'Bite' set to grab Gold as Henderson eyes more history
Big prizes are nothing new to Nicky Henderson but the Seven Barrows handler has set his eyes on the most lucrative of them all when Might Bite goes for Gold in today's blue riband.
Winner of the Gold Cup with Long Run (2011) and Bobs Worth (2013), Henderson also bids to become the first trainer to take today's Cheltenham showpiece along with the Champion Hurdle and Champion Chase in the same season.
Might Bite's main opposition comes in the form of Jessica Harrington's Our Duke - owned and bred by the Cooper family from Laois - as the Moone handler targets successive Gold Cup triumphs following the victory of Sizing John, her first runner in the race, 12 months ago.
His absence due to injury takes some of the gloss off but there are still plenty of worthy sub-plots with Willie Mullins bidding to reverse his bad luck in the race - finishing second on six occasions - with the exciting Killultagh Vic leading the Closutton charge.
Gigginstown House Stud took all before them yesterday and Michael O'Leary is plotting another big day with Road To Respect - which defeated yesterday's impressive Ryanair Chase winner Balko Des Flos in Leopardstown's Christmas Chase.
O'Leary took the race two years ago with Don Cossack and will hope to be in the winners' enclosure with what is Noel Meade's only runner of the Festival.
With Apple's Shakira, Santini and Might Bite all holding leading chances, they could find that Henderson sets the bar too high today.
1.30 GRADE ONE JCB TRIUMPH HURDLE 2m 179yds
Favourites have obliged in the last three runnings while Henderson has also trained the winner on six occasions so there's certainly a lot to like about market leader Apple's Shakira.
JP McManus's filly looks the one to beat with the testing conditions not a worry and she responded well when shaken up and asked for more to score over course and distance in January.
Mullins, who has won this race just once, has a four-pronged attack and while Mr Adjudicator has already scored in the top grade, it's interesting to note that the stricken Ruby Walsh was set to ride Stormy Ireland instead.
Stormy Ireland left a huge impression when winning her maiden hurdle on heavy ground by 58 lengths but much like stable-mates Saldier and Sayo, this is a significant step up on anything we have seen at the racecourse and the home challenge is preferred.
Alan King has been waxing lyrical about Grade Two winner Redicean, believing that he has more gears than 2007 winner Katchit, but his three wins at a flat Kempton track don't prepare him best for the unique undulations of Cheltenham.
Given that she gets the 7lb sex allowance from all but one rival, and has the assistance of the brilliant Barry Geraghty, it's hard to look past Apple's Shakira.
Verdict: Trust Apple's Shakira to get Friday off to a flyer.
2.10 GRADE THREE RANDOX HEALTH COUNTY HANDICAP HURDLE 2m 179yds
The form of Mullins' Bleu Et Rouge's second to Kalashnikov in the competitive Betfair Hurdle worked out well, with the winner second in the Supreme on Tuesday, but this race has every look of another bookmaker's bonanza with no favourite prevailing in the last 10 years.
Mullins has won four of the last eight renewals and also sends Lagostovegas, Whiskey Sour, Merie Devie and Sandsend into battle but last year's Scottish Hurdle winner Chesterfield is of particular interest for his namesake Seamus Mullins.
Off 3lbs lower today, Daniel Sansom's mount should be a big player. The eight-year-old course winner thrives at this time of year and is coming to the boil after a disappointing winter. He represents good each-way value in a lottery.
Verdict: Chesterfield (e/w) can make the frame in an open affair.
2.50 GRADE ONE ALBERT BARTLETT NOVICES' HURDLE 2m 7f 213yds
Mullins won this race 12 months ago with second string Penhill and Ballyward looks the best of his trio (Real Steel and Fabulous Saga also take their chance) but the leading Irish challenge may come from Chris's Dream.
In his first run for Henry de Bromhead, the six-year-old was a sensational 64-length winner of a Grade Three at Clonmel in similar conditions and if repeating that form, he is a big player.
Joseph O'Brien's Tower Bridge had Dortmund Park six lengths back at Leopardstown last month but it would be no surprise to see form reversed with Elliott's runner having since undergone a wind operation.
The British challenge looks a formidable one, however, with Grade One Challow Hurdle winner Poetic Rhythm respected for Fergal O'Brien and it's hard to look past the formidable Seven Barrows team.
Henderson saddles four runners with Chef Des Obeaux the biggest danger to Santini, which was a course winner on his last run with form franked by Wednesday's Ballymore runner-up Black Op, which was behind on that occasion. Past winners have usually won over 3m and Santini ticks that box among many others.
