Ante-post favourite Epatante is set to face 16 rivals in the Unibet Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham on Tuesday.
The JP McManus-owned mare has been hugely impressive in winning each of her two starts this season and leapt to the head of the market for what appears a wide-open renewal of the two-mile championship with a dominant display in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton on Boxing Day.
Epatante’s trainer Nicky Henderson also saddles last season’s Triumph Hurdle hero Pentland Hills, Call Me Lord and Fusil Raffles as he bids to add to his record haul of seven Champion Hurdle wins. The Seven Barrows handler has not declared the mare Verdana Blue.
The Irish challenge includes the Willie Mullins-trained pair of Cilaos Emery and Sharjah.
Cilaos Emery was supplemented after successfully reverting to hurdles from fences at Gowran Park last month, while Sharjah needs to bounce back from a disappointing run in the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown.
Gavin Cromwell, who landed last year’s Champion Hurdle with the ill-fated Espoir D’Allen, is this year represented by the fast-improving Irish Champion Hurdle runner-up Darver Star.
Gordon Elliott’s Coeur Sublime, Joseph O’Brien’s Darasso, Henry de Bromhead’s Petit Mouchoir and the Jessica Harrington-trained Supasundae complete the raiding party, with De Bromhead’s Irish Champion Hurdle winner Honeysuckle instead running in the Mares’ Hurdle, as expected.
Supasundae was making his seasonal reappearance when fourth in the Irish Champion Hurdle – and Harrington expects significant progress.
“I was delighted with his run in Leopardstown. He travelled much better than he usually does,” said the Moone-based trainer.
“He’s beaten most of those horses somewhere along the line. I know he’s a year older, but he doesn’t seem to be at home.
“We toyed with the idea of putting blinkers on, but we tried them on him and he didn’t really work any better. He’s as genuine as anything.
“I think he goes there with a great chance – hopefully the race will suit him down to the ground.”
Ballyandy (Nigel Twiston-Davies), Cornerstone Lad (Micky Hammond), Gumball (Philip Hobbs), Le Patriote (Dr Richard Newland), Not So Sleepy (Hughie Morrison) and Silver Streak (Evan Williams) complete the line-up.