Starting as we mean to go on
Opening-day success for Irish challengers can lay down marker and set tone for week to remember
Seldom have Irish-based horses dominated the ante-post markets on the festival's opening-afternoon events as they've done in the build-up to this week's eagerly awaited return to the Cotswolds.
Ever mindful of last year's nine strikes for the visitors, not to mention the remarkable seven winners partnered by Ruby Walsh, the layers simply don't want to countenance a repeat performance over the next four days.
In this kind of scenario, five of the six races down for decision today will set the tone for the fixture and it will, in essence, be a case of cheers or tears for an Irish contingent down on numbers but high on expectation.
This, of course, remains the meeting that stands head and shoulders above all its jumping counterparts on each side of the Irish Sea, both in terms of turnover on and off course and in terms of prestige. Irrespective of the outcome of each and every contest, the winner invariably gets a special greeting on returning to unsaddle and the decibels rise noticeably when the Irish fans gather to regale one of their own.
Mind you, it's not always the most fancied of our raiding party that ends up hitting the jackpot so intense is the level of competition among them, not to mention their more locally based adversaries.
Nevertheless, we got off to a flier a year ago when Go Native and Forpadydeplasterer turned in brave displays to prevail in tight finishes before the torch passed to Punjabi in the Smurfit Kappa Champion Hurdle.
The rearranged order of running this time sees the William Hill Handicap Chase going ahead before the final running of the hurdling showdown under the Smurfit Kappa name after a 20-year sponsorship.
Whatever our fate in the first four races, the Irish will take comfort if it's required from the Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase and the David Nicholson Mares Hurdle, both of which we took a year ago, ending the session.
No matter how you look at today's gathering, it is D-day for the Irish and the die will be cast for the 2010 festival renewal by late afternoon.
Smurfit Kappa Campion Hurdle, (3.20)
Shades of the 2007 Gold Cup in which Kauto Star captured the £1m Betfair bonus as Go Native bids to reap a similarly splendid windfall for his connections after contrasting victories at Newcastle and Kempton. Imperious when outpacing former title-holder Sublimity at Newcastle, Noel Meade's stable star only scraped home late at Kempton from Starluck and Binocular, whose preparation, along with that of Solwhit, has been sketchy.
At one stage last week it seemed Binocular and Solwhit would be joining Hurricane Fly on the bench so their participation is welcome, though it remains to be seen if their admirers will be backing them now.
Just a dozen remain in contention and all eyes will be on WBX bonus seeker Go Native, as this pacey sort attempts to clinch the crown that had looked within the grasp of the enigmatic Harchibald in 2005.
Given the generally good ground he relishes, Paul Carberry's mount would appear the one to beat as he boasts course-and-distance form from 12 months ago and has been given an 80-day break since his exertions at Kempton.
Medermit, which he held off in that Supreme Novices Hurdle, has taken Punjabi's scalp at Haydock and Khyber Kim, having seemed a moody sort earlier in his career, foiled Celestial Halo over this route in December.
Having let down his connections for the past two seasons here it would take a definite leap of faith to back Binocular now and the many fans of Solwhit could opt to watch, rather than punt, on him as well.
For all his battling qualities, Zaynar, which backs up Binocular and reigning champion Punjabi for the Nicky Henderson yard, probably lacks the gears to mix it with Go Native so Punjabi is my pick of the trio.
Verdict -- Go Native to foil Punjabi.
Spinal Research Supreme Novices Hurdle, (1.30)
Be prepared for a race that will live up to the hype as Dunguib tries to emulate the unique feat of another Irish hotpot, Montelado, which added this traditional opener to the previous March's bumper triumph.
Never in danger of defeat since switching to jumping, Philip Fenton's gifted gelding may represent a microcosm of what's in store with punters queueing up to take the evens likely to be offered by the local layers.
That turbo-powered surge which turned last year's Weatherbys promotion into a procession in the gathering gloom of a Wednesday finale remains a vivid memory as Brian O'Connell's mount returns today.
This son of Presenting has simply oozed class in the course of his Grade One successes at Fairyhouse and Leopardstown, cementing his standing as an Irish banker despite the threat posed by Get Me Out Of Here.
Too quick for 22 rivals despite fluffing his lines at the final flight in a competitive Newbury handicap last month, Jonjo O'Neill's similar multiple scorer and Oscar Whisky for the Henderson stable are well fancied too and have more experience over timber than the unexposed Blackstairmountain.
Verdict -- Dunguib (nap), bar a fall.
Irish Independent Arkle Trophy, (2.05)
A high-class 10th renewal under this newspaper's banner is in prospect and there's every chance again of the spoils being captured by an Irish contender as the betting revolves principally around Captain Cee Bee.
Perversely, it's this Supreme Novices Hurdle hero of 2008's final-fence Leopardstown exit on St Stephen's Day -- when seemingly poised to overtake both Sizing Europe and Osana -- that set the ball rolling money-wise.
Either side of that costly tumble, this former invalid enjoyed relatively bloodless wins at Naas to sustain the fond hope of connections that this nine-year-old retains much of his undoubtedly natural ability.
Prior to the Grade One at the Dublin course, Sizing Europe, which laboured to an extent that day, had jumped for fun to remain unbeaten since tackling the larger obstacles and could erase the memory of his unhappy experience when a back injury blighted his 2008 Champion Hurdle hopes.
The free-running Sports Line, which has also attracted his share of market support despite a more recent Leopardstown defeat, may end up battling for place money with Somerby, which is the pick of the home defence.
Verdict -- Captain Cee Bee is my pick.
William Hill Trophy, (2.40)
No shortage of well-backed hopefuls in this difficult affair as Bensalem, whose jumping has been a little erratic, and The Package, which beat The Tother One over this route last December, dominate money-wise.
Calgary Bay bounced back to form at Doncaster before Christmas and has been aimed specifically at this trace along with Theatrical Moment, which has also been rested since landing the odds in style at Leicester.
Verdict -- Go with The Package.
Glenfarclas Cross Country, (4.0)
This is always an exciting cross-country marathon which invariably is dominated by Limerick trainer Enda Bolger's runners, specifically Garde Champetre, which has done the business for the past two seasons.
Strictly on the ratings, Nina Carberry's constant partner could be vulnerable to last year's second and third, L'Ami and Drombeag, with yet another of our proven raiders, Sizing Australia, not to be dismissed lightly.
Silver Birch is also a regular in this unique event and should give his backers a good run for a little each-way flutter, though age has probably caught up with him as well as recent Sandown scorer Monkerhostin.
Verdict -- Stay loyal to Garde Champetre.
David Nicholson Mares Hurdle, (4.40)
We were treated to a runaway victory 12 months ago by the hot favourite Quevega, which went on to finish a close third to Solwhit and Punjabi at Punchestown before sustaining an injury at Auteuil in May.
Unraced since that setback, she went nicely in a public gallop on the flat recently at Leopardstown, but mixed messages have emanated about her well-being since and thus her odds have drifted somewhat.
Voler La Vedette in contrast has been much busier and is steadily building up a growing band of admirers, as has been reflected in the ante-post market. Her chances will be improved greatly if she settles on her Cheltenham debut.
This pair could turn out to be much too strong for stamina-suspect and Doncaster heroine Zarinava and also her stable companion No One Tells Me, while Carole's Legacy has made an impact lately over fences.
Verdict -- Quevega could shade it.