Star mares Epatante and Honeysuckle are among a final field of 10 horses declared for the Unibet Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham.
Nicky Henderson’s Epatante is the defending champion, having provided her trainer with a record eighth victory 12 months ago.
However, the JP McManus-owned seven-year-old will return to the Cotswolds on a recovery mission on Tuesday after suffering a shock defeat in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton on Boxing Day.
Contrastingly, the Henry de Bromhead-trained Honeysuckle will put her unbeaten record on the line under Rachael Blackmore – who is bidding to become the first female rider to claim Champion Hurdle glory.
Honeysuckle produced what is widely regarded as the best performance of her career to date when powering clear in last month’s Irish Champion Hurdle and is the marginal favourite to follow up at Cheltenham, where she won the Mares’ Hurdle last season.
Speaking on Racing TV’s Luck on Sunday programme, Honeysuckle’s owner Kenny Alexander said: “I’m pretty pumped up for it! I’d always be pumped up, because I think it’s the best week of the year, but particularly this year – and particularly for the big one on Tuesday.
“I’m very excited and really looking forward to it – and pretty confident.
“I’m lucky to have a horse as good as that (Honeysuckle) who is going into the Champion Hurdle as favourite. If you can’t enjoy this sort of occasion, you shouldn’t own horses, I don’t think.
“She’s never been beaten, and that obviously fills you with confidence. I think her last run was spectacular, although there were a few horses that didn’t quite run to form and will probably run materially better on Tuesday.
“Henry seems quite confident. He’s always very cautious, but he seems very confident in her.”
Alexander added: “She’s 9-4, so she’s got a 30 per cent chance of winning, (but) that does mean she’s got 70 per cent chance of losing!
“She’s favourite, and I think she should be, but it’s going to be a huge battle to win the race.
“Irrespective of what happens on Tuesday, she’s been a brilliant mare to own – and I’ve been very lucky to have her.
“I think it’s going to be a fantastic Festival – I can’t wait for it really.”
De Bromhead has a second string to his bow in Aspire Tower, while Willie Mullins runs last year’s runner-up Sharjah, as well as Saldier and intriguing French recruit James Du Berlais.
Denise Foster’s Abacadabras completes the Irish challenge.
The home team is headed by Gary Moore’s stable star Goshen, who agonisingly exited at the final flight when set for a wide-margin win in the Triumph Hurdle last year – and got his season back on track with victory in the Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton recently.
Epatante’s Christmas Hurdle conqueror Silver Streak (Evan Williams) and Not So Sleepy (Hughie Morrison) are the other hopefuls.
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