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Blackmore and A Plus Tard all set to fly home in Ryanair test

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Rachael Blackmore celebrates last year’s win on A Plus Tard – the pair are fancied to strike again today. Photo: Sportsfile

Rachael Blackmore celebrates last year’s win on A Plus Tard – the pair are fancied to strike again today. Photo: Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

Rachael Blackmore celebrates last year’s win on A Plus Tard – the pair are fancied to strike again today. Photo: Sportsfile

It's probably too much to ask of Day 3 - traditionally the quietest of Cheltenham's four days - to repeat last year's remarkable feel-good 'golden hour' when Frodon and Bryony Frost battled back to land the Ryanair Chase and then Paisley Park took the Stayers' Hurdle.

All things being equal, Paisley Park, which belongs to blind owner Andrew Gemmell, should keep his half of the deal and defend his long-distance hurdle title in his own inimitable way: looking in trouble off the home bend only to find time for sightseeing as he flies up the hill.

But Frost and Frodon face a sterner test this year than just Aso, which led them over the final fence 12 months ago, and the threat she might find insurmountable today comes from someone who sits alongside her in the ladies' changing room, Rachael Blackmore on A Plus Tard.

Although Frodon comes into the race fresh and having returned to form at Kempton Park last time in the gritty, determined way that makes him so hard to pass, the first half of his season was beset by problems with ulcers. At eight, he is no spent force but this looks the perfect race for A Plus Tard to join the Henry de Bromhead bandwagon of winners this week.

He was the easiest victor at last year's Festival - scooting 16 lengths clear in the Close Brothers Novices' Handicap Chase over this trip. When his Co Waterford trainer stretched him in distance at Punchestown, he was a good third to Delta Work, one of the Gold Cup favourites, and when he dropped him back to two at Leopardstown over Christmas he beat the classy Chacun Pour Soi.

While the two-mile Champion Chase might have looked tempting, at two miles 4½ furlongs, the Ryanair looks his optimum trip.

But after yesterday brought two seconds, including in the RSA Chase when Minella Indo looked home for all money until Champ appeared from nowhere, Blackmore will be taking nothing for granted and will know that Cheltenham can be as cruel as it can be kind. It is no two-horse, two-woman race either.

Indeed, there's an argument that this is one of the deeper chases at this year's fixture. Aso seems to save his best for Cheltenham, while the ever-consistent Min, which has lived in the shadow of the Willie Mullins-trained big shots Un De Sceaux, Douvan and, now Chacun Pour Soi, has chased home Altior over two miles.

Whether or not the Ryanair goes to a female jockey for the second year running, there is a strong chance that the Paddy Power Stayers' Hurdle will go to a female trainer for the second year in succession.

Thus far, Emma Lavelle has not put a foot wrong in her handling of Paisley Park and, certainly in her own mind, the best decision she made this season was to pull the horse out of Ascot's Long Walk Hurdle, which was run on desperate ground.

Since he began his winning sequence seven runs ago, nothing has got anywhere near the bottom of the eight-year-old and even when he beat Summerville Boy by a length-and-a-quarter in the Cleeve Hurdle in January, he did it with his ears pricked and, apparently, bags left in the tank. He is the grape to his rivals' Tantalus - almost reachable but, at the same time, never within reach.

While some horses are not demonstrative at home, Paisley Park is and he has been giving off all the right signals to Lavelle.

"He's in great shape, looks great and is very happy about life. He can't wait and he's doing everything you'd expect of him," she said yesterday.

"We took him to Newbury last week to get his blood up. He's ready and each day we keep thinking, 'Please, let it be Thursday'."

For Lavelle, who watched Cheltenham on the television yesterday, the worst, most nervous time is the 10 minutes between legging up Aidan Coleman and the start of the race.

"There's nothing to focus on during those 10 minutes," the trainer explained. "Once the race begins, of course, you focus on that. Having said that, I'm not going to be up for too many deep and meaningful conversations during the morning but, otherwise, I'm not too bad."

Endear

The only way either of these races could be trumped today or the golden hour be extended to two is if Faugheen - the 2015 Champion Hurdle hero and the second most popular horse in Ireland after Tiger Roll - were to win the opening Marsh Novices' Chase. The old horse is a favourite of trainer Mullins, who had to wait until yesterday's finale for Ferny Hollow to open this year's Festival account.

Not many horses go novice chasing the season they turn 12 and, if he pulls this off against horses half his age, coronavirus will not be the main reason for hankies at Cheltenham today.

He faces a strong home challenge from Itchy Feet, who bids to give young trainer Olly Murphy his first Festival win, and Mister Fisher, which can't be disregarded for the simple fact that he's trained by Nicky Henderson.

But for a litany of ailments, Rich Ricci's Faugheen 'The Machine' might have been if not another Arkle, at least another Dawn Run, capable of winning a Champion Hurdle and Gold Cup. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk