Nicholls to prove he’s very much the Master
Two days before Kauto Star and Denman touch gloves, the feature race of the second day's activity at the Cheltenham Festival is an early reminder of the sheer monopoly of power that Paul Nicholls has imposed on National Hunt racing since Flagship Uberalles gave him a first festival success in the Arkle Chase 11 years ago.
In the 2010 Seasons Holidays Champion Chase, Nicholls bids for an incredible fifth win in the sport's definitive two-mile championship contest with Master Minded and Twist Magic.
Granted, the latter, whose two Grade One successes this season were secured by a combined total of 27 lengths, struggles to produce his best at Prestbury Park. Master Minded does not.
It defies belief in one sense, but Master Minded is seeking a third successive win in the race, yet he is joint youngest in the field at seven. Given his devastating performance in 2008, it is difficult to assert that the French-bred can still improve.
Nonetheless, his imperious exhibition at Newbury last time at least confirmed that he is close to his very best. Should he turn up in similar shape now, that ought to be plenty good enough once again.
While four other horses, including Moscow Flyer, have won the race twice in recent times, it is 25 years since Badsworth Boy completed his hat-trick for the Dickinsons.
Not since that esteemed Yorkshire-based family wound down has anyone so dominated the prestige events of the chasing calendar in the way that Paul Nicholls does now, so it would be fitting were the Ditcheat handler to emulate their feat.
Of Master Minded's opponents, the Irish-trained trio of Forpadydeplasterer, Golden Silver and Big Zeb are among the most potent.
However, Golden Silver needs softer ground, while Big Zeb's fencing cannot be trusted.
Forpadydeplasterer gets the nod for the forecast. Since October 2008, Tom Cooper's loyal steed has finished second in six of his seven starts, with one glaring exception.
Good ground facilitated his moment of glory in the Irish Independent Arkle Chase here 12 months ago, and it is certain to bring out the best in him again today.
The remainder of the day's card is far less straightforward. With Willie Mullins only drafting in Citizen Vic as a late replacement in the RSA Chase, you couldn't recommend Ruby Walsh's mount with any great confidence given that this is a Grade One that none other can match for strength in depth this week.
Long Run is exceptional but his jockey is untested at this level, while Punchestowns, Nicky Henderson's second runner, gives the impression that he is best over less than three and a quarter miles.
Barry Geraghty's mount is a likeable horse with solid form and he could well score, but Diamond Harry may be the pick.
He can be backed at up to 13/2, which is a fair price for a horse with his proven class and stamina. The mount of Timmy Murphy, Diamond Harry does jump a little right, but that doesn't seem to unduly affect him.
With a number of the 10 runners likely to force a strong pace, Murphy's patient style might just nurse him home in front.
In the other Grade One, the Neptune Investment Management Novice Hurdle, Dermot Weld's Rite Of Passage leads the Irish challenge.
Incredibly, Weld is without a festival winner since 1990 and, after Dunguib's disappointing defeat yesterday, the temptation is to question the form of our novice hurdlers.
However, the home team in this doesn't look to number anything quite as good as Menorah or Get Me Out Of Here, though Peddlers Cross is a likeable and improving sort that ought to at least make the frame. Given his Flat class and pedigree, Rite Of Passage is one Irish horse that could well be better for better ground. With that in mind, 3/1 is still a reasonable price.
Robbie McNamara, who steers Rite Of Passage, might get off the mark in the opening four-mile novice chase. The Limerick man rides Abbeybraney for Howard Johnson, an experienced candidate with smart placed form behind various top-class horses.
1.30 -- Abbeybraney
2.05 -- Rite Of Passage
2.40 -- Diamond Harry
3.20 -- Master Minded (Nap)
4.00 -- Deutschland
4.40 -- Shanrod
5.15 -- Shot From The Hip