Annie Power can deliver knockout blow in battle of heavyweights
Unbeaten mare has temperament to account for Nicholls' stablemates Big Buck's and Zarkandar while Benefficient can repeat last season's heroics
The third leg of the Cheltenham Festival has often been accused of not pulling its weight since the event was extended to four days in 2005, but not today.
The return of Big Buck's from injury and Annie Power getting the go-ahead for the World Hurdle means that two of the sport's true heavyweights will touch gloves in a three-mile Grade One that has the makings of an utterly pugilistic bout.
We saw on Tuesday how one incident has the potential to ruin a championship race of which so much is expected in terms of spectacle.
That danger is ever-present, but there is a depth to this Ladbrokes-sponsored event that means it is far more than a glorified duel. JP McManus has last year's Rebecca Curtis-trained Albert Bartlett hero At Fisher's Cross and Jonjo O'Neill's More Of That fighting his corner.
When Barry Geraghty got left with Jezki after AP McCoy opted for My Tent Or Yours on Tuesday, few called that he had been left with the better hand. This time, McCoy has deserted O'Neill's progressive son of Beneficial to leave Geraghty with another plum spare.
Even the perennial champion admits that it was a split decision he may have got spectacularly wrong.
Today we will find out, just as we will about the indomitable Annie Power. The debate has raged all season about which trip would suit her best, and she was last seen stretching her unbeaten record to 10 when making all the running over two miles at Doncaster.
Willie Mullins' mare has been utterly superior at up to two miles-five, so this is a question of whether she has the temperament and stamina for such a rigorous test in the unforgiving Cotswolds arena.
Already she has prompted favourable comparisons with Dawn Run, the iconic Champion Hurdle-Gold Cup heroine that was trained by Mullins' father Paddy.
Now Annie Power's right to that parallel is being put on the line on the grandest stage of all. As well as Big Buck's, Paul Nicholls calls on Celestial Halo and his 2011 Triumph Hurdle victor Zarkandar, a horse that has hitherto floundered in pursuit of Ruby Walsh's mount.
Mouse Morris' Rule The World and other locals like Salubrious and Reve De Sivola will also be in there pitching, so this won't be for the faint-hearted.
The Ryanair Chase may lack marquee names, but Tony Martin's Benefficient could emulate last year's game triumph in the old Jewson Chase, with Davy Russell standing in for Bryan Cooper, who is on Rathlin.
What was the Jewson is now the JLT and has been upgraded to a Grade One. It could hardly be a better race, with Mullins saddling Felix Yonger, Mozoltov and Djakadam, while an equally strong home delegation is led by Oscar Whisky, Wonderful Charm and Vukovar.
It promises to be a spellbinding inauguration.
1.30 GRADE ONE JLT NOVICES' CHASE 2M 4F
Testing ground was put forward as an excuse for Felix Yonger's recent defeats, latterly when second to Trifolium in the Irish Arkle. He certainly looked smart previously on a sounder surface, so he ought to be much happier now. This trip isn't an issue and he has some quality.
Mozoltov was third in the Arkle and cantered up in a non-event next time. He also has latent class but whether he will handle the pace around here is unknown, while Djakadam is a third live Mullins runner.
He too is unproven on good going but he beat Bright New Dawn with some authority when receiving weight last time, and that reads nicely now.
Oscar Whisky has got his act together over fences, readily winning a substandard Grade One to complete a hat-trick at Sandown. Two and a half miles on good ground are exactly what he wants, so he could take plenty beating under Barry Geraghty.
Wonderful Charm suffered a first defeat in four starts over fences when failing gallantly to concede eight pounds to Oscar Whisky here in December. There should be more to come from him yet, a comment that also applies to the runaway Newbury winner Vukovar.
Noel Fehily's mount has massive potential but will need to jump straighter than at Newbury. Double Ross, Taquin Du Seuil, Off The Ground and Sizing Gold are decent but this is hot.
Verdict: A race that looks made for Oscar Whisky to finally gain a Festival win.
2.05 PERTEMPS FINAL (HANDICAP HURDLE) 3M
Fingal Bay returned from a long lay-off to score at Exeter, but this will be much tougher under a big burden, while the runner-up If In Doubt is possibly open to more improvement. Jetson was third last year.
He comes here on the back of a win, but is seven pounds higher now and may not have been that far ahead of the handicapper.
Seefood is possibly a more interesting raider. Second to Courage on his handicap bow over Christmas, he is up nine pounds here but has the scope to defy that hike under Bryan Cooper.
