Buveur D'Air to clean up on a day for mud lovers
So often, the ground at Cheltenham has been heavy a week before the Festival but, through a combination of efficient drainage, a breeze, and a sun with spring warmth in it, it has barely been good-to-soft by the time the roar goes up at the start of the opening race.
But, in a throwback to the days when the winters seemed to last a bit longer - Brown Lad's Stayers' Hurdle success in 1975 springs to mind, when the meeting was abandoned after Ten Up's Gold Cup, as does the image of Chinrullah running away with the 1980 Champion Chase with his tail tied up - there is "heavy" in the going description for the first time on the Tuesday since 1982.
The mud will be flying and the only men busier than the barmen pulling pints in the Guinness village will be the jockeys' valets. Every day this week will be washing day but, at the back of a pretty wet winter, that should be good news for punters. Having watched horses race on heavy going all winter, they will not have to recalibrate that form for the uncertainty caused by quicker ground.
For much of yesterday morning, the limestone cliffs of Cleeve Hill were invisible in a cloak of low cloud which had stubbornly plonked itself on the Cotswolds. Below it, Willie Mullins oversaw a string of 28 - his horses for the first two days - in the rain as it topped up an already wet course.
A fortnight ago, Cheltenham was hoping for a drop of rain.
This week, the Festival's most successful trainer, Nicky Henderson, has a chance of becoming the first to saddle the winner of all of Cheltenham's big three races, the Champion Hurdle, Champion Chase and Gold Cup, at the same meeting.
In Buveur D'Air, Altior - which has to overcome the last-minute hitch of a poisoned foot - and Might Bite, he has the favourites for each. None will revel in the mud quite like reigning champion hurdler Buveur D'Air, which has won all three starts this season with ridiculous ease.
The only thing he has not had is a proper race but, even though Buveur D'Air is a tubby individual, we can take it for granted no man knows better than Henderson, with six Champion Hurdle trophies on his mantelpiece, how to have one ripe for the big day.
The race certainly does not look any better than last year's and lacks the depth of some others. Equally, it is hard to see any chink in the seven-year-old's armour. His biggest asset is his jumping, which he conducts with a surgeon's precision. And, apart from it being a big enough field for a bit of bad luck to be floating around, it is hard to see him being beaten.
Stablemate My Tent Or Yours, a runner-up three times, has been kept fresh and won here in December, but Sea Pigeon and Hatton's Grace are the only 11-year-olds to have triumphed since the War, so the odds are stacked against him finally breaking his duck.
Had Faugheen been back to his imperious best, the 2015 winner might even have started favourite. But the addition of cheekpieces looks like a final throw of the dice in Mullins's quest to rediscover the old Faugheen.
His stablemate, the mercurial Yorkhill - winner of the JLT last year and the Ballymore in 2016 - returns to hurdles for the first time in two years, but only if a return to Cheltenham gives him that magic ingredient 'X' has he any chance of the hat-trick.
That leaves us with one to follow Buveur D'Air home. Wicklow Brave, whose last run was in the Melbourne Cup, is a possibility. A County Hurdle winner on the soft, he was seventh in it last year and Patrick Mullins got a good tune out of him when letting him rip along in front at Punchestown last April where he beat My Tent Or Yours.
He is, however, just as likely to plant himself at the start, so the progressive Elgin looks the one for the forecast.
Tuesday is traditionally a good day for Mullins, though he drew a blank last year. He will have high hopes for Getabird, impressive in two starts over hurdles, but he possibly lacks the experience of Kalashnikov, which bids to give 25-year-old Amy Murphy her first Festival winner as a trainer.
Out of an unraced sister to Kicking King, he powered home in the soft in Newbury's Betfair Hurdle and appears to have improved since he was beaten by Summerville Boy in the Tolworth, though Tom George's charge should not be lightly dismissed.
The only disappointment about the Racing Post Arkle is that only five are in the mix, but it comes under the heading "small is beautiful".
The first three in the betting, Footpad, Petit Mouchoir and Saint Calvados all like to make the running, while Brain Power likes to be held up off a strong pace. In the conditions, I prefer the Harry Whittington-trained Saint Calvados.
If Buveur D'Air and Apple's Jade, today's other odds-on shot, in the OLBG Hurdle, both come in as expected, the bookmakers will take an early bath and punters will be singing about the rain. (© Daily Telegraph, London)