DUAL winner Buveur D’Air is the star name among 27 entries for the Unibet Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham.
The horse, trained by Nicky Henderson and owned by JP McManus, has claimed the two-mile hurdling crown in each of the last two seasons.
He remains hot favourite to become the sixth three-time winner, despite suffering a shock defeat at the hands of stablemate Verdana Blue in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton on his latest outing.
The eight-year-old will be bidding to emulate Hatton’s Grace (1949, 1950, 1951), Sir Ken (1952, 1953, 1954), Persian War (1968, 1969, 1970), See You Then (1985, 1986, 1987) and Istabraq (1998, 1999, 2000).
Buveur D’Air and Verdana Blue are among six entries for Henderson who already has a record seven wins to his name in the Cheltenham Festival’s traditional day one highight.
He has also entered Brain Power, who could reappear at Haydock this weekend, as well as Call Me Lord, Charli Parcs and We Have A Dream.
Willie Mullins is responsible for five of the 12 Irish-trained contenders. The Irish champion trainer could saddle last year’s runner-up Melon, the unbeaten mare Laurina, Sharjah, Cilaos Emery and Saldier.
Samcro and Apple’s Jade are two of four entries for Gordon Elliott, while Jessica Harrington’s Supasundae and Gavin Cromwell’s Espoir D’Allen are other potential Irish raiders.
Other contenders include Dan Skelton’s Mohaayed and the Evan Williams-trained grey Silver Streak. Four greys have won the Champion Hurdle, the most recent being Rooster Booster in 2003.
Williams said: “Silver Streak is in good form and came out of his second in the International Hurdle well. He has enjoyed a great season, with some excellent performances, and has run to a good level.
“I think we will probably run in the Champion Hurdle. You never know what will happen in these races. He will have a run before Cheltenham in one of the Champion Hurdle trials.”
Meanwhile, in-form Warren Greatrex is considering a return to Grade One company for Keeper Hill after giving him an entry in the Sun Racing Stayers’ Hurdle over three miles.
Keeper Hill, whose promising chasing career faded last season, has returned to hurdles this term and won a Pertemps qualifier at Warwick on Saturday after previously finishing last in Wetherby’s West Yorkshire Hurdle.
Greatrex said: “He has got a Stayers’ Hurdle entry, but he may well head to Sandown on February 2 for a £100,000 race there first – and that will tell us a lot more.
“If he went and won that off 144 he would be around the area that he would be competitive in a Stayers’ Hurdle. There is every chance he could improve again from Saturday, and he definitely seems to be back on track – so I hope it is onwards and upwards.”
Keeper Hill did win two novice chases, but Greatrex added: “He didn’t have a great time last season. He had a fall at Musselburgh, then he fell at Cheltenham and pulled up at Ayr, and we had to give him a back operation during the summer.
“He ran such a good race at Cheltenham (on his second run back over hurdles last month), and I was chuffed to bits. He has obviously got confidence from that and won with authority at Warwick – and I still think there is more in the tank.”