IRISH stables have won the Triumph Hurdle only twice over the past two decades but there is growing confidence that Dessie Hughes can provide them with a banker in Our Conor in this exacting test for four-year-olds.
Not only is Our Conor unbeaten in three runs over hurdles; he hammered two Willie Mullins-trained juveniles when winning last time at Leopardstown.
"He has been brilliant from the first day he schooled over hurdles," said Hughes. "He coughed in December, which is why he missed running over Christmas. But he has done very well since his last win. I couldn't be happier."
Hughes, a Gold Cup-winning jockey 36 years ago, has enjoyed enduring success as a trainer, most notably at the Cheltenham Festival with Hardy Eustace, a dual winner of the Champion Hurdle. But it is unusual to see him uncover juvenile hurdling talent.
"I've had Our Conor all the way through," added the trainer. "He was rated mid-80s on the Flat and won a couple of races, but he was always destined for jumping. He schooled before he even ran on the Flat.
"It's hard to buy a good jumper off the Flat these days. Anything half-decent costs a fortune, so we decided to find one to race on the Flat ourselves, and we've been lucky to find Our Conor."
Our Conor is currently 5/1 joint favourite with Rolling Star for the Triumph, but that price is likely to be a lot shorter by Cheltenham week.
The Hughes-trained hurdler will be easy to spot – he has a big white face, just like his sire, Jeremy.
Bryan Cooper, who the trainer believes is the best riding talent to come through his yard since Charlie Swan, will take the mount.
Hughes is planning to send up to seven runners to the Festival. High on the list are Action Master and Si C'etait Vrai for the three-mile Pertemps Final.
He will also saddle White Star Line in the novice handicap chase, over two miles, five furlongs.
Nigel Twiston-Davies is another trainer looking forward to Cheltenham.
With the Festival now just a fortnight away, he stood in his cherished duffle coat yesterday and watched his Cheltenham team cantering out of a drizzly Cotswold hollow, before assessing their prospects with his trademark brand of aggrieved optimism.
Assessing a marketplace dominated by barely a handful of powerful rivals, the only current trainer to saddle two Grand National winners reiterated his status, nowadays, as underdog.
"We haven't the firepower to take them on at the sales," he said. "So it's nice when my little cheapies can do the job. It is hard work – but also more satisfying.
"I think this is as strong a Cheltenham team as we've had for a bit, really. Must be. We've got Imperial Commander back, and some very nice young horses as well."
Twiston-Davies had more than once come close to abandoning the struggle before winning three races on the final afternoon of the 2010 Festival – including the Gold Cup itself.
In the process, Imperial Commander redressed what his trainer had considered a culpable obsession with Kauto Star and Denman, both stabled with Paul Nicholls.
Though that pair have now been retired, Imperial Commander will be returning up the road to Prestbury, at the age of 12, to represent the golden era they shared.
True, he managed just two starts the following season, and resurfaced only last month, beaten by half a length in the Argento Chase at the Cheltenham Trials meeting. An unsparing critic would describe that comeback as no more than satisfactory, as Imperial Commander has always gone best fresh and was favoured by the race conditions. Needless to say, Twiston-Davies is more positive.
"It was an astonishingly good run," he insisted. "If you'd offered me that beforehand, I'd definitely have taken it. He'd had such a bad run up to it, fracturing a splint bone, and though he'd done lots of swimming, there's no substitute for cantering – and he'd only done four weeks of that.
"I couldn't be more pleased with him since, and now just want to take him somewhere for a racecourse gallop this weekend."
Twiston-Davies was no more downhearted by a first defeat over hurdles – on the same card – for The New One. Run out of things by a neck, after leading before the last, he remains among the favourites for the Neptune Investments Hurdle.
"Obviously he does have this huge burst of speed," Twiston-Davies said. "Hindsight's easy, but we probably used it soon enough. The main thing, though, is that the ground can't be as horrible this time."
Another pair of novices, African Gold and Master Of The Sea, will each be looking to crown their terrific improvement with a fifth consecutive success, in the Albert Bartlett and Coral Cup respectively.
"African Gold will be even better with the extra distance and nicer ground," Twiston-Davies said.
"He's a big strong horse and in years to come I hope he can be another Imperial Commander type for us.
"Master Of The Sea has been a revelation, we haven't got to the bottom of him, either. I didn't think we'd have at all a good season, but they've excelled themselves.
"The build-up to Cheltenham wasn't any fun, when Imperial Commander was favourite. In a way, things could only go wrong. But the less that's expected, the better you can do." (© Daily Telegraph, London.)