Published 16/03/2011 | 05:00
If the markets are anything to go by, this afternoon's card at Cheltenham has the potential to be a benefit day for Irish-trained horses, with the betting for no less than five of the seven scheduled races headed by one of the raiding party.
The unusual thing about the apparent strength in depth to the Irish team is that, of the quintet of races for which they lead the market, the bumper is not one. In 18 runnings of the championship two-miler, 14 winners have crossed the water, and it will be a surprise if one or two of the travelling group don't figure prominently.
Big Zeb, Colm Murphy's reigning champion chaser, heads a four-strong Irish collective in the day's feature, with last year's Irish Independent Arkle Trophy hero Sizing Europe also in the line-up. Captain Cee Bee, so impressive when winning over hurdles here three years ago, and the soft-ground loving Golden Silver complete the Irish contingent.
The biggest threat of all to Big Zeb's defence is likely to come from Master Minded. Paul Nicholls' former dual winner failed to fire in the race last year, but he has been in better heart this season, and there are few more adept than Nicholls at bringing championship chasers back to peak form.
Of course, as the early favourites that crashed and burned yesterday reminded us, nothing is guaranteed at this meeting, but today's opening contests promise much for Irish trainers.
Charles Byrnes and Gordon Elliott saddle the fancied pair Alfa Beat and Chicago Grey in the National Hunt Chase, while Willie Mullins' So Young is now favourite for the Neptune Novices' Hurdle.
The horse he supplanted at the head of affairs, Oscars Well, is handled by Jessica Harrington. On a day that was twice hers in the past when Moscow Flyer was in his pomp, the Kildare woman also saddles Bostons Angel in the RSA Chase. Her only two runners on the programme have won four Grade Ones in recent months, and she hasn't brought them over for a look around.
1.30 National Hunt Challenge Chase (Amateur Riders) 4m
This has been a horrible race for favourites, with just one successful since 1993. Alfa Beat bids to buck that trend for Byrnes now, though he has a 182-day absence to overcome. He brought up an excellent five-timer in the Kerry National on his latest outing, and he will certainly relish the underfoot conditions.
Chicago Grey is probably the pick of the other Irish prospects. The Elliott-trained grey has the benefit of valuable course experience; he won here in October, fell two out when in contention in November, before finding only Time For Rupert too strong in December.
Beshabar leads the home team. A 142-rated winning hurdler last term, he got off the mark over fences when accounting for a subsequent winner at Doncaster in February.
Verdict -- Chicago Grey's course form might give him an edge.
2.05 Neptune Novices Hurdle 2m 5f
A three-strong Irish challenge that the home team may find hard to dismiss, but the key to finding the solution will be which one of them handles the conditions best. Oscars Well is highly regarded by Jessica Harrington, and won a second successive Grade One when coasting up in the Deloitte at Leopardstown last time.
However, it is a moot point whether he will be as effective on this drying ground. So Young and First Lieutenant may cope with it better.
While So Young's two wins for Mullins have been on testing going, he has form on better ground in France, and he has the scope to progress into a serious horse. A similar comment applies to First Lieutenant.
Mouse Morris' son of Presenting has been thought of as a serious chasing prospect since he won his point-to-point in January 2010, and the only surprise is that he matured so quickly to win a Grade One hurdle over Christmas. He has won on good ground before, while Mouse's ability to turn one out for the big day is legendary.
Aikman and Minella Class bring possibly the best English form line into this. Aikman accounted for Minella Class last time, but Nicky Henderson's charge, already a winner at this level, may be the better prospect of the two.
Verdict -- First Lieutenant can confirm the promise of his Leopardstown triumph.
2.40 RSA Chase 3m
Immense quality on show in this prestigious novice chase, and there is no more intriguing aspect to it than Ruby Walsh's decision to partner Mikael D'Haguenet. Mullins' former star hurdler has this season been a shadow of the horse that won today's novice hurdle two years ago. Unlucky when tipping up in the Drinmore on his chasing debut, he bombed over two miles when turned out quickly next time, but there was no comparable excuse for his unsatisfactory effort over two miles and five furlongs in February.
The horse has immense class, but will need to up his game to take a hand in the finish.
Aiteen Thirtythree is the horse Walsh passes over. That one has been flawless in winning twice over fences for Paul Nicholls, though his opposition on both occasions didn't amount to much, which may be at the root of Walsh's judgment.
