A total of 51 entries, up from 38 last year and the second-highest total since 2002, are revealed today for the £325,000 G1 Sun Racing Stayers' Hurdle at Cheltenham on the third day of The Festival™ presented by Magners, St Patrick's Thursday, March 14.
Penhill defied a 323-day absence when defeating Supasundae (Jessica Harrington IRE) by two lengths in the 2018 Sun Racing Stayers' Hurdle, and is set to head to the three-mile hurdling championship again without a recent run. He is going for a third successive win at The Festival™ presented by Magners, having won the G1 Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle in 2017.
There are a record 23 Irish-trained entries for the Sun Racing Stayers' Hurdle, with Penhill's trainer Willie Mullins, Ireland's champion Jump trainer, responsible for 11 contenders in total. The Mullins' contingent also features 10-time G1 scorer Faugheen, the 2015 Unibet Champion Hurdle victor, who relished the step up to three miles when beating Penhill by 13 lengths at the Punchestown Festival in April, and the 2018 Coral Cup victor Bleu Berry.
Gigginstown House Stud-owned stars Apple's Jade and Samcro, both also entered in the two-mile Unibet Champion Hurdle, headline eight entries for trainer Gordon Elliott. The octet also includes Pallasator, winner of the 2018 Queen Alexandra Stakes on the Flat at Royal Ascot, and last year's G1 JCB Triumph Hurdle scorer Farclas.
The leading British-trained hope is Paisley Park (Emma Lavelle), following victories in the G1 Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot on December 22 and the valuable G3 Betfair Exchange Stayers' Handicap Hurdle at Haydock Park the previous month.
Sam Spinner (Jedd O'Keeffe) looked a potential star when landing the same two races as Paisley Park last season, making all both times under Joe Colliver, but failed to replicate that form when favourite for the 2018 Sun Racing Stayers' Hurdle, finishing fifth.
The seven-year-old has been let down by his jumping on both starts this season, having unseated his rider in the G2 Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury and the Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot when it looked as though he tried to refuse at the second.
Trainer Jedd O'Keeffe, based in North Yorkshire, reported: "Sam Spinner is in good form.
"We don't really know why he behaved like that at Ascot. The padded hurdles may have given him a fright, but he has schooled since and seems fine.
"The plan is still to go to the galliardhomes.com Cleeve Hurdle [Festival Trials Day, Cheltenham, January 26] and hopefully all will be good and his confidence will be OK.
"Basically, we have got to try to get his career back on track. If we can get everything right again, the plan would be to return to The Festival for the Sun Racing Stayers' Hurdle."
Another Northern challenger Midnight Shadow (Sue Smith) marked himself down as a contender with a smooth success in the G2 Dornan Engineering Relkeel Hurdle over an extended two and a half miles at Cheltenham on New Year's Day.
Leading owners Simon Munir & Isaac Souede have three entries in total, including the Nigel Twiston-Davies-trained pair of Wholestone, third last year and also entered in Unibet Champion Hurdle, and four-time G1-winnning grey Bristol De Mai, a well-established top-class chaser.
Colin Tizzard's two Sun Racing Stayers' Hurdle entries include Kilbricken Storm, winner of the 2018 G1 Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle over three miles at The Festival™ presented by Magners.
Others entries to note include dual G1 scorer Yanworth (Alan King), novice chaser Black Op (Tom George) and 2015 Coral Cup winner Aux Ptits Soins (Dan Skelton), who impressed when taking a three-mile handicap hurdle by seven lengths at Cheltenham on New Year's Day.
30 entries for G1 OLBG Mares' Hurdle
Apple's Jade headlines 30 entries for the £120,000 G1 OLBG Mares' Hurdle at Cheltenham on the opening day of The Festival™ presented by Magners, Champion Day, Tuesday, March 12.
Apple's Jade (Gordon Elliott IRE), who won the OLBG Mares' Hurdle (2m 3f 200y) in 2017, could only finish third last year as Benie Des Dieux gained the spoils and gave her trainer Willie Mullins a remarkable ninth victory in the race, which was first run in 2008.
Apple's Jade, one of the 14 Irish-trained entries, is unbeaten this season and on her two most recent outings has recorded wide-margin successes in the G1 Hatton's Grace Hurdle at Fairyhouse and G1 Christmas Hurdle at Leopardstown, staged over two and a half miles and three miles respectively.
Her trainer Gordon Elliott said: "Apple's Jade is in good form.
"She runs next in the Irish Champion Hurdle at the Dublin Racing Festival [Leopardstown, February 1].
"She will do a bit of work next week and, all being well, that is her next target.
"She is a very good mare who does her best work on the track.
"Apple's Jade is more than likely to go for the OLBG Mares' Hurdle at Cheltenham, a race she has won before.
"She has an entry in the Champion Hurdle, but I think it will be very doubtful that she will go there."
Mullins' six-strong team also includes rising star Laurina, though she is currently being aimed at the Unibet Champion Hurdle. The 2017 OLBG Mares' Hurdle third Limini and Leopardstown G3 scorer Good Thyne Tara are also engaged.
The home challenge for the OLBG Mares' Hurdle features prolific hurdler and chaser Lady Buttons (Phil Kirby), Roksana (Dan Skelton), who was second in G1 company at Aintree's Randox Health Grand National Festival last spring, as well as promising novices Queenohearts (Stuart Edmunds) and Mega Yeats (Ruth Jefferson).