1.30 JCB Triumph Hurdle (2m 1f)
Sir Des Champs is this afternoon charged with topping Willie Mullins' record-breaking week at the Cheltenham Festival by securing the Closutton genius a cherished first Gold Cup victory.
Ever since the handsome seven-year-old scorched up the hill under Davy Russell in last year's Jewson, the champion trainer has had his eyes fixed firmly on the ultimate prize.
In an otherwise remarkable campaign for the stable, Sir Des Champs' slow progress has subdued expectations somewhat ahead of the Prestbury Park Grade One.
After Flemenstar inflicted his first defeat for Mullins at Punchestown in December, Bobs Worth, so facile on his reappearance in the Hennessy Gold Cup a week earlier, usurped him as the general favourite for today's prestigious three-and-a-quarter-mile showpiece. Barry Geraghty's mount, like Sir Des Champs a dual Festival winner already, hasn't been seen in the meantime.
Sir Des Champs on the other hand has done his maturing in public, leaving behind an unsatisfactory Lexus Chase fourth to finally topple Flemenstar in Leopardstown's Hennessy last month. Many viewed that as still inconclusive proof of his Gold Cup credentials, but the Gigginstown Stud-owned son of Robins Des Champs arrives back in the Cotswolds now with his season arching steeply towards a grand crescendo.
With considerable rain forecast to hit the track today, the complexion of the race could change overnight. If it does, Sir Des Champs might cope better than others, so this is a tremendous opportunity for Paul Townend to make the most of Russell's cruel misfortune.
Mullins, having overtaken Tom Dreaper as the most successful Irish trainer at the Festival on Tuesday, will be desperate to again emulate his legendary predecessor, who sent out Arkle to achieve immortal glory in this.
Should Sir Des Champs prevail, Mullins would also become the eighth trainer to do the Champion Hurdle-Gold Cup double, a feat last achieved by Kim Bailey with Alderbrook and Master Oats in 1995.
Apart from Bobs Worth, those most likely to prevent a first Irish triumph in the blue riband event since War Of Attrition carried Gigginstown's colours to a famous victory in 2006 include the brilliant 2011 hero Long Run, as well as Silviniaco Conti.
Long Run comes here having recaptured something like his old form to scramble home for a second King George VI success at Christmas.
Ruby Walsh's mount Silviniaco Conti had previously beaten him at Haydock, before then readily accounting for last year's Gold Cup runner-up The Giant Bolster at Newbury. The Giant Bolster is also back, so this is proper championship fare.
1.30 JCB Triumph Hurdle (2m 1f)
Our Conor is a worthy market leader. He has won his three hurdling starts in fine fashion, beating the runaway Fred Winter winner Flaxen Flare by 25 lengths at Leopardstown last time.
If the forecast rain arrives, Dessie Hughes' charge will have an even better chance. Diakali, second last time, also excels in the mud.
Ruby Walsh has opted for Far West over him for Paul Nicholls. Twice a winner here, Far West is unbeaten in four, is dead straightforward and especially willing.
Rolling Star made a fine debut for Nicky Henderson here in January, beating Nicholls' subsequent Kempton Grade Two winner Irish Saint. Although we have only seen him once, that is rock-solid form.
Verdict: Far West is a likeable sort that might be up to this.
2.05 Vincent O'Brien County H'cap Hurdle (2m 1f)
Midnight Game makes his handicap debut, having just failed to hold off Cause Of Causes at Navan in January. He has a touch of class, but 11st 8lb might steady him.
Hisaabaat was third that day. Although he hasn't been at his best this term, that was certainly a slightly better effort and last year's Triumph runner-up will enjoy the decent ground.
Tennis Cap may be the pick of the raiders. He is on a hat-trick here under Paul Townend, but is 12lbs worse off with Discoteca – second to him last time – when you factor in Jane Mangan's claim. That could give Discoteca a chance.
Of the locals, Ranjaan warmed up for this contest with an encouraging spin on the all-weather, while Cotton Mill was a game second to My Tent Or Yours at Newbury.
He is five pounds higher now, but it's well worth remembering that he was right upsides Simonsig before running out at the second last 12 months ago.
Verdict: Discoteca appeals under the guidance of Jane Mangan, a top-class seven-pound claimer.
2.40 Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle (3m)
At Fishers Cross' form received a fine boost on Wednesday, as he had dug deep to beat the Neptune winner The New One here in January. A second season novice that is now unbeaten in five, AP McCoy's mount is a dour stayer that never gives up. That said, having never won on less than soft, he could do with the rain coming.
