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Cheltenham Festival 2016: Entries have been unveiled for a further two Grade One hurdle contests at The Festival – the £300,000 World Hurdle (St Patrick’s Thursday, 17th March) and the £100,000 OLBG Mares’ Hurdle (Champion Day, Tuesday, 15th March).
The World Hurdle, the championship race staged over three miles for hurdlers, has attracted 48 hopefuls including five of the first six horses home in the 2015 running – winner Cole Harden (Warren Greatrex), runner-up Saphir Du Rheu (Paul Nicholls), fourth At Fishers Cross (Rebecca Curtis), fifth Whisper (Nicky Henderson) and sixth Un Temps Pour Tout (David Pipe).
The 2014 hero More Of That (Jonjo O’Neill) has also been given an entry, although both of his starts this season have come in novices’ chases.
Heading the ante-post betting market for the World Hurdle is Thistlecrack (Colin Tizzard), who has been registered two impressive victories on his most recent starts. He got the better of Deputy Dan (Oliver Sherwood) and Cole Harden in the Grade Two Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury on 28th November before moving on to Ascot on 19th December, when he was the eight-length winner of the Grade One Long Walk Hurdle.
Another horse to have made an impact in Graded company this season is Camping Ground (Robert Walford), who was the impressive 11-length winner of the Grade Two Dornan Engineering Relkeel Hurdle over an extended two and a half miles at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day, with Lil Rockerfeller (Neil King) second and Cole Harden third.
The ex-French six-year-old won five times in his native country; a chase, three hurdles and a Flat race. His only previous British victory from three starts came under top-weight in a Warwick handicap chase over an extended two and a half miles.
Dorset-based trainer Robert Walford, who has yet to saddle a winner at The Festival but partnered the 2000 Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Chase victor Honey Mount, said: “Camping Ground has been very good since his win on New Year’s Day and is in great form.
“All being well, he will now go for galliardhomes.com Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham at the end of the month (30th January) and then head on to The Festival.
“Leighton Aspell rang me after he won the Relkeel and said we should also enter him in the Champion Hurdle – he knows pretty well what he is on about so we did. If it came up heavy, he could maybe go for the Champion Hurdle but in my mind he is really a stayer.
“Camping Ground hasn’t actually won over three miles yet but was going away on heavy ground when he won the Relkeel, so I don’t see the step up in trip being a problem. I would be surprised if he didn’t stay three miles. Better ground should not be a problem as he has won on good ground on the Flat.”
A record Irish-trained entry of 18 includes Annie Power (Willie Mullins), runner-up to More Of That in 2014 and a faller at the final flight when looking assured of victory in the 2015 OLBG Mares’ Hurdle (for which she is also entered in this year). Willie Mullins, Ireland’s champion Jump trainer who has yet to win the World Hurdle, is also responsible for five more entries. They include another mare, Vroum Vroum Mag, a multiple graded winner over fences who was successful on her return to hurdles at Clonmel last month, plus Briar Hill, Stan James Champion Hurdle hope Nichols Canyon, Renneti and Simenon.
Also among the Irish-trained entries are Prince Of Scars (Gordon Elliott) and Alpha Des Obeaux (Mouse Morris), first and second respectively in the Grade One Christmas Hurdle at Leopardstown on 28th December, plus Martello Tower (Mags Mullins), third in the same race and winner of the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle at The Festival in 2015.
Other eye-catching entries include the 2013 Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Bobs Worth (Nicky Henderson) and dual King George VI Chase hero Silviniaco Conti (Paul Nicholls).
Power heads OLBG Mares’ Hurdle entries
There are 45 entries for the Grade One OLBG Mares’ Hurdle, run over two and a half miles, headed by Annie Power. The Willie Mullins-trained eight-year-old has been successful on 12 of her 14 starts. Her only reversals have come at The Festival – she was second in the 2014 World Hurdle and fell at the last in the 2015 OLBG Mares’ Hurdle with the race at her mercy.
Her trainer Willie Mullins has six entries in total, including Morning Run, successful on six of her seven starts, Grade One scorer Petite Parisienne and Vroum Vroum Mag who is better known as a chaser. There are 16 Irish-trained entries in total and other leading hopes include Ballychorus (Mags Mullins), who could revert to hurdles following two falls when bang in contention in competitive handicap chases.
Northern Ireland handler Ben Arthey has yet to saddle a runner at Cheltenham but is looking forward to getting Jennys Melody back to the track. The seven-year-old mare looked a progressive performer last season, scoring impressively in novice company at Sedgefield and Newcastle before rounding off her campaign by defeating seasoned opposition in a mares’ handicap hurdle at Ayr’s Scottish Grand National meeting in April.
Arthey, who is based in Co Antrim, commented: “Jennys Melody had a bit of a setback after she won at Ayr so that is why she has not run yet this season. It wasn’t career-threatening but it kept reoccurring and held us up. We are getting her going again now.
“She improved with every run last year, both physically and mentally. She has to improve a hell of lot again to take on the likes of Annie Power but if you are not in, you can’t win and we thought she was worth an entry. She is physically much stronger than she was at this time last year.
“I think she probably is better on good ground, but has won on heavy ground too. We could look at taking her over for a Listed race at Warwick for her comeback run and see where we go from there (the olbg.com Mares’ Hurdle over two miles and five furlongs on 13th February).
“She won a bumper at Sedgefield on the Tuesday of Cheltenham two years ago and a novices’ hurdle on the same Tuesday last year – it would be great if she won on the same Tuesday again this year!”
Other leading hopes include Aurore D’Estruval (Rebecca Curtis), who shaped with promise on her return to action when fourth to Camping Ground in the Grade Two Dornan Engineering Cleeve Hurdle and last year’s runner-up, Polly Peachum (Nicky Henderson), who led home The Govaness (Dr Richard Newland), Fairytale Theatre (Dan Skelton) and Gitane Du Berlais (Willie Mullins) when winning a Listed contest at Sandown on 2nd January. Bitofapuzzle (Harry Fry) was third last year before going on to score in Grade One company at Fairyhouse.
OLBG sponsor a series of six races on the Road to Cheltenham and the winners of the first three have all been entered – Blue Buttons (Harry Fry), Morello Royale (Colin Tizzard) and Lily Waugh (Anthony Honeyball).
The OLBG Mares’ Road To Cheltenham 2015/16 series:
Wetherby: Saturday, 31st October 2015 – 2m 110y Listed Hurdle – won by Blue Buttons
Compton: Monday, 23rd November 2015 – 3m 110y Listed Hurdle – won by Morello Royale
Cheltenham: Saturday, 12th December 2015 – 2m 4f 56y Handicap Hurdle – won by Lily Waugh
Ascot: Saturday, 23rd January 2016 – 2m 7f 118y Grade Two Hurdle
Doncaster: Saturday, 30th January 2016 – 2m 140y Grade Two Hurdle
Warwick: Saturday, 13th February 2016 – 2m 5f Listed Hurdle
Cheltenham – Tuesday, March 15, 2016 – 2m 3f 200y Grade One Hurdle