Bellshill can change tune for Mullins and end Gold Cup misery
There are more sub-plots in today's Cheltenham Gold Cup than a Hollywood blockbuster as the Festival's final-day showpiece lives up to its star-studded billing.
Can Galway trainer Pat Kelly work the oracle with Presenting Percy and have the west awake once again or is it time for Willie Mullins to end his blue riband heartbreak as he sends a quartet of contenders?
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Or is it to be back-to-back successes for the teak-tough Native River? Time will tell on what promises to be a fascinating day in the Cotswolds.
1.30 GRADE ONE JCB TRIUMPH HURDLE 2m179yds
Few horses switching from the Flat to jumps have brought with them the reputation which Sir Erec did on his hurdling bow but he's thoroughly backing it up so far.
Joseph O'Brien's charge is two from two and couldn't have done much more on his last appearance at Leopardstown when dominating from the front and landing the Spring Juvenile Hurdle in good style.
The market has generally been a good guide in the past ten years with just one winner bigger than 10/1 and for all the doubts about the value of Sir Erec's price, he falls into the 'could be anything' category and Mark Walsh's mount could be special.
Gordon Elliott has won two of the last five runnings and Coeur Sublime is an interesting each-way alternative for Davy Russell having looked very progressive earlier this season.
John McConnell's Hannon brings Grade Two form to the table and is another that could make the frame, while the Paul Nicholls pair of Quel Destin and Pic D'Orhy are respected.
Verdict: Sir Erec can live up to the hype and get punters off to a flier.
2.10 GRADE THREE RANDOX HEALTH COUNTY HANDICAP HURDLE 2m179yds
This 26-runner minefield has been a bookie benefit with no winning favourite since 2006 and shocks at monstrous odds of 50/1, 25/1 and 20/1 (four times).
Mullins has plundered four of the last nine renewals and makes a three-pronged attack today but eyes are immediately drawn to Ruby Walsh aboard Whiskey Sour, even if he is likely to go off favourite .
Third in this race 12 months ago and now just 3lb higher, the former Grade One winner (albeit fortuitously) is a smart dual-purpose performer which has been kept fresh for this having not been seen over hurdles since a respectable effort when seventh in the Galway Hurdle.
Last year's winner Mohaayed is 14lb higher and Dan Skelton's charge may struggle under previous Festival winner Bridget Andrews but first string Ch'tibello has a chance after being put away for this following a fine second at Aintree in December.
Verdict: Punters will be toasting Whiskey Sour and Walsh/Mullins.
2.50 GRADE ONE ALBERT BARTLETT NOVICES' HURDLE 2m7f213yds
What a story it would be if Philip Dempsey could score with Derrinross, the Kildare trainer's only runner of the week, and he won't be far away in a race that has had its fair share of major shocks in recent years.
The likeable eight-year-old has stamina in abundance and will relish this gruelling test having shown his battling qualities with gutsy victories in Grade Two and Grade Three events on his last two starts.
The trainer's son Luke is an underrated talent in the saddle and he can get another good tune out of him from the front while Elliott's Commander Of Fleet is another which will enjoy the trip with the Meath trainer complimentary of his chances.
Likely favourite Lisnagar Oscar was beaten here in December and Rebecca Curtis' charge is worth taking on at the head of the market, while Nicky Henderson's Birchdale comes into the equation, but may lack the experience of others.
Mullins and Walsh rely on the lightly-raced Allaho - a Grade Three winner over hurdles on his second start for the Closutton maestro - but it would be a surprise if he were defy inexperience to land the telling blow.
Verdict: It would be a surprise if Derrinross doesn't make the places.
3.30 GRADE ONE MAGNERS GOLD CUP CHASE 3m2f70yds
A classic renewal with a top-class field befitting of a blue riband where a case could be made for anything up to a dozen of the 16 contenders so it's not a simple job that faces punters.
The last horse to defend the Gold Cup was the great Best Mate (2002/2003) and that's the scale of the task facing Colin Tizzard's Native River in what looks a much better renewal than 12 months ago.
Tizzard has other contenders in the classy Thistlecrack and Welsh National winner Elegant Escape but the value for Nicholls' progressive King George winner Clan Des Obeaux has disappeared in recent weeks.
The roof will come off if Russell can steer Presenting Percy - trained by the enigmatic Kelly - home in front but he must overcome all kinds of odds having not jumped a fence in public this year.
Already a two-time Festival winner and a brilliant RSA Chase winner, the eight-year-old showed his rude health when landing the Galmoy Hurdle, but this is a vintage Gold Cup and others are marginally preferred.
Anibale Fly - last year's Gold Cup third - has a live each-way chance again for Tony Martin, while Shattered Love could squeak into the frame for Elliott but this might be the time for Mullins to end his hoodoo.
He has hit the post six times and sends four into battle today but Bellshill - which has the assistance of Walsh - might be the answer as there could be much more to come from the Irish Gold Cup winner.
Verdict: Bellshill may finally break Mullins' Gold Cup duck.
4.10 ST JAMES'S PLACE FOXHUNTER CHALLENGE CUP 3m2f70yds
The amateur riders' Gold Cup pitches young against old with Enda Bolger's promising seven-year-old Stand Up And Fight going toe to toe with Elliott's 11-year-old Ucello Conti.
Stand Up And Fight is progressive and has the assistance of crack amateur Derek O'Connor but it may pay to side with experience in the shape of Ucello Conti.
Jamie Codd is in the plate on the veteran and with an abundance of good handicap form to his name - as well as being 3-3 in this sphere - he could take all the beating.
Nicholls' Pacha Du Polder has won the last two runnings at big odds and goes off as an outsider once again but Harriet Tucker's mount can't be discounted along with Hazel Hill.
Philip Rowley's charge has landed 14 of his last 15 races and is a serious contender for the home team.
Verdict: Ucello Conti can land Elliott's first Foxhunters Chase under Codd.
4.50 GRADE THREE GRAND ANNUAL HANDICAP CHASE 2m62yds
Nicky Henderson always makes a bold bid to land the race in honour of his late father Johnny and relies on Whatswrongwithyou, which has claims having shown plenty of promise in wins at Ffos Las and Fontwell.
There's only one Irish challenger in the shape of Henry de Bromhead's Mind's Eye - which has placed claims if putting his best foot forward under Rachael Blackmore - but this difficult punters' puzzle can go the way of Nicholls and Le Prezien.
Last year's commanding winner hasn't pulled up any trees this season but, as a result, the eight-year-old is just 1lb higher this time around and can land back-to-back renewals for a trainer which has won this race four times since 2004.
Verdict: La Prezien is the safest option in a typically trappy affair.
5.30 MARTIN PIPE CONDITIONAL JOCKEYS' H'CAP HURDLE 2m4f56yds
Elliott makes no apologies in saying that outside of winning the championship races, this is the one he wants to win most having served his apprenticeship under Martin Pipe.
His best chance in this tricky 24-runner riddle is with the Donagh Meyler-ridden Dallas Des Pictons, which stood out as one for the notebook when showing the right attitude and plenty of stamina to score on his handicap debut at the Dublin Racing Festival in Leopardstown last month.
The progressive six-year-old ticks a lot of boxes under last year's winning jockey and having won the last two runnings, the Meath trainer holds most of the aces again.
He has two other market principles in the shape of Cartright - a Listed winner last season - and Defi Bleu, which has impressive Grade Two form, while O'Brien has a live contender in Early Doors with Jonjo O'Neill Jr in the plate as the visiting team look to have control of this.
Verdict: Dallas Des Pictons can maintain the Elliott stranglehold.