Entries are revealed today for the four championship novices' hurdles at The Festival - the £125,000 Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle (2m, 1.30pm Champion Day, Tuesday, March 14), the £125,000 Neptune Investment Management Novices' Hurdle (2m 5f, 1.30pm Ladies Day, Wednesday, March 15), the £125,000 JCB Triumph Hurdle (2m 1f, 1.30pm Gold Cup Day, Friday, March 17) and the £125,000 Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle (3m, 2.50pm Gold Cup Day, Friday, March 17).
The number of entries for the four Grade One races is up significantly from last year, 359 against 269 in total - the Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle 83 (64), the Neptune Investment Management Novices' Hurdle 118 (78), the JCB Triumph Hurdle 55 (54) and the Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle 103 (73).
Ireland's champion Jump trainer Willie Mullins has 78 entries across the four races, starting with 22 in The Festival curtain-raiser at 1.30pm on March 14, the Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle.
Mullins has won three of the last four renewals of the two-mile contest and his contenders this year are led by Sky Bet's 9/2 favourite Melon who went some to justifying a lofty reputation with an easy success on his jumping debut in a maiden hurdle at Leopardstown on January 29.
The Closutton handler has also entered unbeaten mare Airlie Beach and fellow G1 winner Saturnas, plus Bunk Off Early, Chateau Conti and Cilaos Emery, who all impressed when winning their maiden hurdles.
Moon Racer (David Pipe, 5/1) is the leading British-trained entry and was last seen out capturing the G2 Sky Bet Supreme Trial Novices' Hurdle at The Open in November. Nicky Henderson, who took the spoils emphatically in 2016 with Altior, has eight horses in contention. They include the J P McManus-owned pair of Charlie Parcs and Consul De Thaix as well as eye-catching novices' hurdling victors Beyond Conceit and River Wylde.
Henderson's former assistant Ben Pauling is set to have his first Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle runner in High Bridge. The six-year-old finished sixth behind Ballyandy (Nigel Twiston-Davies) in the 2016 Weatherbys Champion Bumper for the now-retired trainer John Ferguson and is unbeaten in two starts for his new stable.
High Bridge scored by three lengths on his hurdling debut at Newbury in December before an easy nine-length success in a novices' hurdle at Catterick last month, both over two miles.
Pauling said: "High Bridge is in fantastic form at the moment. All being well, he will go to Newbury on February 11, and providing he comes through that with flying colours, will head to Cheltenham.
"He has entries in the Sky Bet Supreme and the Neptune, but at this stage I would say the Supreme is more likely. He doesn't look short of speed for two miles."
Michael Shinners, Racing PR Manager at Sky Bet, commented: "This year's Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle, with a fantastic entry of 83, looks the most wide-open edition since Sky Bet commenced sponsorship in 2014.
"Although Melon heads the market at present, there is still time for something to throw their hat into the ring."
Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle - Sky Bet prices (NRNB): 9/2 Melon; 5/1 Moon Racer; 6/1 Charli Parcs, Defi Du Seuil, Finian's Oscar; 8/1 Cilaos Emery; 10/1 Neon Wolf; 12/1 Airlie Beach, Consul De Thaix, Dinaria Des Obeaux, Meri Devie; 14/1 bar Each-way 1-2-3
Pauling's two other entries for the Neptune Investment Management Novices' Hurdle (118 entries) are exciting six-year-old Willoughby Court and five-year-old Le Breuil. Willoughby Court, owned by Paul & Clare Rooney, made all for decisive victory in the G2 Neptune Investment Leamington Novices' Hurdle at Warwick on January 14, while Le Breuil has not raced since hacking up on his hurdling debut at Sedgefield in November. Both horses also have entries in the Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle.
Pauling added: "Willoughby Court is sometimes a bit quiet after his races but has come out of Warwick better than ever. We literally could not be happier with him at home. It will be quietly, quietly with him now for the next few weeks before we tune him up for The Festival.
"At the moment, I am in two minds about whether to go for the Neptune or the Albert Bartlett. The bookmakers generally have him shorter for the Albert Bartlett but I am not so sure.
"Le Breuil had a bit of bang after his win at Sedgefield which meant he had six easy weeks. The idea was to go for the Sidney Banks [Novices' Hurdle, Huntingdon, February 9] but he might not be quite ready so he could head to Ascot for a class two novices' hurdle on February 18.
"We will make a decision after his next start about whether we go to Cheltenham or wait for somewhere like Aintree, but I think he is a horse with huge potential and one we like a lot. He is certainly up to this standard, it is just a case of whether he has the experience after three starts."
The Neptune Investment Management Novices' Hurdle could throw up a mouth-watering clash between G1 Tolworth Hurdle victor Finian's Oscar (Colin Tizzard) and Neon Wolf (Harry Fry), a facile winner in G2 company at Haydock Park last month. Both horses are unbeaten.
Willie Mullins was on the scoresheet last year with Yorkhill and has 29 entries to choose from in 2017. They include exciting mares Augusta Kate and Let's Dance, plus maiden hurdle winners Bon Papa, Bravissimo and Invitation Only.
Alan King's seven entries are topped by Messire Des Obeaux who defeated Irish raider Baltazar D'Allier (Gordon Elliott IRE) in the G1 Challow Novices' Hurdle at Newbury.
Gordon Elliott has a strong hand in the Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle (103 entries), with rising star Death Duty headlining 10 entries for the Irish trainer. The six-year-old is a warm favourite after winning all four of his starts this season, most recently powering clear for a nine-length victory over Turcagua (Willie Mullins) in the G1 Lawlor's Hotel Novice Hurdle at Naas on January 8. Mullins has 23 entries for the three-mile race.
Wholestone, one of five entries for local trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies, is already a two-time G2 winner, including over the course distance, at Cheltenham this season. West Approach (Colin Tizzard) has finished behind Wholestone three times this season, but took a step forward when finishing third behind Sun Bets Stayers' Hurdle favourite Unowhatimeanharry in the G2 galliardhomes.com Cleeve Hurdle over the course and distance on Festival Trials Day, January 28.
Prolific juvenile hurdler Defi Du Seuil (Philip Hobbs) heads seven J P McManus-owned contenders in the JCB Triumph Hurdle (55 entries). The McManus squad also includes Charli Parcs and Project Bluebook (John Quinn), plus classy Flat recruits Landofhopeandglory and Housesofparliament (both Joseph O'Brien IRE). Willie Mullins' four entries include G2 scorer Bapaume and Meri Devie, while Alan King has more engaged than any other trainer and his six are Coeur De Lion, Cosmeapolitan, Dino Velvet, Fidux, Lexington Law and Master Blueyes.