Top Wood and Josies Orders are two others that catch the eye for shrewd stables. Both are in-form and progressive types that have got in at the bottom end of a very compact handicap.
Verdict: Josies Orders gets the nod to continue his upward curve.
2.40 GRADE ONE RYANAIR CHASE 2M 5F
Benefficient returns here following his determined course and distance triumph last year. You can draw a line through his below-par reappearance over three miles, and he bounced back to his best to deny Hidden Cyclone and co over two miles at Leopardstown.
The ground may be quick enough for him, though that is countered by the trip, which he stays really well.
While Al Ferof is a class horse, he has now endured a couple of hard races in defeat in deep ground over a three-mile trip that seemed to bottom him. He was brilliant here in the Paddy Power Gold Cup two years ago and went through the motions against inferior opposition on his Ascot return, but there is a question mark as to what he might be capable of now.
Dynaste will also be better over this trip. While he has had two hard races in testing going, he may be more likely to bounce back, though Benefficient had his measure in 2013.
Boston Bob fell at the last when in front in last year's RSA but has a bit to prove on his first start over fences since, while Hidden Cyclone ran a blinder to be third here in November.
He lines out on the back of two Grade One seconds after also chasing Sire De Grugy home at Ascot. If his jumping holds up, he has to enter calculations.
Rathlin is a dark horse that will relish getting his ground for a first time this year.
Verdict: Benefficient (nap) did it here last year and has had a decent preparation.
3.20 GRADE ONE LADBROKES WORLD HURDLE 3M
The four-time winner Big Buck's returned from his lay-off with an indifferent effort here in January. He was committed very early in testing conditions so it was understandable that he tied up a little.
What more there will be to come from him at 11 years of age now is hard to call, but he will have a big say if he improves as much as Paul Nicholls says he will.
Annie Power has been a revelation, twice slamming Zarkandar en route to stretching her unbeaten run to 10. Her cross-channel forays should stand to her, but of critical importance on this first stab at three miles will be how well she settles.
She can be keen, so making all over two miles at Doncaster might not have been ideal ahead of this gruelling affair.
The ground is gone for Reve De Sivola, though it will help Zarkandar, which has been running well and, as a former Triumph Hurdle winner, should improve for the step up in trip.
Rule The World chased The New One home last year, so he must also enter calculations, with testing ground possibly a partial excuse for his defeat to Zaidpour over this trip at Christmas.
AP McCoy has opted for At Fisher's Cross over More Of That. He is an out-and-out stayer that looked more like his old self last time, while More Of That is an unexposed improver, whose form in beating Salubrious and Glens Melody at will here in December is smart.
Verdict: If Annie Power settles, she should win, with Zarkandar a live each-way option.
4.0 GRADE THREE BYRNE GROUP PLATE (HANDICAP CHASE) 2M 4F
Colour Squadron may be the pick of the JP McManus horses in this. He always runs well at Cheltenham, but has crept up the handicap without ever winning over fences. Johns Spirit beat him when successful here for a second time in November.
While Johns Spirit is respected, the evidence of his third to Double Ross suggests he is also in the assessor's grip.
Shangani is one that may be going in the right direction following a recent Newbury win, and he has run well here before. Sraid Padraig, the sole Irish raider, is also interesting.
He got his season off to a fine start by conquering Cause Of Causes at Fairyhouse. Tony Martin has kept his powder dry since, so defying an 11lb hike might be within his range.
Verdict: Sraid Padraig has the potential to outrun his hike in the ratings.
4.40 FULKE WALWYN KIM MUIR HANDICAP CHASE (AMATEUR RIDERS) 3M 2F
Cause Of Causes had plenty options, so it is significant that he lines out here under Nina Carberry. He has been unlucky to be denied by Sraid Padraig and Rockyaboya in two good races on his latest outings, and was good enough to be seventh in last year's Supreme Novices' Hurdle, so he must have a big chance off a fair mark of 140 for 11st 7lb.
Tabhachtach has been given a harder time of things by the handicapper, and his Leopardstown conqueror Wrong Turn did little for his form-line on Tuesday.
Balnaslow ran a nice race to be fourth in the Thyestes Chase and will enjoy this sound surface, while Indian Castle has a top rider up in Derek O'Connor.
That can be crucial in these races so Donald McCain's charge is a live option after winning a dour affair here in January.
Verdict: Derek O'Connor can be trusted to get Indian Castle home in front.