Unowhatimeanharry: dominating the top of the ante-post marketsPICTURE: Mark Cranham (racingpost.com/photos)
Stayers' Hurdle: one month until the big race
The shape of the feature race of the third day of the Cheltenham Festival has a lot to do with that of the opening day's Champion Hurdle and much will depend on whether owners and trainers fancy a shot at the Tuesday highlight in the absence of some big guns. Despite that, the race formerly known as the World Hurdle features what plenty will consider one of the bankers of the week in Unowhatimeanharry.
The main contenders
Unowhatimeanharry - best price 6-4
You have to have quite a long memory to recall the last time the excellent Unowhatimeanharry lost a race. That came at Sandown in March 2015, since when he has landed the Albert Bartlett before winning three major trials for this race. Outside of the likes of Altior and Douvan, this is as strong a festival favourite as you could ask for.
Jezki - best price 6-1
JP McManus has a firm grip on this contest with the favourite but Jezki is among those who could boost his claims. Prior to a prolonged absence, the 2014 Champion Hurdle winner was embarking on a staying career and while another tilt at the shorter option is clearly under consideration, it would be no surprise to see the veteran turn up here. Ladbrokes reported significant money for him in this market on Thursday morning.
Nichols Canyon - best price 8-1
One of plenty with the Champion Hurdle as an option and with Faugheen and Annie Power missing, Willie Mullins may be keen to keep him to the two mile option, which his campaign to date has been built around. A winner of the Grade 1 Morgiana Hurdle in November (his seventh Grade 1), he was turned over at odds-on by Petit Mouchoir over Christmas and fell when well held by the same rival in the Irish Champion Hurdle last month.
Vroum Vroum Mag - best price 9-1
Yet another option for the versatile mare who she showcased her ability at this trip when winning the Grade 1 Christmas Hurdle at Leopardstown over three miles in December. She would surely be popular with punters if she turned up in this race but with six options at Cheltenham whether she will is impossible to say at this stage.
Shaneshill - best price 12-1
One of the few horses almost certain to line up in this race, Shaneshill fell when looking tired in the Grade 1 Christmas Hurdle but got back on track with a win in the Grade 2 Galmoy Hurdle last month. Second in last year's RSA Chase, he will be out to emulate Inglis Drever for Andrea & Graham Wylie.
Cole Harden's 2015 win sparked emotional celebrationsPICTURE: Edward Whitaker (racingpost.com/photos)
Cole Harden - best price 14-1
The 2015 winner finished fourth behind Thistlecrack last year and was beaten a length and three quarters in the Cleeve Hurdle last month, after which trainer Warren Greatrex declared: "Cole Harden is back and at Cheltenam in March, on better ground, he'll be a different horse, I promise you."
The key question: will they run?
There are a host of potential runners, many prominent in the betting, who could well line up in the Champion Hurdle, especially now that race has such an open look to it.
Perhaps the most significant of those straddling the two races is Yanworth, whose price variues from 5-1 to 16-1, albeit the Champion Hurdle looks almost certain to be the target for him.
Another owned by JP McManus, Yanworth clearly has the stamina for this trip and there are plenty who feel it would suit him better than the Champion Hurdle but the presence of Unowhatimeanharry is the main consideration. Should the favourite fail to make the race for whatever reason, the calls for a switch to this race for Yanworth will be loud and plentiful.
The New One is another to have been mentioned as a contender for both races and perhaps if the Champion Hurdle had come up stronger, the old boy would be bidding for another festival victory here - as a former Neptune winner, he should have the stamina.
Filling the runner-up spot behind Shaneshill at Gowran Park last time was Snow Falcon, who was also third in the Christmas Hurdle. He was sent off a 9-2 shot against Unowhatimeanharry at Newbury in November when falling three out just as things were getting interesting.
He had not been asked a serious question that day and the impression that connections felt they had the measure of Unowhatimeanharry was palpable. Jumping is the problem for him but the ability might just be there.
Another eyecatching horse from that day at Newbury is Ballyoptic, who was sent off the 5-2 favourite to defeat Unowhatimeanharry before being beaten six lengths into second.
He has proven no match for him since either and while Cheltenham may not be his course, it is not inconceivable he could rediscover some of the promise of the early part of the season.
Like Ballyoptic, Lil Rockerfeller perhaps lacks the class of Unowhatimeanharry but makes up for it with an abundance of guts and stamina.
He needs every yard of this trip but gave Yanworth plenty to think about at Ascot over shorter earlier in the season and all roads for him have led to this race.