PAUL NICHOLLS holds the key to Saturday's Betfair Hurdle at Newbury, according to the sponsors.

The Nicholls-trained duo Irish Saint and Irving head the ante-post market, at 6-1 and 7-1 respectively, after the five-day declaration stage in which there remain 29 possible runners.

“The richest handicap hurdle in Britain is shaping up to be a cracker, but from a betting perspective a lot hinges on the Paul Nicholls stable," said Barry Orr of Betfair.

“Irving has been the ante-post favourite for some time, but his stablemate Irish Saint is now the 6-1 market leader due to the prospects of soft ground.

"Far West, the other possible runner from Ditcheat, is unchanged at 16-1.”

Irish Saint bounced back from two disappointing efforts earlier this season to prove an impressive winner on his most recent start at Ascot.

Nicholls, the seven-time champion jumps trainer, said “Irish Saint was very slow to hand this year and was found to have injured his hind joint. But he travelled well on his first start (at Newbury) before he fell at the last.

“He got stuck in the middle at Ascot next time like a lot of them but he still wasn’t ready.

“But he relished the testing ground and hosed in (at Ascot). The handicapper has raised him 12lb but he has only a 5lb penalty, so he’s nicely in and you can see why he’s favourite. He must have a leading chance."

Irving has won all three starts since being transferred from France, but his trainer issued words of caution for ante-post punters.

“He’s been schooling well and working nicely but I’m concerned about the ground, so we will have to see how it unfolds.

“We think he is well-handicapped but I’m loathe to run him if it’s very testing. He likes decent ground and I want to look after him.”

Newbury’s clerk of the course Richard Osgood described the ground as 'soft, heavy in places' and although showers are expected throughout the week, fresh ground has been set aside on the course.

Far West, in the same ownership as Irving, has also been left in the prestigious Betfair Hurdle worth £152,500 – but Nicholls will not run both.

Nicholls may also be represented in the Betfair Denman Chase, named after one of his former stars.

Cheltenham Gold Cup hope Al Ferof, last seen when third in the King George at Kempton on Boxing Day, could be in the line-up, along with Tidal Bay who is being prepared for the Grand National.

Promising hurdler Calipto, 'as good a juvenile as we have got', according to the trainer and his unbeaten-over-fences Arkle Trophy fancy Dodging Bullets add to the strong Nicholls squad set for Newbury.