Ballycasey can add to Mullins' impressive figures
Irish champion trainer has strong double claims but Nicholls can land big prize with Hinterland
There's a touch of Hamlet without the prince about Cheltenham today as Sprinter Sacre's absence renders the Queen Mother Champion Chase a pale reflection of the race it might have been.
Sire De Grugy has stepped into the breach admirably through the winter months and he remains an uneasy favourite to again exploit Nicky Henderson's spectacular chaser's absence.
It would be the stuff of fairytales if he were to claim the BetVictor-sponsored two-miler for the famously hard-working father-son partnership of Gary and Jamie Moore, but doubts persist over his ability to perform to his absolute best around Prestbury Park.
That might leave the door open for one of the four Irish raiders and it says something of the race's unusually subdued status that Henry de Bromhead's 2011 hero Sizing Europe couldn't be written off with any great conviction. Sure, he is unlikely to win at 12 years of age, but you can readily draw a line through his two latest outings following a typically comprehensive defeat of Baily Green on his Gowran Park reappearance in October.
He went toe-to-toe with Sprinter Sacre 12 months ago before ultimately crying enough en route to filling the runner-up berth for a second time and then got within five lengths of him when Andrew Lynch wisely chose not to eyeball the champion at Punchestown. De Bromhead clearly believes Sizing Europe is sprightly enough to do himself justice again.
The shrewd Co Waterford handler's Special Tiara is another that thrives on a bit of spring ground, likewise Mouse Morris' Baily Green, a surprise runner-up to the mighty Simonsig in last year's Arkle. Willie Mullins relies on Arvika Ligeonnniere in his quest to claim the £350,000 showpiece for a first time, though he may have better chances elsewhere.
In the Neptune Investment Novices' Hurdle, he unleashes Faugheen. Some people's idea of banker material, the precocious six-year-old puts his flawless record on the line as he tackles Grade One company for a first time. Ballycasey also boasts a 100pc record over fences.
The handsome grey was this corner's idea of banker material until he fell while schooling at Leopardstown last week. That is enough to cool expectations slightly, though Mullins' Rule Supreme also hit the deck during the same routine before claiming this 10 years ago.
The champion trainer saddles three in his quest to secure a remarkable ninth Champion Bumper success. Incredibly, his Black Hercules, Shaneshill and Killultagh Vic contest the first three places in the betting, while Dermot Weld will strive to bring his 24-year Festival drought to an end with Vigil and Silver Concorde, both of which have live claims.
Indeed, it will go down as one of the shocks of the week if this doesn't cross the water for a 17th time since its inception in 1992, with Philip Fenton looking to lift his spirits by adding to Dunguib's incredible 2009 rout with Value At Risk. Pat Fahy saddles Stack The Deck and his modest Carlow stable also has a cracking chance with Morning Assembly in the RSA.
Both will be steered by the exquisite Davy Russell, who is also aboard Special Tiara. The now freelance champion jockey was never likely to spend too much time sitting on his hands.
1.30 GRADE ONE NEPTUNE INVESTMENT MANAGEMENT NOVICES' HURDLE 2M 5F
Faugheen carries a tall reputation into this. He boasts an unbeaten run comprising a point-to-point, a bumper and three hurdles, with his form receiving a timely boost when Empire Of Dirt, which finished second to him at Navan in December, scoring at Naas on Sunday.
That sums up his form in general, as, while he has thrashed everything that has crossed his path, he hasn't encountered any genuine Grade One contenders.
He seems ground-versatile, though his chance would probably be enhanced by a drop of rain.
His stablemate Rathvinden is held by Red Sherlock on their January meeting here. Red Sherlock is also unbeaten for David Pipe and has rarely looked anything less than smart. For all that he flashes his tail, he is tough and genuine, with the versatility to handle all sorts of going.
Royal Boy has excelled for the prompt switch back to hurdles after chasing Melodic Rendezvous home on his initial two outings this season.
An easy winner over this sort of trip at Ascot, he toughed it out to beat stablemate Josses Hill on dropping back to two miles in Grade One company at Kempton last time.
He is a likeable, uncomplicated sort that is going in the right direction for Nicky Henderson.
Verdict: Red Sherlock has bundles of quality and is proven over the course.
2.05 GRADE ONE RSA
CHASE 3M 1F
Ballycasey fluffed his lines with a schooling fall at Leopardstown last week. Obviously, that's not ideal, but it may not be critical, as he is an alert sort with a decent technique.
Equally, he had the class to beat some very good horses over two miles on his chasing bow, before then seeing off Don Cossack and Carlingford Lough on stepping up in trip and grade. Morning Assembly is another serious player, with three miles likely to suit especially well.
