Willie Mullins has saddled four of the last nine winners of the Champion Hurdle, and this year fires a twin assault in the opening day feature.
With Klassical Dream and Saldier both ruled out earlier in the season because of injury, the Irish champion trainer decided to supplement Cilaos Emery after he successfully reverted to hurdles from fences in last month’s Red Mills Trial Hurdle at Gowran Park.
Mullins said: “We’ve decided to go down this route purely because it’s such an open Champion Hurdle. You can see how hard it is to get horses to a Champion Hurdle, so he’ll take his chance.
“He wasn’t spectacular at the end of the race in Gowran, but I thought what he did coming down the hill in putting the race to bed was good enough for me.
“He should be improving. He could go chasing again down the line, but let’s see what he does in the Champion Hurdle first. He can mix it – I’m not afraid to do that if they show they are able to do it.”
Cilaos Emery’s stable companion Sharjah was an impressive winner at Leopardstown over Christmas, but returns to Cheltenham with something to prove following an abject display in the Irish Champion Hurdle.
“His last run was terrible. He missed the first hurdle down the back in Leopardstown, and we don’t know why because he’s usually a very good jumper,” Mullins added.
“I’d prefer drier ground for him, but I don’t think he’s ground dependent. Horses do handle softer ground as they get older.”
The Irish challenge also features the second, third and fourth from the Irish Champion Hurdle in Gavin Cromwell’s Darver Star, Henry de Bromhead’s Petit Mouchoir and the Jessica Harrington-trained Supasundae.
Darver Star was rated just 104 this time last year, but has made huge improvement and bids to provide his trainer with a second successive win in the Champion Hurdle following the victory of the ill-fated Espoir D’Allen 12 months ago.
Cromwell said: “He had a racecourse gallop at Leopardstown (last week), and I am very pleased with him going into the race.
“It looks wide open, and I think Cheltenham will suit him. He is the same sort of price as Espoir D’Allen was last year. He stays, travels and jumps well. I think he will be staying on up the hill strongly, and hopefully he has a live chance.”
Gordon Elliott’s Coeur Sublime and Joseph O’Brien’s Darasso complete the raiding party.
O’Brien said: “He is a big price, but if you aren’t in it you can’t win it. Our lad goes there in great shape and I think the course and distance will really suit him, while we know he handles soft ground.”
Epatante will lead a four-strong team for Nicky Henderson into battle. Henderson said: “Epatante was very disappointing at Cheltenham last year, there’s no getting away from it.
“There were a few that didn’t show up like they should have done because of the flu vaccinations, and I think she was one of them.
“I’ve read in some places she can only go on a flat track, just because she didn’t run very well at Cheltenham on the only time that she has been there – I don’t think that was the track.”