Grandouet can stake his claim for Champion Hurdle glory

IT took a while for the Nicky Henderson bandwagon to start rolling this jumps season, but it has gone into overdrive in the past two weeks thanks to huge wins for Bobs Worth in the Hennessy and Sprinter Sacre in the Tingle Creek.

The highlight of this weekend is tomorrow’s Stan James International Hurdle (3.05pm) and I expect Seven Barrows to be celebrating yet another big Saturday success as GRANDOUET makes his seasonal debut in a race he won by four lengths 12 months ago.

Unfortunately, that was his last appearance, as he picked up an injury prior to the Stan James Champion Hurdle, but he is now reportedly back to his best and has gone well fresh in the past.

It looks effectively a three-horse race with the favourite almost certain to be Paul Nicholls’ Zarkandar. The 2011 Triumph Hurdle winner made a successful reappearance in the Elite Hurdle at Wincanton, fending off stablemate Prospect Wells.

He is also getting 4lb from both Grandouet and last year’s Champion Hurdle winner Rock On Ruby tomorrow, so he has to be greatly respected and is without doubt my biggest worry.

Rock On Ruby is a cracking horse, but this year’s Champion Hurdle wasn’t the greatest renewal. Harry Fry is sure to have his stable star in prime condition, but he’s coming up against two serious animals who I think will both go very close in March.

I’m sticking with Grandouet, though. I’ve always been a big fan of this horse and he should be backed at a general 5/2. I also wouldn’t put anyone off taking the 12/1 Ladbrokes offer for the Champion Hurdle – he could be a great deal shorter tomorrow evening.

Another of Henderson’s star hurdlers is coming back for more at this meeting and OSCAR WHISKY is a strong fancy to win a second Relkeel Hurdle (3.40pm). He’s not going to be a big price, but I can’t see any of Raya Star, Get Me Out Of Here or Brampour getting close to him judged by last month’s Ascot run.

The big betting race of the day is the Paul Stewart Ironspine Charity Challenge Gold Cup (2.30pm) and Alan King’s Walkon looks like being sent off favourite following an excellent second behind Al Ferof in the Paddy Power Gold Cup four weeks ago.

I like Walkon, and a number of recent winners ran well in the Paddy Power, but he has gone best first time out in the past few seasons and I’m not sure he has had enough of a break after what was surely a tough race on soft ground.

Paul Nicholls’ Unioniste is interesting, not least because he’s only a four-year-old which is practically unheard of in a handicap chase of this nature. He jumped like a pro behind Dynaste here last month but he is very inexperienced and, despite being current second favourite, is only first reserve for the race.

Nigel Twiston-Davies, and son Sam, will never forget last Saturday’s Aintree double over the National fences, but the family could be celebrating again as ASTRACAD holds really strong claims.

He has an excellent record at this track, winning at this meeting 12 months ago, and, although most of his runs have been over two miles, he seems to be crying out for this longer trip now. The 8/1 with Coral should be taken.

I will also be backing CONEYGREE in the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle (1.55pm). He was hugely impressive when winning at the Open meeting and this doesn’t look a strong contest.

Mark Bradstock’s five-year-old is stepping up in trip but everything he has done so far suggests he will benefit from it. He is a half-brother to Carruthers and Coneygree’s early performances indicate that he could be every bit as good, if not better than the yard’s Hennessy winner.

Follow me on Twitter @BillEsdaile for all my latest views.

Pointers…

CONEYGREE 1.55pm Cheltenham (tomorrow)
ASTRACAD e/w 2.30pm Cheltenham (tomorrow)
GRANDOUET 3.05pm Cheltenham (tomorrow)
OSCAR WHISKY 3.40pm Cheltenham (tomorrow)
GRANDOUET 12/1 e/w Champion Hurdle (Cheltenham Festival))