Mullins declares his supreme intentions
WILLIE MULLINS is responsible for 22 of the 102 entries for the Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival on March 11.
Ireland's champion trainer saddled Champagne Fever to claim the traditional Festival curtain-raiser last season and this year's team include general ante-post favourite Vautour, Moyle Park and Valseur Lido.
Mullins' huge squad is among 44 Irish-trained entries, with Philip Fenton's The Tullow Tank, the Dessie Hughes-trained Lieutenant Colonel and Pat Fahy's Western Boy still in contention.
Paul Nicholls' trio is headed by German import Irving, which extended his unbeaten hurdling record to three in a Grade Two contest at Ascot in December. Nicky Henderson's nine entries include Royal Boy and Josses Hill, first and second respectively in the Grade One Tolworth Hurdle at Sandown on January 11.
Other possible starters include Greatwood Hurdle winner Dell' Arca, Ladbroke Hurdle victor Willow's Saviour and Zamdy Man, which triumphed in the Grade Two Sky Bet Supreme Trial Novices' Hurdle at Haydock Park on January 18.
The Tullow Tank is Paddy Power's 8/1 favourite for the Supreme and has, according to Fenton, thrived since his eight-length victory in a Grade One at Leopardstown over Christmas.
Fenton said: "He had an easy 10 days after the Paddy Power Future Champions Novice Hurdle, but he's back in full work now and really has blossomed.
"He's been absolutely fine and worked last Saturday morning. He's very well and I'm very happy with him since.
"I was impressed and very pleased with the Leopardstown run over the way in which he really excelled when he got into a battle and won that quite easily and then went away to the line.
"He's now on course for the Deloitte Novice Hurdle at Leopardstown on February 9.
"I think the extra two furlongs there will be right up his alley and I've always thought that, without a doubt, it was obvious that he would get two miles and further."
Despite Fenton's belief that The Tullow Tank will stay a longer trip, the Supreme remains the conditional aim at the Festival.
The County Tipperary handler said: "At the moment it's the two-miler (Supreme) we're thinking of, but the other race (Neptune) will be under consideration as well.
"The ground will be a factor and we'll have to play it by ear and see closer to the time."
Meanwhile, Fenton has identified the Red Mills Chase at Gowran Park as a possible alternative to the Hennessy Gold Cup for star chaser Last Instalment.
The nine-year-old was a dual Grade One winner as a novice over fences a couple of seasons ago, but was sidelined for almost two years by injury.
He made a hugely-encouraging return to action when finishing a close third in the Kinloch Brae Chase at Thurles earlier this month and remains on course to line up in either the Hennessy on February 9 or the Red Mills Chase the following week.
Fenton also had news of the talented Dunguib, which is bound for Gowran's Red Mills Hurdle after finishing third on his first start in almost three years in the Limestone Lad Hurdle at Naas.
"Both horses have come out of their races safe and sound and are in full work. They recovered well from their races and haven't missed a day since."