Oscar Whisky is poised to try to spoil Big Buck's' bid for a fourth Ladbrokes World Hurdle triumph following his emphatic victory in the Cheltenham & Three Counties Race Club Hurdle at Cheltenham yesterday.
Nicky Henderson indicated the staying championship would be the second of three more outings for the seven-year-old this season, in preference to another tilt at the Champion Hurdle in which he finished an honourable third to Hurricane Fly last year.
The announcement came after Oscar Whisky had oozed class under Barry Geraghty to stretch clear of Poungach up the final hill of the Class Two contest over two and a half miles.
Asked about a Festival target for the 4-6 winner, Henderson said: “I still think there can only be one.
“I hope he wins the Welsh Champion Hurdle again and that would be fair enough, but I suspect that won't tell us that he can win the Champion Hurdle."
Pinpointing the Aintree Hurdle as the best race for the Dai Walters-owned Oscar Whisky, the Seven Barrows trainer added: “He looked as big as me in the paddock and he wasn't wound-up today.
“Part of me says he's not a two-mile horse but we'll go to Ffos Las again and then let's have a go at Big Buck's.
“This horse will travel away and I think he'll get three miles. He has a fair bit of toe.
“After he comes back to have a crack at Big Buck's, Aintree's the obvious place for him. That race is ideal."
The World Hurdle sponsors make Big Buck's 4-7 to retain his crown and cut Oscar Whisky into 5-1 (from 6).
Champion Court (6-1) stated his case for a possible run in the RSA Chase at the Festival with a supreme display of jumping under Alain Cawley in the Cheltenham Pony Club Raceday Novices' Chase.
Trained close to the racecourse by Martin Keighley, Champion Court made all and frequently outjumped his five rivals to triumph by a length and three-quarters from Solix.
“Some of the leaps he put in were fantastic for a young horse. It's a great start to the New Year, and it shows you can't beat experience round a track like Cheltenham," said Keighley.
“There are a few handicap options, but if Grands Crus goes for the Gold Cup we might go for the RSA Chase."
Another Festival clue was dropped in the High Sheriff Of Gloucestershire's ‘Junior’ Standard NH Flat Race as The New One preserved his unbeaten record at the main expense of Chancery.
Both had landed gambles on their debuts but it was the Nigel Twiston-Davies-trained winner who found the better turn of foot to score by three-quarters of a length.
Calgary Bay provided a welcome change of luck for Henrietta Knight when galvanised to victory by Dominic Elsworth in the Bet With Your Mobile At Victor Chandler Handicap Chase.
With favourite Havingotascoobydo exiting early and novices Duke Of Lucca and Micheal Flips spoiling their hopes with some poor jumping, it was left to seasoned campaigner Calgary Bay to boost his claims for the John Smith's Grand National.
Knight said of her 8-1 winner: “He has the stamina for the National, that is for sure, and Dominic has given him a very good ride today.
“He's deserved this win because he's been there or thereabouts in good races for a long time. He likes the good ground you often get at Aintree, and jumps well."
Mostly Bob pulled off a sizeable gamble to land the Raceodds Handicap Chase for Philip Hobbs and Richard Johnson.
Backed down to 9-2 favourite having been as big as 12-1 in the morning, the nine-year-old stayed on best of all to score by four and a half lengths from Mon Mome.
Hobbs said: “The Scottish National at Ayr could be a long term project, especially if the ground is fast.
“He doesn't want the soft and it was a borderline call on that front today.
"The big problem is that he's still just out of the novice stage and has a lot to learn on the jumping front."
Venetia Williams was delighted with Mon Mome, the National winner of 2009, and could bring him back to Prestbury Park for the Gold Cup en route to Aintree.
She said: “He carried a stone less when winning here at the December meeting before his National, then he suffered a ligament injury. We could take in the Gold Cup, as he's finished third in it before."
Having hit the woodwork with veteran Mon Mome, Williams went one better courtesy of 11-1 shot Houblon Des Obeaux in the sportinglife.com Handicap Hurdle.
Williams said: “It was a gutsy performance against a horse we know something about."