Strong Irish hand for opening salvo despite absentees
What odds would you have gotten this time last year that Willie Mullins would have nothing shorter than 20/1 in the 2017 Champion Hurdle?
Mullins has dominated the race this decade and, indeed, saddled the first three home when Faugheen beat Arctic Fly and Hurricane Fly two years ago. On the face of it, he will do well to have a runner reach the frame this season, though Footpad, for one, is not exactly exposed.
The main talking point is that he did not take a punt with one of his mares, Limini and Vroum Vroum Mag, in the Champion. Though the decision not to supplement Limini was a little surprising, it was perhaps more of a shock that he did not give Vroum Vroum Mag her chance in the feature, as she had been already entered.
As it is, these two high-class ladies strut their stuff in an utterly captivating renewal of the mares' race. It will be one of the greatest shocks of all time if this does not stay in Irish hands as, notwithstanding the talents of the Mullins pair, Apple's Jade and Jer's Girl are Grade One winners which would not be out of place in males' company at the Festival this year.
Back to the Champion, and what odds Mullins somehow retains it? Ruby Walsh is riding an Irish Leger winner in Wicklow Brave, a horse which bolted up in the County Hurdle two seasons ago at 25/1 under Paul Townend. He has barely been mentioned for this race all year but it would be folly to ignore him.
The Tuesday of the Festival tends to be one of the most productive days of the four for the visitors but the absence of Faugheen, Annie Power and novice chaser Min certainly dents the Irish team. Many hopes will be on Melon et al in the opener. Defeat in that and our hopes in the Betbright Cup - the Britain v Ireland challenge - will appear pretty remote.
That said, we have some live chances in the National Hunt Chase and in the handicaps. It was quite a warm day in the Gloucestershire region yesterday, though there is the chance of some rain to add some juice to the ground.
1.30 Grade One Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle 2m 87yds
He certainly has it to prove, having run merely in a run-of-the-mill maiden hurdle since coming to Ireland, but Ruby Walsh's decision to stick with Melon seems telling, considering that Bunk Off Early's form in finishing second in the Deloitte looks up there with the best on offer here.
Melon arrived from France not much earlier than the hype campaign began. However, it would not be until this calendar year that he was seen, and he crushed his foes at Leopardstown. He is said to work exceptionally sharp in morning exercise.
Ballyandy took some time to get going hurdling but his Newbury win advertises his chance; the shame is that Movewiththetimes, which ran to a similar level in that race, was injured on Sunday.
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Crack Mome seems to have been pleasing Mullins and is no back number, while a strong gallop will bring Bunk Off Early into the argument under Paul Townend. Though speedily bred, he is a pretty natural jumper and, given how free he was in the Deloitte on soft ground, it was a smashing performance in defeat.
Verdict: Melon can justify the hype, with Ballyandy a serious danger after his handicap win last time.
2.10 Grade One Racing Post Arkle Novices' Chase 2m 1f
One of the least attractive renewals in memory, with Altior facing a scatter of inferior foes, Min notably sidelined.
What could have been one of the matches of the week is instead an apparent walkover, though Altior may not win quite as easily as everyone expects. Nicky Henderson's charge can be a bit too extravagant at his fences; that said, he likes this track, hammering Min in the Supreme last year.
Perhaps Forest Bihan can be conservatively ridden and chase him home; many will be ridden as such. Aidan Coleman will bide his time, as presumably will Ruby Walsh on Royal Caviar, and the question here may well be: how many jockeys will actually try to win the race and risk losing a placed finish?
Verdict: An apparent formality: Altior. Forest Bihan can complete a 1-2 for the Brits here.
2.50 Ultima Handicap Chase 3m 1f
The Irish challenge is relatively weak here and Un Temps Pour Tout is taken to repeat his victory in last year's renewal off 7lb higher. He warmed up for this with a pleasing run over hurdles.
Un Temps Pour Tout was rampant in this 12 months ago and, if he had been carrying the weight with which he is burdened today, he may have won anyway. A worry, that said, is that David Pipe has not exactly been prolific in 2017.
