King backs Yanworth to secure the crown
Alan King believes Yanworth is primed to run a big race in the Stan James Champion Hurdle after confessing he is in the best shape he has been in all season.
In what is an open renewal of the two-mile showpiece, the seven-year-old heads the market to go one better than in the Neptune Investment Management Novices' Hurdle and gain victory on his third outing at the Cheltenham Festival, having finished fourth in the 2015 Champion Bumper.
The JP McManus-owned gelding, who will be ridden for the first time by Mark Walsh, has won each of his three starts this season, the most recent in the Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton.
King said: "I've made it clear all the way through that he is not a speed horse, but unfortunately the races at Kempton and Wincanton were the only ones we could go for.
"After Kempton (Christmas Hurdle), the ideal preparation was to go to Sandown a month or so ago, but we had a setback and had to miss that and then it was a rush to get him to Wincanton.
"He was certainly a long way off being fully tuned up, but he got away with it. The one thing I liked about him at Wincanton was that when he passed the line he had his ears pricked, which is always a very good sign.
"The good news is that we have had a totally clear run since Wincanton. He worked very well during the week and did his final piece of work Friday morning. Mark Walsh came over on Thursday and schooled him over 12 hurdles.
"It all went extremely well. He has never jumped quicker and slicker. He was very happy and I was happy with everything I saw.
"He is in the best form I've had him all season, whether that is good enough to win a Champion Hurdle, I'm not sure, but he will certainly be in the mix.
"In general my horses are in better form than last year. Considering the form they were in, for him to finish second says a lot for the horse."
The Barbury Castle handler will be double handed with Kingwell third Sceau Royal also taking his chance.
He said: "I was disappointed with him at Wincanton. I thought Yanworth was very vulnerable that day. Between the last two it looked like he was going to win, but he did finish a bit weakly.
"He did have a good blow afterwards, whether that was because I had been easy on him as he hadn't run since November. He is in very good form, but if he couldn't beat Yanworth at Wincanton he won't beat him at Cheltenham."
Nicky Henderson feels ground conditions will play a pivotal role in the chance of his three representatives Brain Power, Buveur D'Air and dual runner-up My Tent Or Yours, as he seeks a record-breaking sixth success.
He said: "The important thing is going to be the ground. Between our lot Buveur D'Air is the one that really loves soft ground and My Tent Or Yours and Brain Power would prefer better ground.
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"It looks as if the pendulum is swinging towards them. It's not that Buveur D'Air can't go on good ground, he just loves it soft and if it is like that he has got an advantage over the other two.
"My Tent Or Yours has been there and done it and is in great form - he has had a good freshen up since the Christmas Hurdle. He worked well at Kempton and I'm very happy with where he is.
"Brain Power is very talented, this is a big step up from handicap up to a Grade One but there hasn't been a suitable opportunity to run him since he won at Ascot because of the ground.
"He likes to race when fresh, experience better ground and is going the right way. On good ground he would have the advantage over Buveur D'Air.
"I know the Sandown race did not tell us anything because Buveur D'Air did not beat much. He ran third in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle last year at the Festival and most of our very good horses of the future have been placed in the Supreme.
"He finished the Supreme very, very strongly and then he went on to Aintree and beat Petit Mouchoir, which is very solid form over two miles and he is a better horse now."
With Annie Power and Faugheen both absent, the main hope of a fifth successive victory for an Irish-trained runner looks to be the Henry de Bromhead-trained Petit Mouchoir, winner of the Irish Champion Hurdle.
He said: "He's won his last two, both at Leopardstown. He's one of the few horses in it to win two Grade Ones this year.
"He's done nothing wrong, bar falling at Newcastle. It was disappointing that day, but he seemed to be going well and he confirmed at Leopardstown at Christmas what we hoped he might do at Newcastle.
"He then went and won the Irish Champion Hurdle, so he's had a great season already. Now we'll try and have a go."