Hurricane can make Festival debut to remember
The enforced, controversial withdrawal of Binocular -- last year's decisive winner -- from a vintage renewal of this afternoon's Champion Hurdle paves the way for a new name to join the Tuesday feature's roll of honour -- and there's a distinct Irish flavour to the occasion.
Although both JP McManus and Tony McCoy are obliged to resign themselves to the role of spectators, all but two of the surviving 11 runners are due to be partnered by Irish-born riders and the five shortest-priced contenders were bred in this country.
Richard Johnson, aboard course specialist Menorah, and Robert Thornton, on the progressive Mille Chief, are the English pilots bidding to taste victory once more in what is arguably the most competitive and fascinating of the four elite races to be decided this week.
Last year's Supreme Novices hero Menorah seems poised to head the market ahead of belated Cheltenham debutant Hurricane Fly and the undefeated Peddlers Cross, which also scored here 12 months ago. It will take an exceptional horse to put them to the sword.
While local hope Khyber Kim, which led the pack behind Binocular last year, may find this company too strong, there are encouraging reports about the enigmatic Dunguib's readiness for the fray and Nicky Henderson has a talented sort in Binocular's stablemate Oscar Whisky.
However, the outcome could well hinge around the performance of multiple Grade One winner Hurricane Fly, which missed out on successive previous planned Festival raids through injury, but has looked very much the finished article this season, racing with the benefit of ear plugs.
Unless the preliminaries unhinge this habitually strong-travelling Montjeu gelding, don't be surprised if the seven-year-old has the gears to pick off teak-tough Menorah on the climb to the finish to provide Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh with a maiden Champion Hurdle success.
Sure to be run at a proper gallop on what we would call yielding ground, with Galway Hurdle winner Overturn on pacemaking duties for Peddlers Cross, this showdown could trigger a fruitful late afternoon spell for the visiting squad.
The Mullins-Walsh alliance will be relying on Quevega to complete the three-in-a-row in the David Nicholson Mares Hurdle, while a formidable Irish team tackles the Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase in between.
Quevega can cope with another multiple scorer Sparky May on her annual appearance in the Cotswolds, but fellow French-breds Garde Champetre and L'Ami -- plus last year's surprise winner A New Story -- could find the years catching up with them in the Glenfarclas marathon with preference now for Sizing Australia.
A half-dozen beaten Supreme Novices Hurdle favourites on the bounce, most recently Dunguib, is a somewhat sobering statistic for Cue Card's many admirers to digest as the runaway 2010 Festival bumper victor renews rivalry with Al Ferof, not to mention a host of promising types.
Joe Tizzard's Irish-bred mount has been the undisputed market leader for this curtain-raiser all along and would boost Menorah's championship credentials if getting back to winning ways after a 94-day lay-off since their International Hurdle clash here.
At their likely cramped odds, it may pay to look elsewhere to get proceedings under way profitably and unbeaten Spirit Son, which Barry Geraghty prefers to Sprinter Sacre, could fit the bill and maintain the Meath jockey's enviable record of a winner at every Festival since Moscow Flyer's 2002 Irish Independent Arkle Trophy breakthrough.
Today's renewal of the Irish Independent promotion has all the hallmarks of being successfully defended by the home squad, however, as Geraghty's freewheeling mount Finian's Rainbow, Medermit and Ghizao in particular could combine to get too far ahead of Realt Dubh.
The latter, which has to demonstrate a liking for this demanding circuit and the ability to jump with accuracy at speed, could nevertheless finish with some purpose and be destined for a share of the money behind course and distance winner Ghizao.
1.30: Spirit Son
3.20: Hurricane Fly
4.0: Sizing Australia
4.40: Quevega (nap)
5.15: Rougham (each-way)