Singlefarmpayment looks a major threat off a much lower rating. A course winner, he returned to Cheltenham in late January and was brought down when 5/1, the racing having not developed properly at the time.
Noble Endeavor did it nicely at Leopardstown but he has a major burden now under Davy Russell.
Verdict: Un Temps Pour Tout can bely top weight for David Pipe.
3.30 Grade One Stan James Champion Hurdle 2m 87yds
Neither of the last two winners togs out, with Ireland's main hope seemingly Petit Mouchoir. He holds Footpad on Leopardstown form and should give a good account. He jumps, travels and certainly stays, making him one of the most appealing place bets in the race, though he did not seem in love with the track as a novice.
This looks liable to stay at home. Yanworth was touched off in the Neptune - often a key Champion Hurdle trial - last year. He has shown an excellent attitude over hurdles this season and, presuming his jumping is fluent under Mark Walsh, he is the pick.
Alex King's inmate can sometimes jump left but he loves Cheltenham and any little bit of rain will be in his favour, as he enjoys soft and also stays much farther. A strong gallop will be a major advantage.
Moon Racer fans will be hoping that the British novices fare well in the opener; certainly, this is a major task for him, though his age entitles him to be thought of as a Champion Hurdle hope.
Buveur D'air has improved nicely this season and should not be underestimated. Hurdling is something of an afterthought for him, though you cannot tell that from the manner of his leaping the smaller obstacles.
Verdict: Likely not a classic but it's intriguing and Yanworth cam prevail.
4.10 Grade One OLBG Mares' Hurdle 2m 3f200yds
Not everyone's cup of tea but even the harshest critic must be captivated by what is by a country mile the most competitive renewal of the race. Since its first running, which he somehow failed in, Willie Mullins has won every edition.
Let us merely hope they all show up, and if Limini can reproduce her form of her Punchestown win over Apple's Jade, she is preferred, with Walsh picking her over Vroum Vroum Mag. Jer's Girl can run into the first three.
Limini was brilliant in the mares' novice contest 12 months ago, but this is much tougher. Was she flattered by her Punchestown win? Perhaps so but it was a hell of a performance for her first run back and if anything suggested she will be better over this trip than two miles.
Vroum Vroum Mag appears to be giving her trainer the right signals since a poor performance at Doncaster that was most unlike her. She was unlucky to be turned over at odds-on back in the Hatton's Grace and can probably exact revenge now on Apple's Jade.
Verdict: Limini is really talented on her day and can help to provide Mullins with a 1-2. This is a cracker of a race.
4.50 Grade Two JT McNamara National Hunt Challenge Cup Amateur Riders' Novices' Chase 3m 7f 170yds
The long-time fancy for this race, A Genie In Abottle, ticks all the boxes. He jumps for fun, stays all day and has a touch of class.
His form earlier in the season ties in with Mall Dini and Coney Island. If he were in the RSA, he would have a chance, and perhaps he would have gone for that race were Alpha Des Obeaux not in it for Gigginstown.
Edwulf may threaten if he can jump around, with Derek O'Connor a plus in a race of this nature. His Naas victory recently was exceptional but stamina is far from certain here. That should not bother Martello Tower, which won the Albert Bartlett as a novice hurdler and potentially is dangerous. He has been in good shape at home going into the race, in which the Irish have an excellent record in this decade.
Verdict: A Genie In Abottle can get Jamie Codd off the mark.
5.30 Listed Close Brothers Novices' Handicap Chase 2m 4 f 78yds
All Hell Let Loose is a fascinating runner in a race in which only 5lb separates top weight and bottom. Second as a novice hurdling to Nichols Canyon, he jumped brilliantly on his only start for Henry de Bromhead and could be very well handicapped.
While he is inexperienced, such is the race. De Bromhead is gifted at getting his horses to enjoy chasing and he is capable of improving one from another barn. He appeals at around 22/1.
The Gigginstown runner can lead but likely Foxtail Hill may give him a nice lead into the race. He should be suited by the track and is a hardy sort.
Gold Present was unable to deal with the useful Frodon last time but gave another good account. He is a professional sort for a novice and a big each-way player.
Verdict: Take All Hell Let Loose to defy his layoff under Bryan Cooper.