Gordon Elliott confirms Envoi Allen heads to the Ballymore

Benie Des Dieux and Honeysuckle set for intriguing Mares’ showdown on Tuesday

Gordon Elliott has confirmed Envoi Allen will run in the Ballymore Novices' Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival on Wednesday.

The Cheveley Park Stud-owned six-year-old is unbeaten in seven starts to date and already has a Festival success on his CV, having toughed out victory in the Champion Bumper 12 months ago.

He has long been considered one of the bankers of this year’s meeting, with the Ballymore identified as his likely objective, but Elliott dropped something of a bombshell during the week when he said there was “every possibility” his charge could switch to the Supreme.

However, the Cullentra handler walked the course at Cheltenham on Sunday morning and is happy for his charge to sidestep Tuesday’s curtain-raiser and instead contest the longer of the two novice hurdles the following afternoon.

Speaking on Racing TV’s Luck on Sunday programme, Elliott said: “We walked the track at 7am and it’s beautiful soft ground, yielding to soft probably in places. The track is in great condition.

“If the ground had turned up heavy or soft to heavy, we would have had to consider it (Supreme), but I think it will be beautiful ground on Tuesday and Wednesday, hopefully, so we’re going to go with our original plan.”

Meanwhile Benie Des Dieux and Honeysuckle are set for a fascinating face-off after both featured among 10 declared for Tuesday's Close Brothers Mares' Hurdle.

The Willie Mullins-trained Benie Des Dieux won this Grade One event in 2018 and looked certain to double up last year before dramatically crashing out at the final obstacle.

She bounced back from that to win Grade Ones at Punchestown and Auteuil and she was victorious on her only start to date this term, winning the Galmoy Hurdle in January.

In contrast, Honeysuckle arrives unbeaten in seven starts for Henry de Bromhead and Rachael Blackmore, most recently triumphing in the Irish Champion Hurdle after also running out a comfortable victor in the Hatton's Grace earlier in the campaign.

Both had alternate options at the Festival with Benie Des Dieux also engaged in the Stayers’ Hurdle and Honeysuckle in the Champion.

Mullins also has Elfile and Stormy Ireland in the two-and-a-half-mile contest, while De Bromhead has a second string to his bow in Popong.

Elsewhere ante-post favourite Epatante is set to face 16 rivals in the Unibet Champion Hurdle.

The JP McManus-owned mare has been hugely impressive in winning each of her two starts this season and leapt to the head of the market for what appears a wide-open renewal of the two-mile championship with a dominant display in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton on Boxing Day.

Epatante's trainer Nicky Henderson also saddles last season's Triumph Hurdle hero Pentland Hills, Call Me Lord and Fusil Raffles as he bids to add to his record haul of seven Champion Hurdle wins. The Seven Barrows handler has not declared the mare Verdana Blue.

The Irish challenge includes the Willie Mullins-trained pair of Cilaos Emery and Sharjah.

Cilaos Emery was supplemented after successfully reverting to hurdles from fences at Gowran Park last month, while Sharjah needs to bounce back from a disappointing run in the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown.

Gavin Cromwell, who landed last year’s Champion Hurdle with the ill-fated Espoir D’Allen, is this year represented by the fast-improving Irish Champion Hurdle runner-up Darver Star.

Shishkin and Asterion Forlonge are two of 16 runners declared for the Festival-opening Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle.

Since making it no further than the second flight on his hurdling debut, Henderson’s Shishkin has proved himself a top-class prospect with two facile victories at Newbury and Huntingdon — propelling him to favouritism for the traditional Festival curtain-raiser.

Henderson also runs Chantry House and Allart in his bid for a fourth Supreme success.

Willie Mullins has won the race more than any other trainer, saddling four of the last seven winners and six in all, with Tourist Attraction providing him with his very first Festival success when striking gold in 1995.

His chief contender this time around is Asterion Forlonge, who like Shishkin carries the colours of owner Joe Donnelly.

The grey is unbeaten in three starts under rules and ran away with a Grade One at Leopardstown last month.

Like Henderson, Mullins fires a three-pronged assault, with Elixir D’Ainay and Berkshire Royal — who makes his hurdling debut — also featuring in the final field.

After confirming his star novice Envoi Allen will run in the Ballymore on Wednesday, Elliott relies on Abacadabras, while Tolworth Hurdle winner Fiddlerontheroof is a leading contender for Colin Tizzard.