Festival weights give hope to raiders
A poor return of one Irish win in 11 handicaps at the 2012 Cheltenham Festival appears to have prompted Phil Smith, the chief British assessor, to take a more sympathetic view of the raiders' prospects this time round.
Last year, a raft of horses were dealt double-figure hikes for crossing the water, with the ratings of a number of Willie Mullins' representatives faring worst.
Once again, the in-form champion trainer is among those that might be most aggrieved at Smith's adjustments, but the overall impression is that the changes are less harsh this time.
Sarabad, a Rich Ricci-owned five-year-old that got off the mark in facile style for Mullins at Clonmel recently, is one that Smith dealt with quite severely.
A 20/1 shot for the Coral Cup and the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' Hurdle, he will need to race off a 13lb higher mark than he would at home – should he turn up in either event.
The Colm Murphy-trained Shariyan, which JP McManus bought a share in prior to its second successive triumph at Leopardstown last month, is similarly priced for the same two races and has been given a mark of 130, 10lb higher than his domestic figure.
Mullins' Supreme Carolina gets an extra 8lb for these two contests, while Sweet My Lord is up just a solitary 1lb in both races.
However, having fallen at the last when leading in the Leopardstown Chase last time, Sweet My Lord has been allotted an extra 9lb over fences.
That leaves him with 11st 12lb in the Pulteney Land Investments Novices' Handicap Chase – in which Saturday's Kempton winner Opening Batsman has been burdened with 12st 6lb – though he has just 10st 4lb in the Byrne Group Plate.
At this stage, Mullins is responsible for the joint or sole top-weight in five of the 11 handicaps.
His 2012 Hennessy Gold Cup winner Quel Esprit heads the page for the JLT Specialty Chase, but he does so off a 3lb lower mark than he would at home, and the vast majority of travellers have been treated in a similarly fair fashion, with hikes of between 1lb and 6lb pretty much the norm.
Mullins' Tennis Cap (Coral Cup, Conditional Jockeys and Vincent O'Brien County Hurdle) is up just 2lb, with his Boylesports.com Hurdle victor Abbey Lane getting two more than that in the same three races.
Robert Tyner's novice Dushrembrandt is up 9lb in the Pertemps Hurdle, with Gordon Elliott's juvenile Fisher given an equal hike in the Fred Winter Hurdle.
Elliott's Carlito Brigante, on the other hand, has been dropped 3lb for the four handicap chases that he is entered in, and would race off a mark 8lb lower than he did last year in the Coral Cup – a race he won in 2011 – should he tackle the two-mile-five-furlong event for a third time.
The Gigginstown Stud-owned seven-year-old was cut from 12/1 to outright 8/1 favouritism for the Pulteney, for which he currently has 11st 9lb.
Intriguingly, Dessie Hughes' White Star Line, second to Hunt Ball off 135 in last year's Pulteney, is 3lb lower this time at 132, just 2lb higher than his domestic mark.
Second to Home Farm at Fairyhouse on Saturday, he is 20/1 to go one better in the Pulteney.
Alderwood, last year's sole handicap hero, has been many people's idea of the Grand Annual Chase winner for some time and McManus' Tom Mullins-trained novice has been allotted 10st 4lb for 140, 1lb higher than the figure that he won the County Hurdle off in 2012.
It is also just 2lb higher than his Irish rating, so the 8/1 ante-post market leader is another that doesn't seem to have fared at all badly.
The entries were also unveiled for the Foxhunters' Chase, the OLBG Mares' Hurdle and Champion Bumper.
Among a strong Irish delegation in the bumper, Aidan O'Brien has raised the possibility of saddling his first Festival runner since Istabraq pulled up in the 2002 Champion Hurdle by giving Shield the option of tackling the Grade One.
Simon Claisse, clerk of the course at the Cotswold venue, says that it won't be necessary to water the track ahead of the four-day Festival that begins on March 12.
"At the moment, each track is good to soft, soft in places," he explained.
"Between next Thursday and the start of the first race, between 15 and 18 millimetres of rain is forecast.
"A lot can change of course, but if the forecast is right, we will not be watering."