The Cheltenham Festival is the pinnacle event in the National Hunt racing calendar, and last year’s Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle winner Iroko could yet make a remarkable comeback to defend his crown. Joint-trainers Oliver Greenall and Josh Guerriero gave Iroko a tentative entry for both the Arkle Challenge Trophy Novices’ Chase and the Turners Novices' Chase at the 2024 festival, despite the six-year-old suffering a foot injury in November that was expected to rule him out for the remainder of the season.

Iroko provided Greenall and Guerriero with the biggest win of their training career so far when storming to victory in the Martin Pipe last March. Ridden by talented conditional jockey Ben Robinson, Iroko made smooth headway from off the pace before powering clear on the run-in to score by one and a half lengths. It was a breakthrough Grade 1 success for the fledgling training partnership, who were understandably emotional after the race.

"This means everything, it's what we dream about," said an elated Greenall post-race. "Iroko has been brilliant all season and he deserved that. Cheltenham is the Olympics of jump racing and to win here, I can't describe it." Guerriero added: "Days like this is why you get up early every morning to ride out in the cold and the rain. We always believed in this horse."

Iroko went on to finish a fine third behind elite staying chasers Fury Road and L'Homme Presse in the Grade 1 Mildmay Novices’ Chase at Aintree the following month. It marked him firmly as a horse headed for the top over fences this season. The six-year-old began his novice chasing campaign impressively too, sauntering to a wide-margin success at Warwick in October.

He jumped with aplomb and eased 12 lengths clear on the run to the line, prompting bookmakers to slash his odds for the Arkle and Turners at Cheltenham. However, disaster struck just weeks later when Iroko was found to have sustained an injury to the sole of his foot, which connections feared would rule him out for the remainder of the season.

"It's a real shame as he was shaping up nicely over fences and had big targets in mind at Cheltenham and Aintree," a disappointed Greenall told Racing Post at the time. With Iroko seemingly on the sidelines, attention turned to stablemates Fact To File and Corbetts Cross as potential festival contenders for owner JP McManus.

But in a shock development on Tuesday, Iroko's name appeared among the entries for the Arkle and Turners in March. Explaining the surprise move, Greenall revealed on Wednesday that the injury was healing faster than anticipated and Iroko had returned to training earlier than expected.

"He seems to be doing well, better than expected," Greenall stated. "He's back at work and we'll see how we go. It's still not definite we'll get to Cheltenham but we put him in just in case." While Iroko's festival participation is not yet guaranteed, the fact he is back in training is a major boon for the Greenall-Guerriero yard.

After such a breakthrough last season, they will be desperate for their stable star to make it to Prestbury Park to defend his crown. Iroko demonstrated his talents against the cream of the novice hurdling division last term and has the untapped potential to do the same over fences. However, connections face a race against time to get him back to full fitness.

Greenall acknowledged Iroko will likely need a racecourse gallop to determine whether he is ready for another tilt at Cheltenham glory. The lack of suitable prep races means he would head straight to the festival if given the green light to run. Jumping from hurdles to fences is a significant step up and Iroko's preparation is far from ideal.

But as a six-year-old who has won four of his five starts over the larger obstacles, he could well have the natural aptitude to handle the assignment. Iroko also has proven Cheltenham credentials, having handled the undulations and frenzied festival atmosphere with aplomb last season.

Interestingly, Greenall sees the Turners over 2m 5f as the more suitable target over the minimum trip Arkle. Iroko won over 2m 4f at the festival last year before stepping up to 3m 1f at Aintree, suggesting the intermediate Turners trip should be within his compass.

The Arkle field is likely to be packed with exceptional two-mile chasers like Edwardstone, Blue Lord and Dysart Dynamo, while the Turners looks a less daunting assignment at this stage. However, with a couple of months to the festival, the picture could look very different by March.

Iroko's surprise participation would pose an intriguing dilemma for owner JP McManus, who also has leading hopes Fact To File and Corbetts Cross in contention. It remains to be seen whether Iroko would displace those stablemates as McManus' number one hope of making the race.

Greenall rated Iroko a potential stayer earlier this season, even nominating the Brown Advisory as a possible target before the injury struck. So he may not want to lock horns with his own stars over the intermediate trip if avoiding a clash is possible.

But Iroko showed such dominance in the Martin Pipe that he should not be underestimated. If he can get back to peak fitness, he could prove extremely hard to beat in any of those novice contests. Just 12 months ago, few would have predicted Iroko's crowning triumph at Cheltenham.

After such an against-the-odds victory, anything seems possible. The mere fact he is back in light training with the festival on the horizon represents a major win in itself for his connections. Cheltenham glory catapulted Greenall and Guerriero into the training spotlight last season.

Retaining their Martin Pipe title with Iroko would truly be the stuff of fairytales. But the mature six-year-old also looks to have the scope to graduate to Grade 1 company this term if replicating last year's form. The Arkle or Turners would be a tough assignment, but not an impossible one if Iroko can overcome this injury setback.

Simply having their stable talisman back in action will be a major relief for his trainers. Greenall and Guerriero have proven their training prowess but rely heavily on a small string of horses. Keeping Iroko fit and firing this term will be key to maintaining their upward momentum.

He could yet develop into a serious Gold Cup contender next season if continuing his rapid progression over fences. But the immediate priority is getting him back on the track and aiming towards a festival target. The Arkle and Turners both look for realistic goals if he pleases in his preparation.

While nothing is set in stone yet, just having Iroko in the Cheltenham entry frame is a major boost to all connected with this rising star. His comeback trail will be closely monitored by racing fans in the build-up to March. Few stories captured the imagination quite like Iroko's fairytale Martin Pipe victory last season.

The sight of this popular horse and his plucky trainers celebrating Cheltenham glory was one of the most heart-warming moments of the week. So the prospect of Iroko bidding to rekindle that magic is sure to capture the imagination once again.

While he faces a race against time to recapture peak fitness, writing off Iroko would be foolish. This horse exceeded all expectations to win at the festival before and could confound the doubters again. Greenall and Guerriero will be hoping the Cheltenham roar can inspire their stable flagbearer to repeat his heroics against the odds.