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SUPREME JEZKI; IRISH RACING: IT'S JUST 36 SLEEPS TILL CHELTENHAM FESTIVAL; Harrington eyes opening Festival glory.

Byline: RYAN MCELLIGOTT irishsport@sundaymirror.co.uk

A STRONG Irish challenge is expected for the various novice hurdling events at this year's Cheltenham Festival.

Entries for the four novice hurdles were unveiled earlier this week, with Jezki and Pont Alexandre the chief Irish hopes.

Interestingly, Irish entries for the novice hurdles showed a decline in numbers on recent years, but the quality is still there.

As expected, antepost favourite Jezki leads the raiding party in the Supreme Novices Hurdle.

Jessica Harrington's charge, who was bought by J.P. McManus last month, heads straight to Prestbury Park on the back of two Grade 1 triumphs.

He will be bidding to become the first horse from these shores to win the Festival opener since Go Native prevailed in 2009.

Central to the success of the Irish challenge at Cheltenham will be the string sent by Willie Mullins (inset).

He has a stunning array of novice talent at his disposal and could field an intriguing Supreme Novices contender in the second favourite, Un Atout. Unbeaten in three starts, the five-year-old is due to prove his mettle at the highest level in next week's Deloitte Novice Hurdle.

Mullins has seven entries for a race that gave him his first Cheltenham winner when Tourist Attraction sprang a 25/1 surprise in 1995.

The following afternoon, all eyes will be on the Mullins-trained Pont Alexandre in the Neptune Investment Management Novices Hurdle. He has looked top class on both his starts in Ireland and was especially impressive in difficult conditions at Leopardstown last weekend.

A 3/1 favourite for the race with Paddy Power, Pont Alexandre seems likelier to tackle this event rather than the three-mile Albert Bartlett Novices Hurdle.

The one that Pont Alexandre could have most to fear is compatriot Rule The World.

He was a stunning winner of a Grade 2 contest at Naas last month and his trainer Mouse Morris boasts a formidable record at the Prestbury Park track.

Rule The World is another with options, but a Neptune assault seems the favoured option for him.

The Albert Bartlett is an open affair and a number of the 31 Irish hopefuls here have other options.

However, a potentially strong challenger for this could be the Charles Byrnes-trained Our Vinnie.

He was brushed aside by Pont Alexandre last weekend, but is capable of better and he did defeat Rule The World earlier in the season.

Furthermore, his trainer has an outstanding record in this event having won it with Weapon's Amnesty, as well as supplying two runners-up.

It is worth noting the Irish-trained horses completed the Supreme, Neptune and Albert Bartlett clean sweep in 2009.

On the juvenile front, the Irish entry for the Triumph Hurdle is the smallest for 18 years which reflects the lack of strength in depth in this division domestically.

This has not been a successful race for the raiders lately and the Mullins-trained Scolardy was the last one to prevail in 2002.

The champion trainer holds a couple of decent chances, though, with the highly-impressive Punchestown scorer Diakali a live contender.

CAPTION(S):

ALL THAT JEZ Jezki (main) and Pont Alexandre (below) are Cheltenham-bound sHE'S
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Date:Feb 3, 2013
Words:527
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