sport

Pont the star Neptune runner

Willie Mullins offered a bullish update on Pont Alexandre ahead of the Neptune Investment Management Novices' Hurdle.

It is a measure of the regard in which the five-year-old is held that the Irish champion trainer threw him straight in at Grade One level on his Irish debut, and that confidence was justified as he produced a scintillating display at Navan.

He was arguably even more impressive at Leopardstown in January, with many having him down as the Irish banker of the Festival.

"We've asked him two big questions so far this season and he's answered the call well on both occasions," said Mullins.

"We're asking him another big question, so we'll see how he gets on.

"He's in good form - the ground wouldn't be a worry for me, or the trip.

"The potential for him looks immense, especially over fences rather than hurdles, but we thought we would stick to hurdles this year.

"He's got a great cruising speed, he jumps well, he seems to have everything. We are going there with good hopes."

Ruby Walsh will partner Pont Alexandre and he, too, has been hugely impressed with what the five-year-old has produced so far.

"He's a horse I really like," said Walsh.

"He's unbeaten since coming to Ireland. He beat Don Cossack in a Grade One in Ireland then won a Grade Two at Leopardstown with a penalty when he really impressed me from the second last where he changed gears.

"That was a horrible day, it was a gale-force wind with sleet and rain but he made all (of the running).

"I think he'll be better on decent ground.

"The odd bit of dry ground at home he's worked on he tends to show a bit more speed."

"Maybe the covers being off all day on Tuesday will dry it out, but we'll see."

The second major Irish challenger is the Mouse Morris-trained Rule The World.

The six-year-old has won three times from four starts over hurdles this season and was most impressive on his latest appearance at Naas.

Morris said: "He's travelled over well and he's in good form. I've no complaints on that score.

"I'd say the ground is going to ride very tacky. With the covers down the wind hasn't had the chance to dry it out, but you can't have it both ways.

"I think our horse will go on any ground, so that wouldn't worry me anyway."

Rule The World's half-brother Venalmar was beaten just a neck in this race in 2008, while Morris saddled First Lieutenant to win the Neptune two years ago.

"I'd say this horse is a bit better than those two. I think he has everything," said the trainer.

"I might be saying something different on Wednesday afternoon, but we'll see.

"We are pushing the boat out a bit just because he is still quite an immature horse, but I think he has the potential to be very good in time."

The main hope for the home team is the Nigel Twiston-Davies-trained The New One, who won over the course and distance in October and was only narrowly denied at the track in late January.

Twiston-Davies said: "He's all set and he's in very good form. We're looking forward to it.

"I'm not worried about the ground or the opposition."

The trainer's son, Sam, will be in the saddle and respects the threat posed by Pont Alexandre.

"Everything he has done we've been very happy with. We probably learned more in defeat last time than we would have ever learned by winning," said the rider.

"We know him inside out now. Our fellow is very tough but he just got outstayed that day, we're not making excuses, but on better ground at the Festival we see that as a positive.

"Obviously we have Pont Alexandre to beat and he looks very good and he's a massive worry, but we can't just ignore the others as well - it will be very competitive and we can't take anything lightly."

Chatterbox is a fascinating contender for Nicky Henderson, and carries the colours of Cheltenham Gold Cup favourite Bobs Worth.

The five-year-old is unbeaten in three career starts, winning twice over hurdles, and claimed the notable scalp of stablemate My Tent Or Yours at Newbury in December.

Part-owner Malcolm Kimmins said: "His form is good and I think we have every reason to run him.

"The ground shouldn't be a problem and although he's up against tough opposition, he's entitled to be there.

"He's only had the two runs over hurdles, but Nicky is very happy with his work at home."

Alan King's Two Rockers has also yet to taste defeat.

The Barbury Castle handler told his website, www.alankingracing.co.uk: "Two Rockers is a very promising horse, but he faces a stiff task in the Neptune.

"However, he is unbeaten in three races, which included a Grade Two at Haydock, where he looked impressive.

"He never excites us on the gallops, but he comes alive on the track and we don't really know how good he is.

"He, too, has a definite each-way chance."

Sizing Gold was a well-beaten second behind Pont Alexandre at Leopardstown last time, but has never finished outside the first two.

"He's a lovely young horse. He's an embryo of a chaser and he's just a nice horse," said trainer Henry de Bromhead.

"I don't know whether he's going to win this race but we wanted him to get experience of Cheltenham, looking forward to him go chasing next season.

"Hopefully he'll give a good account of himself."

Minsk has been a little disappointing on his last two starts and his trainer Dessie Hughes is hoping conditions will not be too testing.

"He has ground to make up on a couple of the other Irish horses, but he has been running in very soft ground," said Hughes.

"Ideally he'd like reasonably good ground and we'll just have to see how it rides.

"Maybe the covers being off all day on Tuesday will dry it out, but we'll see."