The brilliant mares Honeysuckle and Benie Des Dieux are on course to clash at Cheltenham next week, after both were among confirmations for the Close Brothers Hurdle.
Trainer Henry De Bromhead has spelled out that his unbeaten triple Grade 1 winner Honeysuckle will run in the mares’ race on Tuesday, in preference to the Unibet Champion Hurdle on the same card.
When confirmations were published on Wednesday afternoon for day one of the Festival, Honeysuckle’s name was also among 19 still in the Champion.
Benie Des Dieux, beaten just once since joining Willie Mullins, when falling at the last as she appeared to be about to complete her second successive victory in the mares’ event 12 months ago, also still retains an alternative option next week, in Thursday’s Paddy Power Stayers’ Hurdle.
But the two heavyweights are expected to take one another on over the intermediate trip, with 13 possible opponents.
They include last year’s winner Roksana, for Dan Skelton, and adaptable northern mare Lady Buttons, as well as three other notable Irish contenders in Mullins’ Elfile and Stormy Ireland, and Gordon Elliott’s Apple’s Jade.
In the traditional Festival opener, the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, the possibility of a maximum field remains, with 22 still in the mix.
Among them, the unbeaten Envoi Allen is considered more likely to run in Wednesday’s Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle, over five furlongs further.
His Elliott stablemate Abacadabras has only the Supreme option, however, and is joined among those remaining by market leaders Shishkin, for Nicky Henderson, and Mullins’ Asterion Forlonge.
Henderson also still has Chantry House and Allart in the reckoning, while De Bromhead’s Captain Guinness, Colin Tizzard’s Tolworth winner Fiddlerontheroof and Edwardstone, for Alan King, are others of note.
De Bromhead’s Racing Post Arkle Challenge Trophy Novices’ Chase favourite Notebook tops its 15 confirmations.
All his obvious dangers remain – including from Ireland, Joseph O’Brien’s Fakir D’oudairies and Mullins’ Cash Back and, among the home contingent, Olly Murphy’s Brewin’upastorm, Skelton’s mare Maire Banrigh, Ben Pauling’s Global Citizen, Evan Williams’ Grade One winner Esprit Du Large and Rouge Vif for Harry Whittington.
Henderson has also left in Mister Fisher and Precious Cargo, both of whom still have alternative Festival entries over further.
Mullins’ National Hunt Challenge Cup Amateur Riders’ Novices’ Chase favourite Carefully Selected is joined by 19 other contenders, including Elliott’s pair Battleoverdoyen and Ravenhill.
Tizzard’s Copperhead is no longer a possible, and seems likely to head instead to the following day’s RSA Insurance Novices’ Chase, but Lord Du Mesnil, another prolific winner this season, is still in the list.
All the obvious contenders for Tuesday’s two handicaps have stood their ground so far, including Vinndication, Kildisart and Mister Malarky in the Ultima, which has 50 remaining.
Vinndication’s trainer Kim Bailey also has the likely favourite in the Northern Trust Company Novices’ Handicap Chase, with his Imperial Aura, Elliott’s Galvin and Mick Channon’s Hold The Note among 49 still involved.
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