By David Clough
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Pentland Hills can put himself back in the limelight by winning the Unibet Champion Hurdle on day one of the Cheltenham Festival.
As the racing world convenes in the Cotswolds again for its annual March pilgrimage, the chorus is deafening from those proclaiming this year’s renewal of the famous race as far from vintage.
It is true no contender has yet appeared vastly superior this winter — and as such, an open race is in prospect and has attracted several hopefuls who might not have given it a shot in other circumstances.
That is not true of Pentland Hills, who was a shock but impressive winner of last year’s JCB Triumph Hurdle over course and distance — from the reopposing Coeur Sublime — and followed up, with a little less to spare, in the Doom Bar Anniversary 4-Y-O Juvenile Hurdle at Aintree.
He has failed to deliver as yet in just two runs this season, and there is often folly in being seduced by a young horse’s unexposed profile and the lure of early promise.
Nonetheless, Pentland Hills still exudes the same level of ability and — like last year’s ill-fated winner Espoir D’Allen — can put it all together when it matters most to make it back-to-back five-year-old winners of this championship race.
Of those who appeal at bigger odds to perhaps chase home the new champion, there may be merit in supporting Evan Williams’ strategy of treating last year’s third Silver Streak as a bona fide Grade One contender this time round.
Likely favourite Epatante, Nicky Henderson’s first string ahead of Pentland Hills, was too good for Silver Streak at Kempton on St Stephen’s Day.
But doubts over her ability to handle this track and occasion persist, following her only defeat to date in Britain when a well-beaten favourite in the mares’ novices’ hurdle last March — so at the current odds, it makes sense to look elsewhere.
Famously, the festival gets under way with a roar of excitement when months of anticipation can be unleashed at last as the tapes go up for the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.
As ever, a host of unexposed talents from either side of the Irish Sea will line up — among whom Alan King’s Edwardstone has achieved as much as most, without attracting the same level of attention as some.
As with Epatante, there are potential temperament issues for a noted hard-puller.
But if Edwardstone can keep his composure, the Supreme could be a race made for him to produce his best — with a hectic pace highly likely — and form against a series of the best yardsticks speaking in his favour this season.
Two of Williams’ best horses are due to run within little more than an hour of each other — and as with Silver Streak, he has stuck to his long-held plan of keeping Grade One winner Esprit Du Large fresh for the Racing Post Arkle Challenge Trophy Novices’ Chase.
Like his stablemate, he looks overpriced and in his case any more rain can only help.
Benie Des Dieux’s clash with fellow Irish mare Honeysuckle in the Close Brothers Hurdle is among the most keenly-anticipated of all in what is sure to be a roller-coaster week.
Both big guns might easily have taken up alternative engagements, in either the Champion or Stayers’ Hurdle.
They have chosen this intermediate trip instead, though — and as long as the ground stays soft, Willie Mullins’ previous winner of the race gets the marginal nod over her younger, unbeaten rival in what could be an epic head-to-head.
Top-weight Vinndication will have no trouble with testing conditions in the Ultima Handicap Chase and the indications are that veteran trainer Kim Bailey has his emphatic Ascot winner ready to prove his class after a mid-season injury.
Hold The Note gets the vote in the Northern Trust Company Novices’ Handicap Chase.
His trainer Mick Channon won the 2018 edition with Mister Whitaker and can pull it off again with a horse who was outstayed over half a mile further at Warwick last time, but has the pace and aptitude for this test.