Arctic to fire opening salvo for Mullins in Aintree Hurdle
Buoyed by his record-breaking Cheltenham heroics, Willie Mullins will march on Aintree with the largest raiding battalion that he has assembled for the Liverpool gala.
Arctic Fire spearheads the initial sortie this afternoon, before things escalate tomorrow when Champagne Fever joins the Gordon Elliott-trained Don Cossack in a Melling Chase that has the makings of an epic spectacle.
A year ago, the indomitable trilby-sporting general conquered the two-and-a-half-miler courtesy of Boston Bob, and it will be no mean feat if Mullins retains the title, with Sire De Grugy, Balder Succes, Cue Card and Al Ferof among the local resistance.
First up, though, is Arctic Fire's Aintree Hurdle raid. Jessica Harrington's 2014 champion Jezki is also on duty under AP McCoy, and it is interesting that he landed the 2013 Hatton's Grace at Fairyhouse on his only previous stab at this two-and-a-half-mile trip.
A strongly-run two miles has often seemed to suit him best, so the manner in which Faugheen dictated the fractions unimpeded at Cheltenham was to his detriment. McCoy was eventually one of the first to go after Faugheen, but Jezki simply didn't have the gears to quicken off the moderate pace.
This test could suit Jezki, as he might just enjoy rolling along over further here, with the flatter, quicker track enabling him to get into a rhythm. Still, Arctic Fire appeals as the more progressive option right now.
A number of those that figured prominently at Cheltenham suffered a bit of a hangover at Fairyhouse, so that is a concern for Ruby Walsh's mount, as is the uncharted territory of the trip and his poor win-ratio.
On the plus side, he didn't seem to have an especially hard race at Cheltenham as he was ridden to place and stayed on purposefully, avoiding a gruelling battle.
Arctic Fire clearly has questions to answer and Aintree isn't an easy two-and-a-half miles at this level, because they go so hard. Nonetheless, Walsh will doubtless put him to sleep early on again, so he is entitled to the benefit of the doubt as he has been performing consistently well at the highest level all year.
Rock On Ruby is possibly the chief threat to the selection, with the most significant factor about Harry Fry's 2012 champion being that he comes here fresh, having skipped Cheltenham. Just denied by The New One in a thriller here in 2014 and third a year earlier, he has been something of a revelation this term, winning in the Cotswolds in December and January.
At 10 years of age, though, he could prove vulnerable now that he goes back up in class. Noel Fehily, who gets such a fine tune out of Rock On Ruby, is also aboard Silviniaco Conti in the Betfred Bowl.
Paul Nicholls' 2014 winner misfired completely in the Gold Cup, possibly due to the lack of a recent run as much as anything. He should be better for that now, so he can bounce back on a track that seems to suit him, with Jonjo O'Neill's Cheltenham fourth Holywell the danger under McCoy.
Walsh partners Elliott's Clarcam in the two-and-a-half-mile Grade One novices' chase, with the Nico De Boinville-ridden Josses Hill out to build on his Arkle Trophy third.
However, Clarcam is hard to assess and Josses Hill's jumping remains unconvincing, so Nicholls' Vibrato Valtat is a viable alternative. Sam Twiston-Davies' mount has a bit of quality, and this longer trip might suit.
Brian Hamilton's Warne seeks to replicate last year's Foxhunters triumph over the Grand National fences for Aintree expert Sam Waley-Cohen.
He is joined by five other Irish-trained contenders, including Enda Bolger's Prestbury Park victor, On The Fringe. If Nina Carberry's back-to-form ally takes to the once formidable fences, he could double up over a trip that should bring out the best in him. Selections - 1.40 Vibrato Valtat 2.15 Hargam 2.50 Silviniaco Conti 3.25 Arctic Fire 4.05 On The Fringe 4.40 Ted Veale 5.15 Taglietelle