Verdict: Santini may prove best in an open affair.
3.30 GRADE ONE TIMICO CHELTENHAM GOLD CUP 3m 2f 70yds
There will be no shortage of Irish challengers with half of the field making the trip to contest the blue riband and Harrington has an outstanding chance of winning back-to-back Gold Cups with Our Duke.
The absence of defending champion Sizing John is disappointing but last year's Irish Grand National hero Our Duke jumped back into the picture when proving too good for Presenting Percy - which cantered to RSA Chase glory two days ago - at Gowran Park,
Killultagh Vic looked a certain winner of the Irish Gold Cup before crashing out at the last and leads a strong Mullins quartet as the Closutton maestro bids break his duck.
Ladbrokes Trophy winner Total Recall is a progressive sort and not without a chance, O'Brien's Edwulf produced a career-best at Leopardstown and Road To Respect could improve further but the prize is likely to be wrestled back by the home team.
Henderson's Might Bite hasn't been seen since claiming the King George in decent fashion on St Stephen's Day and while there are question marks about him idling in front, the nine-year-old is far less likely to be sent for home until the time is right.
He drifted massively right 12 months ago in the RSA with the race at his mercy before rallying to win by a nose when joined by Whisper but hasn't blotted his copybook this season and his trainer insists they have "a battle plan" for today's contest.
Last year's third Native River is a dour stayer and could go one better while Brian Ellison's Definitly Red is a live outsider, but if Might Bite keeps a straight course, he will be hard beaten with Ruby Walsh saying he is "potentially one of the greatest horses we've ever seen".
Verdict: Might Bite to devour the field.
4.10 ST JAMES'S PLACE FOXHUNTER CHALLENGE CUP OPEN HUNTERS' CHASE 3m 2f 70yds
Pacha Du Polder provided Paul Nicholls with his sole Festival winner 12 months ago and makes a back-to-back bid but he may play second fiddle to stable-mate Wonderful Charm.
A fast-finishing second in last year's race when ninth turning the home bend, he only went down by a neck and if given a more positive ride by Sam Waley-Cohen, the recent Musselburgh scorer can make amends.
The classy Foxrock - twice a Grade Two scorer and placed at Grade One level - looks dangerous for Alan Fleming and Katie Walsh while favourite Burning Ambition has huge scope.
Burning Ambition will be Wexford trainer Pierce Michael Power's first Festival runner and looks one to keep on side of in the future, while on the other end of the spectrum, 13-year-old On The Fringe goes for a third win.
Verdict: Wonderful Charm to gain compensation for last year's second.
4.50 MARTIN PIPE CONDITIONAL JOCKEYS' HANDICAP HURDLE 2m 4f 56yds
Elliott has made no bones about the fact that this race is close to his heart having learned his craft under Martin Pipe and he makes a four-pronged attack to try follow up last year's win.
Flawless Escape was ahead of yesterday's Pertemps Final winner Delta Work when third at Leopardstown last time out and heads his team, but French recruit Sire Du Berlais is another open to any mount of improvement in the McManus colours.
Punters should tread with caution in this open handicap but it may pay to side with another of the Limerick owner's charges as Early Doors is having his first run at this level after keeping Grade One company on his last two runs.
If you put a line through his last effort behind Samcro, he has a great chance for O'Brien and jockey JJ Slevin and ticks many boxes with only five and six-year-olds prevailing in this race thus far.
Verdict: Early Doors can bounce back to his best and make an impression.
5.30 GRADE THREE JOHNNY HENDERSON GRAND ANNUAL HANDICAP CHASE 2m 62yds
Harrington rarely sends runners to the Festival unless she feels they have a live chance and has just four representatives this week, two of them here, including last year's winner Rock The World in the McManus green and gold hoops.
He has performed with credit in the past two renewals but preference is for stable-mate Don't Touch It providing his jumping stands up to the test in this 24-runner minefield.
A Grade One-winning novice hurdler two years ago, he hasn't scaled the same heights over fences but with cheekpieces applied again - he won when last wearing headgear - and the assistance of Mark Walsh, this could be his day in the sun.
Only two favourites have won in the last 16 runnings so one at bigger prices to keep in mind might be Dresden, which finished strongly up the hill two years ago for trainer Henry Oliver.
Verdict: Don't Touch It to get it right and fulfil his doubtless potential.