TWO years on from a heartbreaking defeat with Winged Leader in the St. James’s Place Festival Challenge Cup Open Hunters’ Chase, David Christie and Barry O’Neill have a leading chance of going one better with the up-and-coming seven-year-old Ferns Lock who topped the market for this year’s renewal after the entry stage this week.

Just 19 horses were entered in the three-mile-two-furlong contest which has a 10-year average field size of 22. Three of those 19 entries are trained by the Fermanagh-based Christie, who confirmed to The Irish Field yesterday that Barry O’Neill would ride Ferns Lock.

The son of Telescope has four wins from six starts on the track and was notably held back from running in this contest as a six-year-old last year. He was an impressive eight-length winner at Thurles on his most recent start.

“Ferns Lock is a very talented horse,” said Christie. “He’s been better this season as a whole but notably better since Christmas and better again since Thurles.

“We’ve trained him for Cheltenham this year. He is an immature horse in his head and you’re always concerned about going over to Cheltenham with all the razzle dazzle and the noise and everything else, that it might be too much for him, but he’s in a very good place and he has matured a lot. He’ll improve even more as time goes on but at this point in time we couldn’t be any happier.”

It’s On The Line is vying for favouritism with Ferns Lock following his head victory over Billaway at Naas. That latter mentioned runner, who dramatically denied Winged Leader for Christie here in 2022, has also been entered alongside last year’s winner Premier Magic.

Christie issued positive notes about his other entries Vaucelet and Ramillies.

“Vaucelet has had soft ground when all his best form has been on nice ground or better. He loves the trip and he jumps well.

“He is very much a spring horse - he improves when the sun starts to shine and the days get longer. You see him change and he’s certainly more back to himself in the last few weeks or so than I’ve seen him in a year really.

“Nicer ground would be a big benefit to Ramillies as well. I think we’ll ride him more patiently this time. I’ve no doubt he needs this trip. At Naas we forced it and turned it into a brutal pace and he got tired and was allowed to come home at a walk. It was no reflection on him and he’s been in good form since.

Regarding riding arrangements, Christie added: “Barry (O’Neill) will ride Ferns Lock. Maxine O’Sullivan and Rob James will ride the other two and we will decide which closer to the time.”

There were 37 entries for the Champion Bumper, 20 of which are Irish-trained and 14 of which are trained by Willie Mullins. The champion trainer’s Maughreen resides at the top of the market, just ahead of stablemate Jasmin De Vaux. Gordon Elliott’s trio of The Yellow Clay, Jalon D’oudairies and Romeo Coolio are all prominent in the betting also.

As ever, the Meath trainer is well represented in the Cross Country Chase, with four of the 21 entries. Elliott has trained five of the last seven winners of the race (Denise Foster also successful once in that time frame) and two of those wins have been provided by Delta Work. He will be backed up by the same owners Coko Beach and Galvin.

With all that said, previous Gold Cup winner Minella Indo tops the betting for the race at around the 2/1 mark following a promising run over the course in November.