Patrick Mullins: Punters can get off to Festival flyer by being sweet on Melon and 'Mag'
The countdown is finally over as Cheltenham wheels around for another glorious week's racing and while there's always a nervousness to get that first winner on the board, Melon can get the Festival off to a flyer in the opener.
Melon was mooted as a potential banker long before making his impressive racecourse debut and his homework suggests there is more to come as he bids to overcome inexperience in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle (1.30).
There's no prize money for winning races at home but he has been schooled extensively, and while we'd love to have had another run, Fiveforthree won a Neptune with just a maiden hurdle behind him, so it can be done and we're more than happy to take our chance.
If something does go wrong with Melon, we have a very capable deputy in Bunk Off Early, with his pedigree suggesting that the drop in distance, better ground and the faster pace should bring about a lot of improvement from his Leopardstown second to stable-mate Bacardys last month.
Willie also saddles Crack Mome and we're hopeful that the better ground will bring about improvement with Danny aboard, while Cilaos Emery will need to settle much better than when he was too keen at Punchestown.
Ballyandy is the obvious danger to our hopes. He gave an amazing performance to win the Champion Bumper 12 months ago because he got knocked down halfway up the Hill, and having won a big handicap hurdle, he has more experience than any other horse in the field.
The Arkle (2.10) is all about Altior and he looks like a different beast. A potential clash with Douvan next year could be one for the ages but while he looks exceptional, you should never run away from one horse, so we've entered Royal Caviar, a much superior chaser than hurdler.
Despite falling the last day, he jumps beautifully on the whole and his schooling after racing at Leopardstown nine days ago should have him ready to be in the top four.
It's unusual not having one of our big names in the Champion Hurdle (3.30) after training the favourite in the last six runnings, with four of them victorious, and it's a devastating blow to lose both Annie Power and Faugheen, but they'll be back in action with a bit of luck.
While it has lessened our chance, Footpad is not without a squeak and he ran very well behind Petit Mouchoir, who is among the market principles, so hopefully he can run into a place under Ruby Walsh, while Wicklow Brave emphatically won the County Hurdle two years ago.
He's also a Group 1 winner on the Flat so we still have a good team but they're unlikely to spring a shock, with Yanworth my idea of the winner. The only horse to beat him is Yorkhill in last year's Neptune, which is the ideal Champion Hurdle trial - it didn't really go to plan for Yanworth, who got caught wide. He has a lazy racing style but he's reminiscent of Hardy Eustace and can grind his way to victory.
Limini and Vroum Vroum Mag were both spoken of as possibilities for today's big race but Vroum Vroum's Doncaster run wasn't up to scratch for a Champion Hurdle, while Limini has only had one run outside of novice company so that was always going to be a big ask.
We don't tend to run our best ones against each other but we do put them in the race where they have a winning chance and we just felt that the Mares' Hurdle (4.10) was the best chance for both to get their second win at the Festival.
There's very little between them, and on a line through Apple's Jade, it looks like Limini has a bit in hand if you take the form literally, but Vroum Vroum has only been beaten once and I think she may have the beating of Limini.
She won this race 12 months ago and might be a bit more battle-hardened in the closing stages, while Apple's Jade has to come into the equation. This year is the first time this race has been a proper jumping Oaks, there's three proper Grade 1 mares and it's going be a real treat.
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My sole ride is Haymount in the JT McNamara National Hunt Challenge Cup (4.50) and he had Coney Island and Mall Dini behind him when he won his beginners' chase in November. He'll love the ground and I'd disregard his last two runs on heavy ground.
I've been riding out Martello Tower, a past Festival winner, for my aunt Mags and he's really come back to himself in recent weeks and should go well at a big price, while Mikey Fogarty, my housemate for the week, is sweet on the chances of Killiney Court in the last.
1.30: Melon (Nap)
4.10: Vroum Vroum Mag
4.50: Martello Tower
5.30: Killiney Court