Archie Watson, who is more accustomed to training winners on the Flat, rolls the dice with Stag Horn in the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham on Friday.
The Lambourn handler has a 29 per cent strike-rate over jumps this winter and Stag Horn has won both his starts over hurdles, at Hereford and in Grade Two company at Warwick.
Now he takes on the Irish battalion in the three-mile Grade One with the five-year-old, who is bred to win a Derby, being by Golden Horn out of a Galileo mare.
“It was probably last summer that the idea of hurdling came about,” said Watson. “It became apparent at Pontefract the previous October that he wanted a trip.
“He ran in the Queen Alexandra at Royal Ascot which really suited him and he finished fourth.
“Speaking to his owners, they were very happy to give it a go over hurdles to see if he could be a high-class animal over an obstacle and so far it has been amazing really.
“We sent him down to Henrietta Knight’s and she did all the preliminary jumping with him. She loved him. He took to it very naturally, which isn’t particularly usual for a Flat horse going hurdling.
“I’ve always felt Stag Horn wants three miles, so hopefully he will take another step forward upped in trip in the Albert Bartlett. If he jumps as well as we know he can, I hope he can put a bit of pressure on the others.”
John O’Connell runs both Bardenstown Lad, who has won four of his last five over hurdles, and Mahler Mission, who landed the Grade Two River Don Novices’ Hurdle at Doncaster last time.
Both horses are on a hat-trick for the County Meath handler, who said: “Bardenstown Lad is going there in great form and obviously he is a fresh horse. He hasn’t had a hard winter campaign.
“It is a very open race and you will need a lot of luck in running, but we couldn’t be happier with him.
“The other horse, Mahler Mission, isn’t out of it, either. He is rated 1lb higher than Bardenstown, having won the River Don. We have two chances who deserve to be there.”
Bardenstown Lad won a novice hurdle over course and distance in October and has had just one run since, taking a three-runner affair at Musselburgh early last month.
“Bardenstown winning at Cheltenham is a big factor,” added O’Connell. “That was one of the reasons we took him there, as we wanted to give him some course experience as we have always had this race in mind for him. I wouldn’t swap him in the race, anyway.
“Mahler has bundles of stamina and that is what you need for this race, so he will be interesting as well.”
Henry Daly took a while before making a decision on whether Hillcrest would line up in the shorter Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle or this three-mile contest.
The towering seven-year-old, who is the highest-rated British runner, won a extended three-mile Grade Two at Haydock last time.
Daly said: “It was fairly obvious after his win at Haydock that he got the three miles, so he should get the same trip at Cheltenham.
“He’s won over two and a half there, but this looked like the obvious race.
“He is in good form and schooled well last week. It is a tough race but it is a Grade One, so deserves to be.”
The Gordon Elliott-trained Ginto is well fancied, having won all three of his starts over hurdles including a Grade One at Naas last time.
The Irish challenge is a strong one, with Willie Mullins saddling a quartet, who include Minella Cocooner, the mount of Paul Townend, and The Nice Guy, who will be ridden for the first time by Sean O’Keeffe.
Seven-year-old The Nice Guy has won two bumpers and scored on his first run over hurdles with ease at Naas last time.
Mullins said: “He’s a horse that’s surprised me. At home I couldn’t get that type of feeling that he could win one bumper, never mind two, and then win a hurdle very easily.
“He’s not a big, strong, three-mile chaser to look at, but the way he jumps, I think he’s going to be a nice chaser. I’m very happy with his progress.”
Imperial Cup winner Suprise Package, who barely turned a hair when scoring by nine lengths at Sandown on Saturday, carries 5lb extra in another hugely competitive renewal of the McCoy Contractors County Handicap Hurdle.
Kevin Sexton renews the partnership with the Paul Leech-owned six-year-old, with James Bowen having deputised last weekend.
His trainer, Peter Fahey, said: “He is in great form and seems to have come out of the race really well. Nicola, who looks after him, is very happy with him.
“He did the job really well and it was a great performance on the day, but this looks a tougher race – although I wouldn’t be swapping him for anything!”
While there is no bonus for the Imperial Cup winner should he follow up in any race at Cheltenham this year, Brian Ellison hopes Cormier can strike for the north and pick up £100,000 cheque after scoring in the Morebattle Hurdle at Kelso 13 days ago.
“He’s in good form and he has taken his last run well,” said Ellison.
“He likes the course and won there in January, so is well worthy of his place.
“He has to run because of that hundred-grand bonus, doesn’t he? He has schooled well and we’re looking forward to it.”
The unexposed State Man, who fell two out on his debut for Mullins at Leopardstown on Boxing Day, but bounced back to score by a wide margin at Limerick, tops the market.
Top Bandit, who took a course and distance maiden in October and is seeking a fourth consecutive success, heads a strong team for Elliott, while the British challenge is spearheaded by Greatwood Handicap Hurdle winner West Cork, trained by Dan Skelton, and Nigel Twiston-Davies’ I Like To Move It, who won over course and distance in November.
Runner-up in the Grade Two Kennel Gate at Ascot, Colonel Mustard represents Lorna Fowler, who felt he had a hard race when subsequently third to Sir Gerhard in a Grade One at Leopardstown last month.
“He tried so hard,” said Fowler. “The way he has matured this season has been unbelievable. He just gave it everything on ground he didn’t really like.
“He was quite tired afterwards, so we gave him plenty of time to recover and he seems to have come back to himself really well.
“Hopefully he will be going there on his A Game. There are plenty to beat, but we will have a go, anyway. I hope he would have every chance.”