'Buveur' to hold Irish mares at bay and earn his deserved day in sun
It's been many years since racing folk salivated at the thoughts of a barnstorming Champion Hurdle but fireworks are expected as Buveur D'Air faces his date with destiny and kicks off the Festival in style.
There was little enthusiasm towards the two-mile hurdling division before Christmas as Buveur D'Air looked set to stroll his way into the history books but the story has taken several plot turns.
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The shock defeat of Henderson's superstar in the Christmas Hurdle combined with the emergence of Apple's Jade and the potential of Laurina have punters on the edge of their seats for today's renewal.
If Buveur D'Air is to become the sixth horse to win a hat-trick of Champion Hurdles - and the most recent since the mighty Istabraq (1998-2000) - he's going to have to do it the hard way.
1.30 Grade One SKY BET SUPREME NOVICES' HURDLE 2m87yds
WILLIE MULLINS has won the Festival opener five times - including a hat-trick of victories in 2013, '14 and '15 - but he has also had the beaten favourite in the last three renewals.
Ruby Walsh rides Klassical Dream, but having only held off stablemate Aramon by a head when landing a Leopardstown Grade One last month, the latter stands out at three times his odds under Paul Townend.
Previously a Grade One winner, Aramon is the value each-way option in an open affair where Joseph O'Brien's Fakir D'oudairies, a highly impressive Grade Two scorer here in January, receives an invaluable 8lb allowance and should be in the vicinity.
Betfair Hurdle winner Al Dancer commands serious respect for Nigel Twiston-Davies and is guaranteed to handle Cheltenham's unique undulations having sluiced up here in a handicap hurdle in December.
He looks the most likely winner under his son Sam but is skimpy enough odds to do so with a strong home contingent also holding leading claims with Nicky Henderson's Angels Breath and Paul Nicholls' Grand Sancy.
Verdict: Mullins' second string Aramon can reward each-way punters.
2.10 GRADE One RACING POST ARKLE NOVICES' CHASE 1m7f199yds
SIX of the last seven favourites have obliged - all odds-on shots - but this is anything but a vintage renewal with no stand-out candidate and the Irish challenge is hard to quantify with the home team holding the aces.
It took Mullins' Duc Des Genievres three attempts to get off the mark over fences and while he impressed at Gowran Park, it would be a mild surprise were he to land this, while Gordon Elliott's consistent Hardline may find a couple too good.
Henry de Bromhead's challenge is intriguing with Paloma Blue (Robbie Power) and Ornua (Rachael Blackmore) capable of landing a blow but this may stay with the home team.
Lalor's course form is a big plus and it would be a fairytale story if Kayley Woollacott's charge prevailed but preference is for Glen Forsa, a lightly-raced seven-year-old trained by former English football international Mick Channon.
He has been a revelation since switching to fences and swatted aside the re-opposing Kalashnikov at Sandown last month. Jonathan Burke will set a searing gallop and his stamina may prove best up the famous hill.
Verdict: Glen Forsa may gallop the opposition into submission.
2.50 GRADE THREE ULTIMA HANDICAP CHASE 3m1f
SOME horses light up at the Festival and Coo Star Sivola is one of those with three runs yielding a third in the Fred Winter, fourth place in the Martin Pipe before scoring in this contest 12 months ago off 3lb lower.
While not setting the world alight yet this season, the increasingly soft underfoot conditions will play to the strengths of the seven-year-old, which can double up for Lizzie Kelly and trainer/stepfather Nick Williams.
There hasn't been an Irish winner of this contest since Dun Doire prevailed for Tony Martin and Ruby Walsh 13 years ago - there wasn't even a representative last year - but there's a decent quartet of challengers this time around.
Mullins saddles Thyestes Chase third Up For Review but his previous Festival displays hardly inspire confidence whereas Jessica Harrington's Magic Of Light demands close attention and should make the frame.
Last year's Irish Grand National winner General Principle has been running solidly if not spectacularly and may improve further but stablemate Noble Endeavor looks up against it in an open affair.
Verdict: Coo Star Sivola can make it back-to-back victories under Kelly.