African Gold, representing The New One's Twiston-Davies team, is another that has gone well in the mud, but might be less dependent on it than At Fishers Cross. At Doncaster last month, he dropped back in trip to beat Close Touch, which then sluiced up in a hot race at Sandown. He also comes here looking for a five-timer.
Willie Mullins' Ballycasey is hard to assess. He achieved little in his two hurdle wins this term, but he is obviously smart and can only improve. He beat Charles Byrnes' Our Vinnie in a bumper previously and that one also has a chance.
He was no match for Pont Alexandre over two-and-a-half last time, but he won twice over this trip previously and will be no back number.
Verdict: At Fishers Cross might need the rain, but he has the form in the book.
3.20 Cheltenham Gold Cup Chase (3m 2f)
Bobs Worth beat First Lieutenant in convincing style in last year's RSA, and he had the same horse in third when successfully conceding weight to him in the Hennessy on his only start since.
Tidal Bay, well held in second then, franked that form in the Lexus at Leopardstown, so Barry Geraghty's mount is a deserving favourite.
The negatives are that he hasn't run since December 1 and that he has had only five chasing starts, though his jumping has always looked sound.
Sir Des Champs beat Champion Court to take the 2012 Jewson, having won a handicap hurdle here in 2011. He took his first backward steps this term, failing to cope with the race-fit Flemenstar on his Punchestown bow, before early jumping errors cost him in the Lexus.
Still, he recovered to stay on well, beaten only three parts of a length. Had things fallen his way, he would have won, so his form ties in closely with Bobs Worth.
Last time, he finally got it all together to account for Flemenstar with some authority in the Hennessy back at Leopardstown. Good ground and a strong pace would bring out more improvement, though he is better equipped than some to cope if the rain hits.
Long Run cannot be underestimated. Last season, he looked to be paying for his heroic effort to conquer Denman and Kauto Star here in 2011, but the way he knuckled down to overhaul Captain Chris to claim a second King George suggests he is far from done with yet. In first-time cheek-pieces, he still sets the standard.
Silviniaco Conti beat Long Run at Haydock, then destroyed last year's Gold Cup runner-up The Giant Bolster at Newbury.
He has to be a serious player for Paul Nicholls and Ruby Walsh, though his lack of a run over fences here is not ideal.
While Cape Tribulation is game and loves it here, he shouldn't be good enough to win. Likewise the Welsh National winner Monbeg Dude, which would love a cut.
Verdict: Sir Des Champs is primed to justify the nap selection.
4.0 Foxhunter Chase Challenge Cup (3m 2f)
Salsify is a real pro, though his prospects won't be helped if the ground conditions turn to testing. A superlative winner of this 12 months ago, he twice came up just short on heavy going earlier this term, but got back on track at Leopardstown last time.
Last year's runner-up Chapoturgeon is the obvious danger to Colman Sweeney's partner, having got his campaign off to a flyer with a nine-length triumph at Newbury in January. He has been prepared especially for this by David Pipe, so he is feared.
Jane Mangan rides Oscar Delta for her father Jimmy. Third the last two years, a place would be another decent return for him.
Tricky Trickster and Cottage Oak appear to be the pick of the remainder.
Verdict: Salsify is difficult to oppose now that he has hit form again.
4.40 Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' Handicap Hurdle (2m 5f)
Make Your Mark is interesting on his first handicap start. Seventh to Simonsig last year, he should come on for his reappearance third behind Rock Critic at Fairyhouse.
Loch Ard, Edeymi, Toner D'Oudairies, Bridgets Pet and Black Benny complete the Irish contingent.
Black Benny has been put away since finishing third here in November, while Toner D'Oudairies is also intriguing. Just two pounds higher than when second in this in 2012, he has been running well over fences to date this term.
Gevrey Chambertin looks the pick of the English horses. Unbeaten in four, he is 15lbs higher than when winning at Wincanton in January, but he hacked up that day.
Verdict: Toner D'Oudairies might just atone for last year's near miss.
5.15 Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Handicap Chase (2m 1f)
Tom Mullins' Alderwood gets in here off 140, which is just a pound higher than the mark off which he won the County Hurdle last year.
JP McManus' charge has been progressing steadily over fences, will love the ground, and has a nice weight.
Ulck Du Lin has crept 20lbs up the handicap for winning twice in December. He is a five-year-old going the right way, but 11st 3lb is plenty weight in this.
Of Nicky Henderson's six, Barry Geraghty has opted for the 10-year-old French Opera. He was second to Wishfull Thinking last time and that one finished third to Sprinter Sacre on Wednesday.
Tom George's Rody gets in off 10st 11lb, up 13lbs for beating the subsequent easy winner Eastlake at Warwick in January. He has won three of his last four, so is certainly progressive.
Verdict: Rody appeals under Paddy Brennan.
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