was a good horse for Willie Mullins, and we just hope he can produce the same form for us.
“When he came to us he wasn’t 100 per cent right and just had a little niggle. He has just started working well, so we have popped him in.
“Obviously the dream is the Champion Hurdle, but we will take one day at a time. He is a lovely horse to have.”