3.30 GRADE ONE UNIBET CHAMPION HURDLE 2m87yds
NINE challengers stand in the way of Buveur D'Air's bid for hurdling immortality as Irish mares Apple's Jade and Laurina throw down the gauntlet in one of the most anticipated races of the week.
While it may not be the strongest era and his form has been regularly questioned, Buveur D'Air has taken all before him and can continue to get the job done as Henderson eyes an eighth Champion Hurdle.
This is his stiffest test thus far, however, as Elliott targets a first two-mile hurdling crown having rerouted Apple's Jade from the Mares' Hurdle.
The 10-time Grade One winner has been scintillating this season - the problems of last season seem to be a thing of the past - but with two Festival defeats already under her belt, some doubts linger and she is worth taking on at short odds despite the possible tipping point of her 7lb mares' allowance.
Mullins' Laurina is the unknown quantity, but having never been tested against the opposite sex, she is worth opposing and the hugely progressive Sharjah could wind up best of the Closutton crew.
Gavin Cromwell's Espoir D'Allen is a live outsider but would have to improve massively while Henderson has a talented mare himself in Verdana Blue, which lowered Buveur D'Air's colours at Christmas, and can make the frame under Davy Russell.
Verdict: Reigning champion Buveur D'Air can cling on to his crown.
4.10 GRADE ONE OLBG MARES' HURDLE 2m3f200yds
WINNER of this race 12 months ago when putting Apple's Jade to the sword, Benie Des Dieux confirmed that form with a smooth Punchestown Festival success and looks every inch a winner barring a mishap.
The lack of a run this season isn't a worry as Mullins made a mockery of that theory with Quevega on five occasions as she dominated this contest with a staggering six victories.
The Closutton maestro has farmed this race, landing nine of the 11 renewals, and the lack of depth among this year's challengers make the eight-year-old the banker on the opening day under Walsh.
Mullins has the top three in the market with Limini (David Mullins) and Stormy Ireland (Townend) next best to 'Benie' as he throws five darts at the board but Lady Buttons may prove the biggest danger.
This looks like the optimum trip for Philip Kirby's nine-year-old and having won her four starts this season, Thomas Dowson's mount is the likeliest to cause a shock.
Verdict: Benie Des Dieux is banker material for the Mullins-Walsh axis.
4.50 LISTED CLOSE BROTHERS NOV' HANDICAP CHASE 2m4f44yds
THE raiding party look to hold the aces this year but have prevailed just once in the last 10 runnings.
It looks a 20-runner minefield but the last 10 winners have been priced 12/1 or less so it should pay to stick with the top end of the market and De Bromhead's A Plus Tard is a stand-out candidate under Blackmore.
The Tipperary jockey chases her first Festival success and the progressive five-year-old ticks a lot of boxes having twice prevailed in large fields similar to today and shown himself adaptable on different ground.
Yet to finish out of the first three in eight career starts, the best is yet to come from Cheveley Park's A Plus Tard but this is competitive with Tom Taaffe's Riders Onthe Storm a danger, as is Joseph O'Brien's Tower Bridge.
Elliott is triple-handed but Cubomania - which won well here in October - could go best while Nicholls is a master in these events and Movewiththetimes is a live contender under Barry Geraghty.
Verdict: Blackmore can continue her stellar season aboard A Plus Tard.
5.30 GRADE TWO NATIONAL HUNT CHALLENGE CUP 3m7f147yds
THE father and son combination of Willie and Patrick Mullins landed this gruelling stamina test last year with Rathvinden and hold high hopes for Ballyward today.
Vying for favouritism with Henderson's Ok Corral at around 3/1, the pair have history as Ballyward was three lengths adrift when fourth in last year's Albert Bartlett and they've both progressed nicely over fences.
Paul Nolan's Discorama was alongside Ballyward when falling at the last in Naas and has a chance while Harrington's Whisperinthebreeze is respected under Finian Maguire, although this trip is an unknown.
Ok Corral looks the classiest of these, however, and has produced two smooth efforts over the larger obstacles while the assistance of Derek O'Connor - twice a winner of this event - is another plus.
Demanding conditions will be to his liking and if Ok Corral stays like his pedigree suggests, he'll take all the beating.
Verdict: Ok Corral can land the telling blow in the lucky last.