Previous winners Clan Des Obeaux and Kemboy are among nine runners declared for the Betway Bowl at Aintree on Thursday.
Kemboy was a brilliant winner of the Grade One contest in 2019 for Willie Mullins, beating the Paul Nicholls-trained Clan Des Obeaux into second.
The application of cheekpieces appeared to have the desired effect for Clan Des Obeaux in last year’s renewal as he struck gold by a whopping 26 lengths, before going on to win the Punchestown Gold Cup.
The 10-year-old has been beaten twice since and is interestingly fitted with blinkers for the first time for the defence his crown on Merseyside.
Kemboy has not managed to get his head in front since claiming a fourth Grade One success in last year’s Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown, most recently finishing fifth when bidding for back-to-back wins in the Dublin Racing Festival feature in February.
The one to beat on recent form is Dan Skelton’s Protektorat, who was best of the British when third behind Henry de Bromhead’s pair of A Plus Tard and Minella Indo in last month’s Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Conflated, trained by Gordon Elliott, was a surprise winner of the Irish Gold Cup and looked set to be placed in the Ryanair at Cheltenham before falling two from home.
Colin Tizzard’s Eldorado Allen finished third in the Ryanair and is another leading contender, as is Royale Pagaille after finishing fifth in the Gold Cup for Venetia Williams.
Nigel Twiston-Davies will be praying for rain to give Bristol De Mai the best possible chance of claiming victory, while Ann Hamilton steps Nuts Well up in class after a Listed triumph at Kelso.
Olly Murphy’s outsider Itchy Feet completes the line-up.
Champion Hurdle second and third Epatante and Zanahiyr renew rivalry in the Betway Aintree Hurdle.
Nicky Henderson’s Epatante has won and been placed twice in the last three runnings of the Champion Hurdle and will test the water over two and a half miles for the first time, as does Elliott’s Zanahiyr.
Nicholls saddles both Monmiral and McFabulous, who are both previous winners at Aintree.
Brewin’upastorm (Olly Murphy), Glory And Fortune (Tom Lacey) and Guard Your Dreams (Nigel Twiston-Davies) complete the seven-strong field.
Nicholls will have high hopes for Pic D’orhy in the first of three Grade Ones on the opening afternoon of the meeting – the Sss Super Alloys Manifesto Novices’ Chase.
The Turgeon gelding has been kept fresh since landing the Pendil Novices’ Chase at Kempton in February and will again cross swords with the runner-up that day, the Alex Hales-trained Millers Bank.
Erne River has won his last three races for Nick Kent, earning him this step up in grade.
Jacamar (Milton Harris), The Widdow Maker (Tizzard), War Lord (Tizzard) and Gin On Lime (Henry de Bromhead) are the other hopefuls.
Cheltenham Festival scorer Brazil heads a field of nine four-year-olds set to go to post for the Jewson Anniversary 4-Y-O Juvenile Hurdle.
Padraig Roche’s youngster narrowly foiled the heavily backed Gaelic Warrior in the Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle in the Cotswolds and certainly merits having his sights raised.
Elliott’s Pied Piper is the obvious danger after finishing third in the Triumph Hurdle, while Jonjo O’Neill saddles French recruit Petit Tonnerre, who made a successful British debut at Market Rasen.