WILLIE MULLINS says majestic mare Annie Power remains on course to return to the Cheltenham Festival next month – and a probable clash with Yorkshire challenger Aurore D’Estruval.
The seven-year-old suffered her only defeat from 12 competitive starts when runner-up behind More Of That in last season’s Ladbrokes World Hurdle, but rounded off her campaign with victory at Punchestown.
She has not been seen in action so far this term after suffering a setback ahead of her intended comeback in November’s Hatton’s Grace Hurdle, but has been back in work for over a month and Mullins is pleased with her progress.
“I’m very happy with her – so far, so good,” said the trainer. “We’ve not had any more setbacks since Christmas.”
Annie Power is entered in the World Hurdle once more, as well as the Champion Hurdle and the OLBG Mares’ Hurdle.
The latter event, won for six consecutive years by incredible stable companion Quevega, is her likely objective where rivals would include Malton trainer John Quinn’s Aurore D’Estruval whose wins at Doncaster and Sandown were sandwiched by a highly creditable second place finish in Newcastle’s Fighting Fifth Hurdle.
Mullins said: “At the moment that (Mares’ Hurdle) is the way we’d be looking.”
Connections are set to make a late call as to whether Coneygree goes for the Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup or the RSA Chase.
Trainer Mark Bradstock left Coneygree in the Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup following the latest declarations for jump racing’s showcase race.
It is 41 years since a novice, Captain Christy, lifted the coveted prize but Coneygree showed he would not be out of place in the blue riband with an impressive front-running display to beat seasoned campaigner Houblon Des Obeaux by seven lengths in the Betfair Denman Chase at Newbury last Saturday to take his unbeaten record over fences to three.
Coneygree is also ante-post favourite for the RSA Chase – the three-mile championship race for novice chasers.
“We’ll confirm him for both races. You have to think about things like the ground and it will be interesting to see the entries after today,” said Bradstock whose late father-in-law, Lord Oaksey, bred the horse.
Nico de Boinville, who had partnered Coneygree to victory in his first two races over fences, will be back on him at Cheltenham after missing the ride on Saturday as he was suspended.
“You can’t complain about the job Richard Johnson did on Saturday, but Nico will ride him at Cheltenham,” said Bradstock.
Next Sensation is to head straight to the Cheltenham Festival to contest the Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Chase – the traditional finale to the four-day meeting.
Ross-on-Wye handler Michael Scudamore has confirmed the eight year-old will attempt to better the fourth position he finished in the two-mile contest at last year’s big meeting.
Although largely out of sorts this season the son of Brian Boru showed a return to form on his latest outing when fourth behind Monetaire at Newbury in November.
“The ground has not been right for him at any stage this season as he hates the soft ground.
“Having said that he run well all things considered when finishing fourth last time out,” said Scudamore who is due to saddle Crabbie’s Grand National prospect Monbeg Dude at Haydock on Saturday.
He added: “He has had a nice break since then and seems in great form at home and he goes straight to Cheltenham for the Johnny Henderson, where hopefully the decent ground will come back.
“The long hold up at the start of last year’s race did him no favours as he is a very nervy horse.
“He is one you want to get away early from the paddock as he does not like the hustle and bustle beforehand.”
Malton trainer Brian Ellison says top miler Top Notch Tonto is back in training after a winter break.
“He had a canter on Monday morning and looks well – we haven’t got 50lb to get off him before he runs,” Ellison told The Yorkshire Post.
“The Lockinge at Newbury is his early season target,.
Record-breaking jump jockey AP McCoy’s winning run continued at Ayr yesterday when the soon-to-be 20-times champion was triumphant on board Ask Tom.
The 40-year-old has signalled his intention to retire before the 2014-15 reaches its climax at Sandown in late April.
Gary Moore would like to take Sire De Grugy to Plumpton for a racecourse gallop before his defence of his Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase crown.
Moore’s stable star returned from a lengthy absence in the Game Spirit Chase at Newbury on Saturday, an outing which the trainer labelled a “catalogue of disasters”.
He eventually fell after making several jumping errors.