Darlan heads 23 for Post hurdle
Ante-post favourite Darlan heads 23 runners for Sunday's Racing Post Hurdle at Cheltenham.
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Nicky Henderson's charge finished second in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle at the Festival last season before going on to victory at Aintree.
He is already one of the leading contenders for the Champion Hurdle next March.
The five-year-old shoulders top weight of 11-12 jointly along with the Philip Hobbs-trained Snap Tie, who was last seen returning from a long absence with victory at Punchestown.
Paul Nicholls' trio of Prospect Wells, Ted Spread and Dark Lover are in the field along with the likes of the Tom George-trained Olofi, Willie Mullins' Rattan and last year's Galway Hurdle winner Moon Dice.
Henderson also has an interesting second string in former Irish recruit Cash And Go, who will be making his debut for the Seven Barrows handler.
Up-and-coming Irish conditional Robbie Jones has been selected to ride Domination for Charles Byrnes, while the booking of Timmy Murphy takes the eye for outsider Blue Bajan.
Darlan notched four wins in six outings over hurdles last term but his previous foray into handicap company ended with a nasty fall when still going well two flights from home in the Betfair Hurdle.
He bounced back from that mishap in style and Frank Berry, racing manager for owner JP McManus, believes this is the ideal starting point, despite his heavy burden.
"It's a very competitive race, but I know Nicky is very happy with him," said Berry.
"It's certainly a step up from his novice days but we would be hoping for a very good run.
"It's always hard under top weight, whether you're a novice coming into full company or not, but it's a good starting point for him and we will have a better idea of where we should be heading after that.
"He's run well fresh before and we're happy with him."
Bothy finished second in the race two years ago, beaten just a length by Menorah, before going down by a short head in the then-Totesport Trophy at Newbury.
He also finished second in the Coral Cup in 2011 but was then sidelined by a leg problem.
The six-year-old returned to hurdles action with a fine second at Wetherby last month but trainer Brian Ellison is hoping for some overnight rain.
He said: "He's in good form, he's fresh and came back well from Wetherby the other week.
"I'd be hoping for a bit of rain, though.
"He just got beat in this race and at Newbury a couple of years ago and also finished second at the Festival. He then got a bit of a leg and we just had to give him some time.
"He's competitive enough off his current mark (140) in this, but I think we'll probably have to step up in trip with him in the future.
"I don't know that Sunday will be too short for him - it will depend on the ground."
Cause Of Causes arrives on the back of a narrow victory in a competitive event at Fairyhouse earlier this month.
The four-year-old also lost out by a head in the Galway Hurdle in August and trainer Gordon Elliott is hopeful of landing a share of the prize money.
He said: "He has come out of his win at Fairyhouse very well and he is in good nick so everything seems OK.
"It was his first run for a while at Fairyhouse and we thought he needed a gallop on grass somewhere so it worked out perfectly. Davy (Condon) didn't knock him around and he has come out of it fine.
"He has run below form twice at Perth but every other run of his has been great and he goes to Cheltenham with a good, solid each-way chance."
Vendor is on something of a recovery mission after disappointing as a short-priced favourite at Aintree on his seasonal reappearance in October.
Twice a winner last term and third at the Festival, trainer Alan King still retains plenty of faith in his four-year-old.
"He was very green when finishing third in the Fred Winter at the Cheltenham Festival, but he did so well physically through the summer, so it was disappointing to see everything go wrong when he reappeared at Aintree last month," he told www.alankingracing.co.uk.
"He pulled far too hard and refused to settle, so I knew our fate after two hurdles as he was never going to get home racing like that on such testing ground.
"However, that race will hopefully have taken some of the fizz out of him, and he needs match practice, so we go again in what looks a fiercely competitive handicap.
"If he performs like he can, he could be interesting, but obviously you can't be confident after Aintree."