Adagio will seek to transfer his high-class juvenile form into top handicap company when he tackles the Unibet Greatwood Handicap Hurdle at Cheltenham on Sunday.
The David Pipe-trained four-year-old could have started in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle, but will instead begin his campaign at Prestbury Park.
Last term the bay never came home outside of the top two, winning the Grade One Coral Finale Juvenile Hurdle at Chepstow before going on to finish second in Cheltenham’s Triumph Hurdle and Aintree’s Anniversary 4-Y-O Novices’ Hurdle, both Grade One races also.
The Cheltenham assignment is the gelding’s handicap debut, and one for which he has been handed a sizeable burden of 11st 12lb.
“We entered him in the Fighting Fifth, but we decided to go to the Greatwood,” said Pipe.
“He’s got top-weight, which is not ideal, but we’ve got to start somewhere. He’s done well during the summer. He’s in good form.
“We dream that he might develop into a Champion Hurdle horse, but he’s got to improve again. He’s working well at home, but he always does work well.
“He doesn’t mind a big field, he won’t mind that, and he likes it round Cheltenham. There’s lots of positives, but the bottom line is he’s got to improve again.”
Dan Skelton’s West Cork will partake in what will be his first run since February 2020, with the gelding sidelined due to injury after his novice hurdling campaign.
The yard had considered a novice chasing bow for the seven-year-old, but Skelton’s brother and stable jockey Harry suggested the Greatwood as the team were not intending to field another runner.
“To be fair Harry came up with this plan three weeks ago and I was waiting to go chasing,” Dan Skelton said. “With a lack of a runner in the race we thought ‘let’s have a go’.
“He will be fit and fitness will not get him beat, but he will improve sharpness-wise. He has got a good attitude and a fast run race will suit him.
“It was a strange injury he had as it was not an athletic injury. He got a cut at the back of his fetlock and did a little bit of tendon damage when he did but he is fine now. His form as a novice hurdler two seasons ago was very good.
“If he carries forward from a novice hurdler you have to give him a chance and on what I’ve seen I think that is possible.”
Brian Ellison saddles dual-purpose performer Cormier, with the five-year-old busy on the Flat over the summer before switching codes to finish fourth behind Glory And Fortune in the Welsh Champion Hurdle at Ffos Las in October.
Prior to that he was twice been a winner over hurdles, coming home second behind Copperless in the Swinton Handicap Hurdle in May and finishing seventh in the Greatwood last year.
“We know he goes well in these types of races and he likes Cheltenham,” said Ellison, who the Greatwood in 2018 with Nietzsche.
“He well ran in this last year and he ran well in the Swinton when he was second.
“Two miles on decent ground, with a strong pace, is ideally what he wants and he should get that.
“He ran well last time at Ffos Las and he should run well again.”
Cormier will cross paths with Glory And Fortune once again, as the Tom Lacey-trained gelding is also engaged as he bids for a hat-trick, while the Nigel Twiston-Davies-trained Ballyandy will try to go one better than his second-placed Greatwood run last season.
Nicky Henderson’s No Ordinary Joe has been prominent on ante-post lists, with the five-year-old beaten only once in four starts when coming fourth in the Grade Two Kennel Gate Novices’ Hurdle at Ascot in December – 11 lengths behind subsequent Grade One winner My Drogo.
The horse is owned by JP McManus, who has another chance in the race in the shape of Philip Hobbs’ Persian War victor Camprond, who followed that Chepstow triumph up with a four-and-a-half-length win in the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham in October.
Another horse last seen at Cheltenham is Alan King’s Tritonic, who finished second in the Masterson Holdings Hurdle in October and was a graded winner last term when taking the Adonis Juvenile Hurdle at Kempton in February.
Henderson has a second runner in Marie’s Rock, who was last seen coming third in Listed company at Wetherby and is one of two mares in the race alongside Jane Williams’ Galice Macalo.
Gary Moore’s Botox Has will look to bounce back from a fall on his chasing debut at Plumpton in October, whereas Sheila Lewis’ Straw Fan Jack returns to Cheltenham in good form having been beaten by just a head last time out.
Four chances for an Irish-trained winner come with the Noel Meade-trained Jesse Evans, Charles Byrnes’ Advanced Virgo, Denis Hogan’s Bua Boy and Tony Martin’s Tudor City.
Stuart Edmunds’ Rowland Ward, Alastair Ralph’s Rockadenn, Nick Kent’s Mick Maestro and the Chris Gordon-trained Mount Windsor complete the list of contenders.