No getting away from regal Kauto
When Kauto Star atoned for his 2008 defeat by eclipsing Denman in the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup a year ago, the impossible dream was that both would return to contest a decider in 2010.
The punishment endured by each of them in delivering the awe-inspiring performances that have shaped their glittering careers comes at no small cost, and to expect both to turn up for yet another tilt at National Hunt racing's showpiece event seemed to push the boundaries of probability.
Against the odds, thanks mainly to the peerless stewardship of Paul Nicholls, the two giants of modern steeplechasing will today do battle once again.
Expectations and preparations for their respective challenges may be poles apart, but they are both here.
Having returned to his absolute vintage best to destroy the Hennessy Gold Cup field when conceding lumps of weight in November, Denman subsequently paid for that gruelling display. He was a beaten horse before he ever got rid of Tony McCoy at Newbury in February, confirming, not for the first time, that even an equine colossus of his stature cannot reproduce that depth of endeavour every time.
As was first evidenced by his problems after galloping an under-par Kauto Star into submission here in 2008, his style of running is exhausting.
However, that is something Paul Nicholls is keenly aware of, and Denman lined up on the back of an even more abject display 12 months ago. Lest we forget, he defied expectations to chase home his stable-mate then, and Nicholls will have him ready for this.
That said, Kauto Star ought to cement his place in the history books. Nichols' handling of the best and most complete chaser of his generation has been matched only by the way in which Ruby Walsh has facilitated the French-bred's achievements so flawlessly.
The Kildare rider's uncomplicated dependability has been the perfect complement for Kauto Star, a horse whose breathtaking class has so often belittled quality opposition with apparent ease. Ultimately, that economy of effort is the definitive difference between Kauto Star and Denman.
Of the remainder, Cooldine is no forlorn hope. Willie Mullins' eight-year-old progressed markedly from his seasonal debut last time, and similar improvement might even see him split the big two. Good ground sparked a memorable performance from him in the RSA Chase a year ago, so it can only aid his cause again.
This, though, could be all about Kauto Star. His phenomenal array of 13 Grade One successes includes two Tingle Creeks and four King Georges, the latest of which was won in typically effortless fashion by 36 lengths in December.
He can further embellish his growing legend by adding a third Gold Cup now. Immortality beckons.
In the Albert Bartlett Novice Hurdle that precedes the feature, Shinrock Paddy is taken to land a much needed blow for our novice hurdlers. One of the fears coming into this week was that the good going would render soft ground form lines worthless, and so it has proved throughout a tough week for punters.
Shinrock Paddy is another candidate for coming undone on a drier surface. However, Paul Nolan's gelding has always had a touch of class, grinding out a first Grade One success at Navan before Christmas. He steps up to three miles now for the first time, and that should compensate for the lack of ease underfoot.
The Triumph Hurdle gets the day's proceedings under way, with our juvenile collective extremely well represented. Alaivan and Carlito Brigante must have serious chances, but Secant Star is even more unexposed than those two. At 8/1, he may be the value option.
Set to bolt up before falling at the last on his debut for Willie Mullins in December, Secant Star did subsequently trounce the opposition at Gowran Park in January. Needless to say, you would be more confident if Ruby Walsh had opted for him over Nicholls' Advisor, but Paul Townend is a fair substitute.
In the Vincent O'Brien County Hurdle, Stradbrook gets the nod over Saturday's Imperial Cup runner-up Oldrik. Owned by JP McManus, it is of note that Stradbrook, which was second in the race a year ago, gets in here at the expense of McManus' Qaspal, the horse that beat Oldrik in impressive fashion last Saturday.