Hillcrest is “going to be a very hard horse to beat” in the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham on Saturday, according to Nicky Henderson.
The Seven Barrows handler saddles Balco Coastal, who is in receipt of 5lb – but Henderson insists Henry Daly’s seven-year-old is the one to aim at in the six-runner field for the extended two-and-a-half-mile test.
Balco Coastal has won two novice hurdles this term – both over two miles, at Huntingdon and Ludlow – but is pitched into Grade Two company for the first time in the race registered as the Classic Novices’ Hurdle.
“He is taking a bit of a jump, but his form is very respectable,” said Henderson.
“He has beaten two horses (Extraordinary Man and Frere D’Armes) and beaten them well, but they have both come out and won well subsequently.
“Yes, it is a big step into a Grade Two. I was thinking that Henry Daly was going to go to Doncaster over three miles for the River Don, but I can see why he has changed his mind.”
He went on: “Hillcrest is going to be a very hard horse to beat. We know what he is, because I Am Maximus (trained by Henderson) jumped the last with him last time, but we are going to have another crack with a horse I like a lot.
“Balco Coastal does everything well. He has so far, anyway, so here we go. He is an improving young horse and he needs this test – and he is ready for it.”
Hillcrest has won three novice hurdles this term and is proven over course and distance, having landed the Listed Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle by two lengths from I Am Maximus on New Year’s Day.
Daly is hopeful that he can deliver again but has slight concerns about the drying ground.
He said: “I hope he has a favourite’s chance. Obviously, I would like the ground to be a little bit softer from a safety angle for want of a better way of putting it.
“But he has won his bumper on ground at Wetherby which they said was good to soft, but it wasn’t, so I’m not particularly alarmed by the ground.
“It is a tough race, but that’s how it should be.”
A Different Kind comes into this with an unblemished record, having backed up two bumper wins with a trio of successes over hurdles for Donald McCain.
However, the Dene Rowe-owned five-year-old is taking a big step up in class following his 11-length win at Catterick last time out.
“He had to go up in grade at some point and the ground won’t bother him,” insisted McCain.
“Obviously, I have huge respect for Hillcrest, but it is time we stepped up and see where we are, because what happens now will tell us where we are going for the rest of the year.
“It is a Grade Two, and Hillcrest is the obvious one to beat, but when you go there with a horse who has won five out of five, we have to go and take a punt somewhere.”
North Lodge, who scored at Aintree on his hurdling bow for Alan King, and Picanha, who took a Warwick maiden hurdle for Richard Phillips, are similarly last-time-out winners in the line-up.
The only one of the sextet who did not register a win last time is Harpers Brook, who finished fourth in a Grade Two contest over two and a half miles at Sandown.
His trainer, Ben Pauling, said: “He had form with Hillcrest in a Wetherby bumper last year but he wasn’t right at all after the race and he had a dirty scope.
“I was obviously thrilled with him at Carlisle on his seasonal return, and then a bit underwhelmed with him at Sandown – I just don’t think he was right on the day, but I don’t know quite why.
“We think a lot of him and hope he is a really smart horse for the future.
“I think he would be better on the wetter ground, but he is not going to get that. As long as it is safe, we’ll have a look.”