Power leads Irish assault on Champion
Brilliant Mullins mare will seek to end her Cheltenham 'hoodoo' under Ruby but don't underestimate home team
Annie Power will tomorrow spearhead the quest to bring the Stan James Champion Hurdle back to these shores for a fifth time since 2011.
As expected, Willie Mullins has declared his brilliant mare for the £400,000 two-mile championship event on day one of the Cheltenham Festival, with Ruby Walsh sticking with the eight-year-old over Nichols Canyon and Sempre Medici.
Vroum Vroum Mag will pick up the pieces in the OLBG Mares' Hurdle, still a moderate Grade One in this correspondent's view. Of the 20 declared runners, Bitofapuzzle and Gitane Du Berlais are the only horses to have previously won at the highest level - once apiece.
It is often said in defence of mares' Grade Ones that, if you have them, at least the winners can be hailed as the best mares around, even if the races lack depth.
Well, this proves that's not the case, as the best mare in training is Annie Power. She is taking on the boys, which is as it should be; the best (of what's left standing, at least) being pitted against the best.
Vroum Vroum Mag is unbeaten in eight starts for the exceptional champion trainer. She is a serious operator, but we might not learn much new about her tomorrow, which we would do were she to contest the Ryanair World Hurdle.
Mullins, of course, is only utilising the options available to him, something that he does to devastating effect.
Still, if - as Eddie Harty proposed at our Talbot Hotel preview on Friday - the champion trainer were to let her tackle the World Hurdle after she cruises around tomorrow, then that would be fine, too.
In 1996, Mysilv famously nearly won the three-miler when just denied by Cyborgo, two days after finishing sixth in the Champion. There is a fair chance that Vroum Vroum Mag will have an easier race tomorrow than Mysilv had in the Champion, so be bold, Mr Mullins!
Annie Power's only two reversals in 15 starts have come at the Festival, so there is an element of unfinished business about her third foray to Prestbury Park in March.
In the absence of Faugheen and Arctic Fire, the race obviously lacks a little oomph, but the roof will surely come off the place if Walsh's popular mount were to avenge last year's galling spill. With Annie Power, Nichols Canyon and Identity Thief heading the market, the raiders clearly hold a strong hand with the home team further weakened by last night's defection of the Paul Nicholls-trained Old Guard.
Nicky Henderson will saddle five of the 12 runners, including My Tent Or Yours, while Nigel Twiston-Davies relies on The New One. Both horses are proven championship level performers at their best, and there is a danger that, on this side of the water, we have been a little dismissive of many of the locals.
Henderson has trained 53 Festival winners - no active trainer can match that. He has won five Champion Hurdles, three Champion Chases and has two victories apiece in the Gold Cup, the World Hurdle and the Ryanair Chase. This is a man who knows how to get it done in the marquee events.
He has carefully plotted a route back from injury with JP McManus's My Tent Or Yours, a formidable animal on its day.
Look at the job that he has done rejuvenating Sprinter Sacre, another that has been roundly written off at many preview nights in this part of the world.
After Mullins plundered the Tolworth Hurdle with Yorkhill at Sandown in January, Henderson, who had saddled the runner-up O O Seven, was memorably caught on camera, politely asking his then rampant Irish colleague to "f*@* off home". It was a facetious exchange borne of sheer frustration, but beware the wounded animal.
Just like Mullins, Henderson possess an exquisite knack of peaking his team in March, so don't be at all surprised if he leads a more robust home defence than is maybe expected in some quarters.
Thankfully, the likes of Gordon Elliott, Henry De Bromhead and Enda Bolger are also well versed in producing horses in mean condition for the sport's most unforgiving battle ground in the Cotswolds.
The raiding party isn't dependent on Mullins alone, for all that it once looked like that might be the case.
Over five years, Irish horses have averaged 11.4 wins at the Festival. In trading parlance, this week they are probably still a buy at that - just. With the sun beaming down on Cheltenham, the ground will likely be close to good tomorrow.
That could simplify two decisions in particular ahead of a mouth-watering Gold Cup; Vautour and Don Cossack for Mssrs Walsh and Cooper it is, then.
If Paul Townend were to take over on Djakadam, that would leave Don Poli up for grabs. Would Davy Russell get the nod, or might it be 19-year-old David Mullins? It would be some opportunity on the grandest stage of all for a young rider making giant strides. All will soon be revealed.
Russell gets Figaro call, not Smullen
Dermot Weld will send Silver Concorde, Vigil and First Figaro to Cheltenham in an effort to add to his three previous Festival wins.
Having gone 24 years without one after Rare Holiday's 1990 Triumph Hurdle success, the Curragh genius is on a Prestbury Park hat-trick after further Grade One wins for Silver Concorde and Windsor Park.
Ahead of the event, Weld has sought to diffuse speculation that his stable jockey Pat Smullen will formalise his association with owner Khalid Abdullah this year.
"There will be no change," he said of their long partnership together. "Pat will be doing the same as last year, riding in England whenever he wants on days that he is free.
"He is retained by me and committed to riding for (Rosewell House) as always. Of course, hopefully he will be riding for Khalid Abdullah in England, but you will find that he will also be riding for other people as well.
"He'll ride in England when the opportunity arises and maybe on days when I don't need him, but most of the time he will be based here."
Weld's rebuttal is consistent with comments made elsewhere last week by Smullen. In the same interview, the champion jockey, whose world-class talent has gained increasing recognition, spoke glowingly of Weld's First Figaro, which, at the time, he was expecting to ride in the Champion Bumper.
However, there must have been crossed wires as Davy Russell rides First Figaro. "All three of my runners at Cheltenham will be ridden by Davy Russell," Weld confirmed. "They are in perfect order and in my opinion they all have each-way chances."
'Clouds' reigns supreme at Kelso
All eyes might be on Cheltenham but Many Clouds yesterday succeeded in diverting thoughts to Aintree with a facile Kelso triumph.
Oliver Sherwood's 2015 Grand National hero had run well behind Gold Cup hopes Don Poli and Smad Place on its last two starts. He built on those turns yesterday with a breathtaking exhibition of jumping for Leighton Aspell en route to a 10-length triumph over Unioniste.
Returned the 11/10 favourite, he was promptly cut to as low as 8/1 clear market leader to become the first back-to-back National winner since Red Rum in 1974.
Tweet of the weekend
Willie Mullins (@WillieMullinsNH)
#HurricaneFly has left us for his new home @IrishNatStud. He was a horse of a lifetime and we will all miss him.
A timely ecit for the dual Champion Hurdler, who has joined fellow legends like Beef Or Salmon and Moscow Flyer at the National Stud.
363 Profit to a single unit stake that John Joe Walsh's Limerick treble paid yesterday. The Doneraile-based handler, who has three runners at Cork today, has a fine record at the track and is in the midst of his best season. Both those elements combined to great effect at the venue, with Never Again (12/1) and Instant Smile (7/1) both flashing home late to foil Mark Walsh-ridden favourites. Adrian Heskin steered the first winner and Brian O'Connell sealed the hat-trick aboard 5/2 favourite Monasteradenpauric. It was Ambrose McCurtain who got Instant Smile up, having initiated a 55/1 brace for himself on Barnahash Rose for Jonathan Sweeney.