Magnanimity, Jessies Dream and Quel Esprit are all decent Irish prospects, with Jessies Dream, unlucky not to have a 100pc record over fences in light of his staying-on second to Magnanimity at Leopardstown in January, may be the pick of that trio. Bostons Angel, however, has progressed hugely to win a pair of Grade Ones since Christmas, and is a live contender for Harrington if he handles the ground.
The one they all have to beat is Time For Rupert. A high-class hurdler that chased Big Buck's home in the World Hurdle 12 months ago, the Flemensfirth seven-year-old has been massively impressive in winning his two starts over fences at the course. That he hasn't run since December isn't ideal, but his form is tip-top.
Verdict -- Time For Rupert has the class to overcome a three-month absence.
3.20 Queen Mother Champion Chase 2m
As ever, this promises to be a scintillating contest, with Big Zeb and Master Minded, the winners of the past three renewals, to the fore once again. Big Zeb's defeat last time was disappointing, but Barry Geraghty subsequently held up his hands for going on too soon in testing conditions.
That was Colm Murphy's 10-year-old's first defeat since December 2009, so it's not hard to forgive him the reversal. Hailing from the yard he does -- responsible for three Grade One winners at the Festival -- and back on his preferred good going, Big Zeb won't be easily toppled in his quest to become the third dual winner since 2005.
Master Minded is bidding for a record-equalling third triumph. Remarkably, given his relative youth at eight, this is his fourth appearance in the ultimate speed test for chasers.
He has left season's reversals behind him with some polished displays this term, though, like Geraghty, Tony McCoy blamed himself for the horse nearly getting beaten by Somersby at Ascot in January. On ground faster than ideal, it will be fascinating to see if he can reach the heights of old.
Somersby isn't too far off this level, though the improving Woolcombe Folly is taking a huge jump in class. Big Zeb's three Irish compatriots are Golden Silver, Captain Cee Bee and Sizing Europe. While Golden Silver may be vulnerable on the ground, the other two are previous Festival winners.
Captain Cee Bee has become a bit unpredictable, and Sizing Europe has had an unsatisfactory campaign over a variety of trips. It's not beyond the bounds of possibility that one or both will be a more potent force today.
Verdict -- The drying ground might just give Big Zeb an edge over Master Minded.
4.0 Coral Cup Handicap Hurdle 2m 5f
An absorbing and thrilling handicap is in store here, with countless talking horses pitted against each other. Walkon tops the handicap and cannot be ruled out if he recaptures the level of form that saw him take second at Ascot on his reappearance.
Aegean Dawn is unbeaten in four career starts, having accounted for the subsequent Kingwell Hurdle winner Mille Chief when successful at Ascot on his latest start in November. However, he must race off a 26lb-higher mark now.
Call The Police, 17lb higher than when second in the MCR Hurdle, has been well touted on the back of his comfortable win at Punchestown last month. Mullins also saddles the intriguing novice Ballyhaunis, whose latest second to Hidden Cyclone reads well, and that one gets in off an attractive 10st 7lb.
Verdict -- Ballyhaunis could be one for each-way punters at up to 25/1.
4.40 Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle 2m
The Triumph Hurdle consolation race rarely appeals as a betting medium, and this year's renewal is no exception. Elliott's Plan A was a fair third to Sam Winner and Grandouet over course and distance in November, so it's no surprise to see him head the market.
While he has plenty weight with 11st 8lb, four of the six previous winners of this have lumped more than 11st to victory. Celtus, Titan De Sarti, Rock Of Deuaville and Tenor Nivernais are all respected for leading English stables, while Kayef got off the mark for Michael Scudamore at Sandown last time.
Well beaten in Sam Winner's race here in November, he is a progressive type that may not be badly treated.
Verdict -- Kayef is a tentative selection in a wide-open contest.
5.15 Weatherbys Champion Bumper 2m
In a race that tends to throw up a special winner, it is not easy to identify what that might be this year. While there has been no great confidence behind the eight Irish runners, there are some smashing individuals among them.
Shark Hanlon's Star Neuville is one, Eddie Hales' Dynamic Approach another, with Colm Murphy's Raise The Beat the only one of the Irish representatives to have won under a penalty.
Knight Pass and Ericht are the main English contenders. Both are likeable sorts, but whether either is a star in the making is another thing altogether.
Verdict -- Raise The Beat could make it a day to remember for his Wexford stable.