Connections have high hopes for Champ as he gets his season underway in the Coral Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury on Friday.
The gelding has switched between hurdles and fences throughout his career, notably winning what was then known as the RSA at the Cheltenham Festival in 2020 before reverting to smaller obstacles last term.
Taking the staying hurdler path, the bay won the 2021 Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot and was then placed in all of the top-class contests in the division during the rest of his campaign.
Champ now makes his seasonal bow under regular rider Jonjo O’Neill Jnr and is the expected favourite for the Grade Two contest.
“Nicky (Henderson, trainer) is very pleased with him, he said he’s done two nice bits of work and he couldn’t be happier with him,” said Frank Berry, racing manager to owner JP McManus.
“We’re hoping for the best with him, we’re likely to take it race by race from Saturday and see where we want to go next.”
Henderson, speaking to Sky Sports Racing, added: “He’s never been the easiest and has had his issues, but he’s a lovely horse and wonderfully named.
“He’s in good form – he schooled this morning and jumped absolutely beautifully.
“He was going to make up into a headline steeplechaser, but he’s always had a few problems with his back and I think he finds jumping hurdles rather easier and he stays three miles really well.
“That (Long Walk at Ascot) would be the idea.”
Much-loved stayer Paisley Park will make his fourth appearance in the race for Emma Lavelle at Newbury.
The bay gelding was at the peak of his powers when lifting the Grade Two prize in 2019, with the victory sandwiched by wins in the Stayers’ Hurdle and the Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham.
Now aged 10, Paisley Park is perhaps not the force he once was, but he has finished second and third in the last two renewals of the Long Distance Hurdle.
Dan Skelton’s Proschema and the Olly Murphy-trained Thomas Darby renew rivalry after finishing first and second in last month’s West Yorkshire Hurdle at Wetherby.
Proschema was 10 lengths too strong on that occasion, but Thomas Darby did claim this prize 12 months ago and returns to defend his crown.
“Thomas Darby is in good form. He is a bit better off at the weights with Proschema than when they last met, but he would want to improve plenty to be beating Dan’s horse,” said Murphy.
“If it turned into a real staying race, he could run really well. He does like Newbury.
“They are all a year older this year and Thomas Darby has had a prep run. He will be going there razor-sharp fit and this is his kind of Gold Cup for the season, so I am hoping he can run well.
“Champ is going to be hard to beat off his Long Walk Hurdle win last year as well. It’s a very competitive race but we are looking forward to running him.”
The field is completed by Tom Lacey’s outsider Tea Clipper and Jeremy Scott’s stable star Dashel Drasher. The latter is better known as a Grade One-winning chaser, but has won his last two starts over hurdles – the most recent being at Aintree three weeks ago.
Scott said: “We’ve been really pleased with him since Aintree. I would have loved to have gone to Ascot last week, but it’s probably a good job we didn’t as we wouldn’t have run.
“I just hope the ground is safe. He has won on good ground, but it’s not ideal.
“If he stays the three miles then it definitely opens things up for us going forward.”