Nicky Henderson admits the exciting Jonbon will face a field that is “all quality” as he bids to land Friday’s Howden Kennel Gate Novices’ Hurdle at Ascot.
The JP McManus-owned five-year-old swept to the head of the market for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival following a facile seasonal and hurdling debut at Newbury last month and bids to take his unbeaten run to three under rules against four rivals.
Yet the Seven Barrows trainer feels the Grade Two contest, run over a distance just short of two miles, comprises four worthy rivals to Douvan’s full-brother.
Henderson said: “Whatever wins this race will have to be very good.
“It is a very good race. Sometimes we have won this in the past and it has not been the most competitive Grade Two you have seen in the world, but this time it is just all quality. Any one of them could win.
“Everything has gone very well. I’m not going to frighten the world with propaganda that he has improved 20lb since Newbury, because that would be an exaggeration, but he is in very good form. His his last piece of work was excellent and he looks magnificent.
“Whoever wins will be a very good horse. Jonbon is a beautiful horse and has done everything right so far in life, but this is where we start to find out about him.
“We know he is good, we just don’t know how good – and that applies to all of them really.”
Grade Two bumper winner Knappers Hill also puts an unbeaten record on the line, having scored with ease at Wincanton on his second run over hurdles last month.
“This looks a good race, but the favourite Jonbon seems a short enough price given what he actually achieved in winning an ordinary race nicely at Newbury,” said trainer Paul Nicholls on his Betfair blog.
“I have plenty of faith in Knappers Hill who is unbeaten in five starts, he continues to progress and has a great chance.”
The Irish challenge comes from the Lorna Fowler-trained Colonel Mustard, who produced a runner-up effort in the Grade One Champion Novice Hurdle at the Punchestown Festival last season.
Fowler said: “We know exactly the quality we are up against, but this is a race we have targeted. It is a bit of a fact-finding mission, but he is in really good form and we’re happy with him.”
The Dan Skelton-trained Elle Est Belle, who got off the mark in a Listed mares’ novice hurdle at Newbury last time out and the Nigel Twiston-Davies-trained I Like To Move It, who completed a hat-trick over hurdles in a Grade Two at Cheltenham recently, complete the quality quintet.
William Hill ambassador Twiston-Davies said of his runner: “I can’t believe I Like To Move It is the outsider of the field!
“He is giving quite a bit of weight away for being a Listed winner, so does have a bit to find as far as ratings are concerned, but he’s one of the most exciting ones in the yard and I think he’s well up to the challenge.
“Jonbon’s the talking horse. He was very keen and sweaty at Newbury, but is obviously talented, while you could make a case for each of our four rivals.
“If we win this then we’ll go down the Supreme route, and if he doesn’t then maybe we look at stepping him up in trip.”
There are also five runners in the Howden Noel Novices’ Chase, which shares top billing on a cracking six-race card.
Nicholls hopes Pic D’orhy will redeem his reputation after falling at Newbury last month in a Grade Two contest won by Nassalam.
The six-year-old heads the market for the two-mile-three-furlong contest, and Nicholls admitted: “He was sailing along in the lead at Newbury and looked all set to win until he fell four out at Newbury last time.
“He does need to pick his feet up because that is not the first time he has ended up on the floor. I’m hoping that he has learned from that fall and can get his act together over fences because he has so much ability.
“He has done loads of schooling since Newbury and the frustrating thing is that he always jumps well at home. With a clear round he will go close to winning.”
His main market rival, Faivoir, was a course and distance winner last time out for the Skelton yard, while the Jane Williams-trained Gladiateur Allen bids to make it two from two over fences after scoring at Exeter a fortnight ago.
The Gary Moore-trained Fifty Ball and Richard Rowe’s Up The Straight round out the field.