He was toppled by Carlingford Lough at Christmas, so that doesn't read well. However, he is a resolute sort that jumps cleanly, and this better ground might suit.
Don Cossack will also appreciate the going, but he has questions to answer in terms of resolve over this trip.
Smad Place was a high-class staying hurdler that has really got the hang of fences on his last two starts. He could have a big say if he jumps clear.
Verdict: Ballycasey is napped to leave his schooling spill behind.
2.40 GRADE THREE CORAL CUP (HANDICAP HURDLE) 2M 5F
Dunguib showed last time that he is no back number, but he has plenty on his plate under top-weight. Smashing might be slightly better treated now that he returns to a more suitable trip than when well held by Splash Of Ginge at Newbury, though the drying sod may not be ideal.
Gordon Elliott's Bayan is another to consider under Davy Condon. He has been put away for this since his second here to Sametegal in October, and gets in off a fair mark. Third in the November handicap, he sluiced up in a charity race recently so he will be plenty fit enough.
Of the locals, Clondaw Kaempfer could be quite unexposed. Don McCain's charge left the impression there that there is more in him when a staying-on third at Aintree in December.
Verdict: Bayan isn't badly treated and he has been trained especially for this contest.
3.20 GRADE ONE BETVICTOR QUEEN MOTHER CHAMPION CHASE 2M
Sire De Grugy has excelled this season, and the manner in which he has been winning his races suggests he is worthy of his top rating here. Although all ground comes alike to him, he handles soft better than others might. His record at Prestbury Park is the chief concern, with a pair of seconds against Kid Cassidy and Captain Conan all he has to show from two starts.
That said, he is 10lbs better off with Kid Cassidy now than he was last November. Kid Cassidy struggled in soft ground at Leopardstown subsequently and doesn't appeal as a serious contender at this level.
Captain Conan might be a more likely type. He has some quality form, and probably has more to give than when third behind Sire De Grugy on his Tingle Creek reappearance.
As a novice, Paul Nicholls' Hinterland certainly should have room for improvement. Held by Captain Conan at Sandown last term, he has progressed to win both his outing this time round, latterly edging out Grandouet in the Henry VIII Chase.
The evergreen Sizing Europe still has a chance of a place at 12 years of age. He has not been out of the first two here for four years and is still a far better horse than his most recent turn at Leopardstown suggests, when he went far too quick on heavy ground.
Arvika Ligeonniere has a moderate record here, he would prefer deeper going and doesn't seem to enjoy going left-handed. Of more interest would be Special Tiara and Baily Green, both of which relish a decent surface and come into their own at this time of year.
Verdict: Hinterland appeals as having the scope to step up in a wide-open renewal.
CROSS-COUNTRY HANDICAP CHASE 3M 7F
Big Shu, Balthazar King and Sizing Australia return for another stab at a novelty event they have all won before. They excel over this course, but each has plenty weight to carry this afternoon.
Enda Bolger is also typically well represented, though it is highly unusual for him to leave Nina Carberry sitting in the weigh room.
Adrian Heskin takes over on the coming force Love Rory, which Carberry beat Big Shu on at Punchestown last month.
Star Neuville is another relative newcomer to this discipline to consider.
He was third to Sizing Australia at Punchestown in the spring and gets in off a negligible weight today after catching the eye on his recent comeback over flights at Fairyhouse.
Verdict: Star Neuville might be worth a tentative foray in a difficult contest.
4.40 GRADE THREE FRED WINTER JUVENILE HANDICAP HURDLE 2M 1F
Ivan Grozny is interesting off a fair mark, given that he was highly regarded to begin with by Willie Mullins. He wasn't disgraced when fourth to Guitar Pete in Grade One company at Leopardstown, so he may be better in than his top-weighted stablemate Noble Inn.
That said, Noble Inn continues to defy expectations. He beat Clarcam, which is 6lb better off here, on his Ballinrobe debut, and has since been second to Analifet (twice) and Abbyssial. If he improves for good ground he might not be a forlorn hope.
Orgilgo Bay was held behind Guitar Pete, but gets in off a low weight, while the dual winner Dawalan is respected for Nicky Henderson. Katgarry is also of note on his British bow, as Paul Nicholls clearly felt that the two-time French winner is favourably treated off 130.
Verdict: Katgarry is a suitably random selection in a minefield of a race.
5.15 GRADE ONE WEATHERBYS CHAMPION BUMPER 2M 1F
This looks especially tricky, though the Irish delegation appears especially strong. Of the Willie Mullins trio, his son Patrick has opted for Black Hercules.
There is very little to choose between any of the Closutton contenders and Golantilla, Value At Risk and the two Dermot Weld runners, Vigil and Silver Concorde, also have serious claims.
Verdict: Value At Risk has smart form and his stamina may triumph in a true-run race.