Having shaped with stacks of promise on seasonal reappearance, Pentland Hills is strongly fancied to land the 2m Grade 2 Champion Hurdle Trial at Haydock on Saturday (15:15).
That run came in the similar grade International Hurdle at Cheltenham where the Nicky Henderson trained five-year-old finished fifth to stable companion Call Me Lord, but ran much better than the eventual five lengths he was beaten suggests.
After racing keenly on the heels of the leaders under regular pilot Nico de Boinville, Pentland Hills tanked his way into the lead approaching the last.
He appeared to be travelling strongly at that stage, but lack of race fitness then took its toll on very testing ground and he weakened badly in the final 100 yards.
De Boinville then wisey looked after the son of Motivator and allowed him to come home in his own time.
Pentland Hills travelled much like the best horse in the race, so it was a highly promising comeback after 254 days on the sidelines. He looks sure to come on a bundle for that outing.
This gelding was previously unbeaten in three starts over the obstacles having won at Plumpton, before landing the Triumph Hurdle at last year’s Cheltenham Festival and following up in another Grade 1 at Aintree.
Pentland Hills also remains unexposed and open to stacks more improvement, but this will be by far the most testing surface that he has raced on.
That has to be a slight concern, but he is undoubtedly a class act and may well be able to get away with it in this four-runner field.
Hence, at odds of 11/8 with Bethard, Pentland Hills is thus taken to land this en route to a crack at the Champion Hurdle itself.
Irish raider Darasso a fascinating Champion Hurdle Trial contender
One horse that certainly won’t be inconvenienced by the heavy ground is Irish raider Darasso, so he appeals as the one to give Pentland Hills most to think about.
This seven-year-old has some very smart form to his name over hurdles and fences when trained in France.
He has won two of his four starts since being purchased by leading Irish owner JP McManus and sent to join Joseph O’Brien.
After finishing a promising second to Bachasson at Punchestown, Darasso was far from disgraced when fifth of 11 to Presenting Percy in the Grade 2 Galmoy Hurdle over 3m at Gowran Park.
He then put in an impressive display in a similar grade affair at the venue when down in distance and travelling well throughout, before quickening clear to beat Forge Meadow by 11 lengths. There were some useful performers well-beaten in-behind too.
Darasso went on to follow-up in good style in a Grade 2 chase at Naas and his official hurdles rating of 153 is the same as that of Pentland Hills.
He is also unbeaten in two starts over the 2m trip of this and has won twice and been placed once in four starts on testing ground.
So, should Pentland Hills fail to live up to expectations, Darasso could well be the one to take advantage – given his unexposed and upwardly mobile profile.
He can be backed at 100/30 with BetVictor for the Champion Hurdle Trial.
Ballyandy and Cornerstone Lad can’t be discounted
Given that he finished three places in front of Penland Hills when beaten a neck by Call Me Lord in the International, Ballyandy is another with claims in a trappy Champion Hurdle Trial renewal.
The Nigel Twiston-Davies trained nine-year-old went down all guns blazing that day after being short of room approaching the final flight.
He has since run very well to finish a keeping on 8 1/4 lengths third to current Champion Hurdle ante post favourite Epatanate in the Grade 1 Christmas Hurdle at Kempton on Boxing Day.
The form of both those races command him plenty of respect in this, but Ballyandy is the oldest and most exposed runner in the line-up.
He looks sure to give it his best shot, but odds of 4/1 with Ladbrokes look plenty short enough despite his handler’s fine record in the race.
The quartet is completed by the Micky Hammond trained Cornerstone Lad, a 9/2 shot with William Hill, who comes into the race on the back of defeating dual Champion Hurdle winner Buveur D’Air in the Grade 1 Fighting Fifth at Newcastle.
He showed real battling qualities to score by a short-head and is now three from three this season.
However, the runner-up got injured during the race and Cornerstone Lad now faces a tough task giving weight all-round in this.