Ruby's tactical nous key to Mikael hopes
Heroic though it was, the last stand of the Spartans was a foregone conclusion.
The deeds of those brave soldiers has passed into legend, and the same could happen to another great warrior in the sporting bet.com Queen Mother Champion Chase (3.20) on day two of the Cheltenham Festival.
Master Minded bids for a third victory in four renewals of this compelling speed test, having won the first with a spellbinding display in 2008. But the Master Minded of that day is history. The question now is whether the once-electric chaser has enough left in those weary limbs to fend off some hungry foes.
Big Zeb capitalised on a lacklustre show from Master Minded to win this 12 months ago. Colm Murphy's ultra-consistent chaser is again in the mix, although the form of that victory -- from Forpadydeplasterer and Kalahari King, neither of which has won since -- served to underline that the two-mile crown rests uneasily on his shoulders.
Whether Big Zeb can cope with a revitalised Master Minded is a moot point. Although caught by Golden Silver in testing ground last time out, Big Zeb is a different horse on the decent surface he will encounter here. But the time has come to usher in the new guard as represented by Woolcombe Folly.
He, too, will bounce off the ground -- as he did when defying top weight in a well-contested handicap here in December.
His stalking style is an asset in a race invariably run at a furious tempo and, with very few miles on the clock, we have not yet seen the best of him. All of which suggests he can usurp Master Minded, his stablemate at Paul Nicholls' yard.
Nicholls has always thought highly of Woolcombe Folly. He backed that view by saddling the horse in last year's Irish Independent Arkle Chase after a solitary run over fences.
And although the gelding finished last, his confidence had been seriously undermined by a nasty schooling accident in the days before the race. Woolcombe Folly has since put that mishap behind him.
He looked like a horse with a big future when hosing up on his Ascot comeback, and confirmed that impression with a brilliant round of jumping last time out. It looks as though his time has now arrived.
Ruby's tactical nous key to Mikael hopes
Many good judges believe Time For Rupert will return to Cheltenham next year as favourite for the Gold Cup, having taken the RSA Chase (2.40) along the way.
Accordingly, the strapping seven-year-old is a strong fancy today. His claims are undeniable after a pair of convincing victories over fences, both times at this course, but the shape of this gruelling stamina test renders him vulnerable.
Up against him is the Nicholls-trained Aiteen Thirtythree, a powerful galloper which will open the throttle some way from home.
He will be attended by another dour stayer in Wymott, and in consequence, favourite Time For Rupert will be obliged to keep close tabs on them. The cut and thrust seems sure to start early.
It's easy to envisage a scenario where the leaders struggle to get home. Ruby Walsh will be more than aware of the possibility, and it's interesting he is aboard Mikael D'Haguenet rather than Aiteen Thirtythree.
Injuries have plagued this talented horse, which has yet to win over fences in three starts. But with Walsh always alert to tactical opportunity, Mikael D'Haguenet is worth chancing at a venue he took by storm two years ago.
He looked to have taken Jessies Dream's measure before he fell at the last on his chasing debut and that effort puts him right in the mix.
Willie Mullins, who trains Mikael D'Haguenet, has a likely lad for the Neptune Investments Novices' Hurdle (2.05) in So Young.
With money certain to come rolling in for this immensely gifted horse, early-morning prices should be secured.
So Young has speed to burn, but showed he stayed this trip when winning at Leopardstown in December. He should outclass fellow raiders Oscars Well and First Lieutenant.
The word is out about the Mullins-trained Call The Police for the Coral Cup (4.0), but each of his three wins was gained in testing ground.
In the circumstances, preference is for Aegean Dawn, which lacks experience but appears to have a rosy future after a pair of bloodless victories over hurdles this season.