Cyclone primed to storm rivals and show his Champion class
Punchestown's swansong five-day bonanza kicks off with a tricky card that was always going to struggle to match the dizzy Sprinter Sacre-inspired magic of last year's opening salvo.
In a throwback to the days of yore, the presence of Nicky Henderson's sensational chaser 12 months ago saw a frenzied crowd swell the historic Kildare venue to its seams.
This time, the promotion of Sandown's Celebration Chase to Grade One status gave Gary Moore a convenient option for his redoubtable newly-crowned champion Sire De Grugy at the expense of today's Boylesports.com-sponsored €200,000 showpiece.
Nonetheless, the famously hardworking and dynamic team at Punchestown has succeeded in luring the best of the rest, with Somersby and Module, which chased Sire Du Grugy home at Cheltenham, among eight cross-channel raiders for five different stables.
Then there is John 'Shark' Hanlon's Hidden Cyclone and Henry de Bromhead's Sizing Europe.
The cream of the home defence, victory for either would prompt quite a hullabaloo. Hanlon's Andrew McNamara-ridden nine-year-old flies the flag for one of the country's more rustic, less heralded outfits, while Sizing Europe is in the last throes of a glorious career.
A halcyon retirement surely awaits the 12-year-old, but it is not beyond him to have one last dance with destiny in this sort of company.
The irrepressible Barry Geraghty will reprise his role as brilliant supersub when he stands in on Tom George's Module in the two-miler, and then later aboard Gordon Elliott's Don Cossack in the Growise Champion Novice Chase.
Faugheen is the closest thing that we have to a bona fide marquee name on duty after his Prestbury Park rout. Willie Mullins' relentless galloper faces a new challenge over the minimum trip in the Herald Novice Hurdle, and he will doubtless take some stopping.
It's worth remembering, though, that the champion trainer's Champagne Fever was turned over in this first of the week's 12 Grade One races when arriving here in similarly indestructible shape in 2013.
Lest we forget, it was none other than the Champion Hurdler Jezki that emerged on top under Geraghty on that occasion, and yet another subsequent Cotswolds hero emerged later on when Very Wood made a successful track bow in the bumper.
3.40 KILDARE HC FR SEAN BREEN MEMORIAL CHASE (BANKS) 3M
None of these possess worthwhile recent form. Lord Hawkfield was second last year but failed to raise a gallop on his reappearance, so Enda Bolger's Nina Carberry-ridden Be Positive is tentatively put forward. He should strip fitter after a modest hunter chase outing.
Verdict: Be Positive
4.20 GRADE ONE HERALD CHAMPION HURDLE 2M
This will turn on Faugheen's effectiveness over two miles, and he travelled so sweetly on good ground at Cheltenham that it may not be an issue.
On the other hand, he has always shown so much stamina that you couldn't be sure he will be suited by a speed test, and it's not certain that he will be far enough clear of the rest in terms of ability for it not to matter.
Wicklow Brave, Western Boy, Valseur Lido and The Liquidator all finished in close proximity well behind Vautour in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle. Valseur Lido duly followed up with a polished defeat of Real Steel at Fairyhouse and is progressive.
The Liquidator is better than he showed at Cheltenham, while Western Boy's chance was compromised there by his jumping right and racing wide. He will be happier going this way round, and got within three-parts of a length of Vautour here in January.
Verdict: Western Boy could thwart Faugheen over this trip
4.55 BRAGBET.COM HANDICAP HURDLE 2M
AP McCoy has opted for Gallant Tipp of JP McManus' quartet. Dropping in trip, he would have a chance on his earlier form, with Stocktons Wing another McManus runner to note.
Lucky Bridle clearly has an engine but is a free-runner that won't be left alone in this sort of race, while Sea Beat accounted for the smart Le Vent D'Antan when scoring at Naas in February. He could be thrown in at the weights thanks to a four-year-old's allowance.
Verdict: Sea Beat is hard to ignore given the 10lb allowance that he receives
5.30 GRADE ONE BOYLESPORTS.COM CHAMPION CHASE 2M
Hidden Cyclone drops to two miles having run his heart out in the Ryanair Chase. However, his previous seconds to Benefficient at Leopardstown and then to Sire De Grugy at Ascot were over the minimum trip. He is the form horse, and any rainfall would be a plus.
Somersby and Module filled the minor places behind Sire De Grugy at Cheltenham. Module may be the one best equipped to do better now, though the two-and-a-half-mile trip that he was due to run over at Aintree before being scratched might be what he needs at this level.
It will be interesting to see how Ballynagour fares over shorter as he is still a bit of an unknown quantity, though Turban and Twinlight might prefer softer ground.
Sizing Europe posted a barnstorming effort in defeat in the Champion Chase. He didn't have the legs at the death, but the heart is still willing so he is sure to keep them all honest again.
Verdict: Hidden Cyclone (nap) won't get a better chance to win at championship level
6.05 GOFFS LAND ROVER BUMPER 2M
Just Get Cracking travelled like a dream and lost little in defeat when just run out of it by Poker School on its Limerick bow, with the previously placed Ange D'Or Javilex well held in third. If James Dullea's charge handles this better ground, he will have a big say.
Jonjo O'Neill's Ustica is the only other one with form of any note. He galloped relentlessly to victory in a modest Newcastle race in March, so expect a bold show again here.
Watch the market for newcomers like Burton Hall, Caleb Comber, Exxaro, Native Display, Very Much So and Whatsforuwontgobyu.
Verdict: The decision to travel Ustica from an in-form Jackdaws Castle is significant
6.40 GRADE ONE GROWISE CHAMPION NOVICE CHASE 3M 1F
Ballycasey fell two-out in the Powers Gold Cup while still in front. He may or may not have won, but the main worry here is the return to three miles, as he didn't stay in the RSA and Morning Assembly beat him over the trip in the equivalent novice hurdle 12 months ago.
Morning Assembly loves it here, toppling Don Cossack when completing a hat-trick in November. He got tapped for toe by the first two in the RSA, and might prefer softer ground.
Carlingford Lough, which beat him at Leopardstown over Christmas, won't mind the conditions this evening, while Djakadam and Mozoltov are hard to gauge.
Mozoltov's jumping has certainly let him down over shorter, and Djakadam crashed four-out in the JLT when still bang there. He receives nine pounds all round here.
Verdict: The progressive Djakadam has lots of appeal under Ruby Walsh
7.15 FINLAY MOTOR GROUP INH FLAT RACE 2M
Alamein and Fine Theatre, a brother to Hennessy Gold Cup hero Joncol and three other winners, are first-timers to monitor in the betting here.
Bell Of The Ball was second on her Wexford bow but this will be a tougher assignment, with Disputed boasting solid form.
Fourth behind winners Aminabad, Off The Mark and What Lies Ahead at Limerick, he is very promising.
Verdict: Eddie Hales' Disputed could take a bit of beating under Stuart Crawford