Last year’s winner Flooring Porter and recent Leopardstown conqueror Klassical Dream are among 33 entries for the Paddy Powers Stayers’ Hurdle in Cheltenham.
Flooring Porter ran every meter to claim Festival glory last March for Gavin Cromwell and Danny Mullins.
He had to settle for second behind the Klassical Dream coached by Willie Mullins in last month’s Christmas Hurdle and a rematch is likely on the agenda in the Cotswolds.
Cromwell could saddle Darver Star as well, while Closutton manager Mullins has seven total contenders, with Asterion Forlonge and Melon both having opportunities to return to smaller hurdles.
Asterion Forlonge fell at the final fence as he appeared to be booked for second behind his teammate Tornado Flyer in the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day.
Nicky Henderson entered the Air Drinker and Field pair owned by JP McManus.
Buveur D’Air, two-time hurdle champion, has been off the track since finishing fourth in the Aintree Hurdle last spring, while Champ successfully returned to hurdles during Ascot’s long run last month .
Champ has the option of returning to the fences for the Cheltenham Gold Cup, with Henderson planning to make a decision on his Festival goal sooner.
He said: “Champ has one entry for the Gold Cup and one entry for the Stayers’ Hurdle. It’s a very difficult entry to juggle and one that we don’t have access to at the moment.
“Without doubt, the easiest is the hurdles, but on the other hand he won an RSA.
“You can forget about the Gold Cup last year. He had a problem but we fixed it. The balls are in the air.
“Ante-post markets should be respected, but I can’t make decisions just to help things on this point.
“He’s in both and they’re both mega prizes. The Gold Cup is the blue ribbon, but the Stayers’ Hurdle isn’t bad either.”
Commenting on Air Drinker, who was also entered for the Champion Hurdle, he added: “We put him in the Stayers’ Hurdle and his two-and-a-half-year run at Aintree was an incredibly good run.
“He refueled during the race and he arrived too early because his lead horse went last to the other side.
“It left him without a blanket and he ran away. He was having so much fun. He showed us that day that there was all kinds of life left in him.”
Thyme Hill, who was just under two lengths of field when he was second in the long run, is a likely runner for Philip Hobbs.
Emma Lavelle’s Paisley Park and Rebecca Curtis-trained Oscar Lisnagar, who won the Stayers’ Hurdle in 2019 and 2020 respectively, also feature.
Willie Mullins is responsible for eight of the 28 initial registrations for the Close Brothers ‘Mares’ Hurdle.
The eternal champion coach of Ireland has won nine previous freshman competition winners, with six of those victories provided by the brilliant Quevega.
Mullins seems determined to add to his tally, with recent Relkeel Hurdle winner Stormy Ireland and Burning Victory, a former Triumph Hurdle winner, two of his main prospects.
Telmesomethinggirl won the Mares ‘Novices’ Hurdle at last year’s Festival and could return for Bromhead’s Henry, along with Peter Fahey’s Royal Kahala and Paul Hennessy’s Heaven Help Us other major players for Ireland.