The feature contest over the smaller obstacles at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day is the extended 2m 4f Grade 2 Relkeel Hurdle (15:10), and sole course and distance winner William Henry is one to consider each-way in a trappy renewal.
Trainer Nicky Henderson held a very strong hand with entries for this at the five-day stage, but just two of those are declared.
Now a 10-year-old, William Henry benefitted from a wind op to land the Grade 3 Coral Cup here at the Cheltenham Festival in March.
That is one of the most competitive handicap hurdles over an intermediate trip in the National Hunt season.
A superb late run and perfectly timed ride from jockey Nico de Boinville saw the son of King’s Theatre get up on the line and touch off Wicklow Brave by a head.
It came off the same mark of 151 as when fourth in the previous renewal of the Coral Cup.
William Henry was only beaten less than three lengths in 2018 and not far behind subsequent RSA Chase winner Topofthegame.
Although fourth in the Grade 1 Liverpool Hurdle at Aintree on his first try over 3m on his last start, he shaped as though that distance was beyond him.
William Henry now meets the runner-up Roksana off 2lb better terms and she has disappointed in both outings this season.
The gelding handles soft ground fine. After scoring after his last wind surgery, this may be the right time to catch William Henry as he’s had another breathing operation.
With Henderson’s yard on a 26 per cent strike rate in the last 14 days at the time of writing, odds of 5/1 with BetVictor for the Relkeel Hurdle are well worth considering each-way.
Janika feared most on British hurdles bow
Despite never jumping a hurdle in the UK, Haldon Gold Cup winner Janika heads the betting and tops official figures.
Also trained by Henderson, this seven-year-old French import has twice been a runner-up at Cheltenham.
Those came in valuable and competitive Grade 3 handicap chases on Festival Trials Day and in the Brown Advisory Plate in March. On both occasions, Janika was just held by Siruh Du Lac.
After then coming a fine fourth over the Grand National fences in the Topham Chase at Aintree, connections dropped him back in trip for his first two starts this season.
Although jumping well to defy top-weight and land the Haldon Gold Cup at Exeter on reappearance, Janika didn’t follow-up on it when pitched in at the highest level for the Tingle Creek at Sandown last time out.
He was backed into 9/2 for that Grade 1 contest, but was a well-held nine-length fourth to Defi Du Seuil.
Janika also only won one of his eight hurdles starts in France, but did bump into the very handy Darasso in a couple of Listed handicaps.
Relkeel Hurdle race terms are in his favour, but the Simon Munir and Isaac Souede owned gelding is bred to be a chaser.
Although respected now down in grade and switched to the smaller obstacles, Janika is taken on despite being 2/1 favourite with Boylesports here.
Questions hanging over rest of Relkeel Hurdle field
A case can be made for most of the six runners, but there are also questions to answer. Warren Greatrex brings the progresssive Emitom back from injury here.
This six-year-old is three from four over hurdles. Emitom proved five lengths too good for subsequent Grade 2 scorer Lisnagar Oscar on his bow in this sphere at Ffos Las last November.
He went on to follow-up at Lingfield down in trip and then complete his hat-trick at Newbury.
Emitom was favourite each and every time, however, and then into Champ on his try over 3m when pitched into Grade 1 company at Aintree.
Setbacks have kept him off the track since. Greatrex did identify the Relkeel Hurdle as a comeback target for Emitom, but the form of the stable as well as 271-day racecourse absence are concerns despite odds of 7/2 with Betfred.
Aforementioned Mares’ Hurdle heroine Rokasna has posted two below par efforts under poor rides from Harry Skelton this season, but now returns to the scene of her greatest triumph.
That Cheltenham Festival win back in March came more by luck than judgement, however, as hot favourite Benie Des Dieux fell in front at the final flight.
It handed the race to Roksana, who has seen subsequent Aintree form confirmed by If The Cap Fits in the Coral Hurdle at Ascot.
Past Supreme winner Summerville Boy switches back to the smaller obstacles after taking a fall over fences at Sandown.
Precious little has gone right with this Tom George trained eight-year-old since his Festival triumph in 2018.
Quel Destin completes the Relkeel Hurdle field for Paul Nicholls, but the trip may be beyond him.
The five-year-old is also the lowest rated and penalised for his graded wins as a juvenile.