Nicholls and Ruby can buck trends
The long-established Ladbrokes World Hurdle, formerly the Stayers, and relative festival newcomer the Ryanair Chase are the joint Grade One features of a modest third afternoon's card at Cheltenham.
Sandwiched between the Champion Chase and the Gold Cup, these contests also have a Paul Nicholls-Ruby Walsh favourite heading the markets in the guise of reigning champion Big Buck's and Poquelin, respectively.
This talented pair in the colours of the Stewart family will be the choices of many punters to deliver the goods, particularly the former, which is bidding to emulate the previous back-to-back wins of Inglis Drever.
Remarkably this latest renewal of the Ladbrokes promotion is largely dominated by horses coming back to the smaller obstacles after various periods 'chasing, with Big Buck's the prime example. Apart from this French import, War Of Attrition and Tidal Bay in the Inglis Drever colours have literally had their sights lowered, with pleasing recent results suggesting they've recovered their old sparkle.
Another former festival victor Cousin Vinny, which appeared to lose his confidence as a novice 'chaser during the winter, is being tried again over timber and indeed steps up to three miles for the first time now.
Festival regulars Katchit and Karabak should figure prominently for Alan King's stable, which was successful with My Way De Solzen in 2006, while Powerstation invariably raises his game to be placed here.
The sixth running of the Ryanair Chase over the intermediate distance of two miles, five furlongs sees this season's course and distance handicap winners Poquelin and Tranquil Sea stepping up a notch class-wise.
The likes of Barbers Shop, Albertas Run, Voy Por Ustedes and Schindlers Hunt, which have found it increasingly difficult to return to the winner's enclosure in contrast should come into the reckoning here.
The drying surface is expected to prove beneficial to both Poquelin and Tranquil Sea as they graduate to the higher level and this going could also play to the strengths of Barbers Shop and Schindlers Hunt.
These twin highlights stand out from one of the most difficult cards imaginable facing patrons, with the remaining four races comprising handicaps in which Chapoturgeon at 8/1 in the Jewson Novices' Handicap Chase was the only winner returned in single figures a year ago.
Ladbrokes World Hurdle, (3.20)
Young enough to build up a sequence in this race, Big Buck's is undoubtedly the horse to beat, even if the ground continues to dry out and could ride a little faster than when he defeated Punchestowns last year.
The market suggests that the imposing French import -- with which Ruby Walsh has built up a marvellous rapport -- will only be threatened seriously by Karabak, his closest pursuer at Newbury in the mud. That similar event in December was the last time this pair were seen in public and it's no coincidence that their shrewd trainers Nicholls and King have elected to prep them at home in the meantime.
Unless there's a real turn-up, a reverse forecast seems the obvious solution and then it's a matter of which of the opposition could spoil that bet or, more likely, claim third prize. On the basis that he regularly raises his game for this particular race, Eamon O'Connell's charge Powerstation deserves plenty of respect, along with War Of Attrition whose festival record is even more impressive.
They could be the ones to fight out for minor honours behind the big two rather than diminutive former Champion Hurdle hero Katchit or the enigmatic Tidal Bay and War Of Attrition is my preference in this category.
Verdict-- Big Buck's again.
Ryanair Chase, (2.40)
Whether you consider this a poor man's Gold Cup or a badly needed addition to the festival schedule, the race generates plenty of activity from a punting standpoint and the biggest-price victor in five runnings was Imperial Commander (6/1) last year when outpacing Voy Por Ustedes and Schindlers Hunt.
That placed pair seek compensation now, with their conqueror going for the Gold Cup instead, and they're joined by the likes of Nicky Henderson's often-placed if frustrating duo Barbers Shop and Petit Robin.
Add into the mix this season's course and distance major handicap winners Tranquil Sea and Poquelin, plus three from the Willie Mullins stable and you have the makings of quite an exciting spectacle. Barbers Shop could measure up if his resolution matched his ability and it remains to be seen how Tranquil Sea and Poquelin will cope with sterner tests today, so the percentage call value-wise is Schindlers Hunt.
Verdict -- Schindlers Hunt merits an each-way shout.
Jewson Handicap Chase, (1.30)
Former festival hurdles winner Nicanor and The Midnight Club, third to Weapon's Amnesty in last year's Bartlett Novices Hurdle, are joined by Moscow Flyer's half-brother Lenabane, China Rock and Jered for the visitors.
However, the home defence appears formidable with plenty of support already for Rivaliste and The Hollinwell for the Nicholls and Ferdy Murphy yards that can call on suitable unexposed talent at this level.
Hey Big Spender and Awesome George might be quite fairly treated also. It's something of a minefield.
Verdict -- The Hollinwell might oblige.
Pertemps Handicap Hurdle, (2.05)
It doesn't get any easier here with Prince Erik which won the Irish qualifier for this final readily at Leopardstown and Tom Taaffe's fellow six-year-old Smoking Aces probably the pick of our hopefuls.
Ballyfitz and Kayf Aramis, which have won the race in the past two years represent local trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies and cannot be overlooked again although the handicapper may have their measure.
Alfie Sherrin, which comfortably justified favouritism at Newbury last month when beating Triggerman, and Nicky Henderson's dark horse Ainama which has been rested since November, have been punted well.
Verdict -- Alfie Sherrin is worth following.
Byrne Group Plate, (4.00)
A maximum field headed by veteran course and distance winner Our Vic for a race that mainly delighted the bookmakers for the past two renewals courtesy of Mister McGoldrick (66/1), appearing at his sixth festival this afternoon, and Something Wells (33/1) 12 months ago.
Even if In Compliance could emerge as the best of the Irish quartet when taking a drop in class, the best advice might be to row in with the Jonjo O'Neill-trained Sunnyhillboy, which had several options this week.
Verdict -- Sunnyhillboy has a handy weight.
Kim Muir Handicap Chase, (4.40)
Heaven help us if we're relying on this finale to balance the books as just one favourite in the past seven seasons -- Cloudy Lane in 2007 at 15/2 -- has managed to come home in front.
That horse's trainer Donald McCain, who triumphed yesterday with Peddlers Cross, has both the top weight Ballabriggs and Khachaturian to call on with prospects once more.
Further down the scale Shillingstone and Galant Nuit look horses with more to offer and the former could be the value here.
Verdict -- Shillingstone, if you must bet !