Classy Cue Card is napped to foil Irish challenge
King George winner’s form is top-class and Paddy Brennan’s mount has fantastic record at the Festival
Don Cossack spearheads a strong Irish assault on the Timico Gold Cup as the Cheltenham Festival is poised to reach an enthralling climax.
Gordon Elliott's charge shades the market lead for the sport's pinnacle event, a status copperfastened by Bryan Cooper's decision to partner him over Don Poli. For all that the decent ground might have made that call inevitable, Cooper won't have found it easy eschew Don Poli.
In a way, they are polar opposite contenders. Don Cossack's record in Prestbury Park's cauldron of intensity comprises a fall and an unsatisfactory third in the Ryanair Chase.
He also fell when challenging in the King George VI Chase, but, on his day, he is a horse that has the capacity to blow away high-class opposition.
That isn't Don Poli's style, yet he is a dual Festival winner. You can crab the specifics of his form all you like, but a penchant for doing enough is a fine attribute to have in your armoury.
It is also an undoubted plus to have Davy Russell up. Successful in the £575,000 Grade One in 2014 on Lord Windermere, he is one of the truly great big-race riders of our time.
Were he to triumph in the colours of his old Gigginstown Stud employers for Willie Mullins, it would be somewhat ironic. Remember, three years ago a spontaneously punctured lung deprived him of the mount aboard Sir Des Champs for the same team.
AP McCoy would eventually finish second on the spare, but there is an element of unfinished business about Russell delivering in this for Michael O'Leary. Of course, a similar theme applies to Mullins, who has saddled the Gold Cup runner-up on five occasions.
Last year it was Djakadam that hit the crossbar as a mere five-year-old, and he is Rich Ricci's chosen one again today. With Ruby Walsh up, he should have a big say once again, while the artificial watering is of benefit to him.
Still, for all of the romance surrounding the similar path taken by him to the one that Dawn Run traversed 30 years ago, triumphing here on the back of a fall will take some doing. Again, though, in Walsh he has an accomplice with a gift from the gods, and how the Festival's winning-most rider would love to plunder this for his greatest supporter.
Mullins also saddles the 2014 runner-up On His Own and John Kiely, Barry Geraghty and JP McManus combine for Carlingford Lough. Of the locals, Cue Card will bid for the £1m hat-trick under Galway native Paddy Brennan. It will be an epic encounter.
1.30 Grade One JCB Triumph Hurdle 2m 1f
Ivanovich Gorbatov failed to replicate the authority of his maiden hurdle triumph in better company last time. He has an engine and this ground will suit better, but he has something to prove.
Footpad capitalised on his sub-par turn to score for a third time in four starts for connections. It would be unwise to underestimate him. Let's Dance has been beaten by both and shouldn't be good enough, while Zubayr is a live player, having won tidily at Kempton. The handsome Sceau Royal has won its last three and is four from seven in all. That experience will stand to him and his stable do well in this.
Verdict: As juveniles go, Sceau Royal looks a lovely prospect.
2.10 Grade Three Vincent O'Brien County Handicap Hurdle 2m 1f
Henry Higgins beat Desoto County by over four lengths in a valuable event at Leopardstown. He is 16lbs higher here so he may be up against it.
Blue Hell's authoritative defeat of Diamond King and Henry Higgins at Fairyhouse in November reads well now. He is enjoying a new lease of life for a change of stable, and, while he is 22lbs higher, he has scope to improve.
Great Field looked the part when beating Draco on its Irish debut. There is an eight-pound turnaround between those two now. Great Field is unexposed and could yet prove superior to his mark.
Verdict: Blue Hell gets the nod to confirm his smart form for Adrian Heskin.
2.50 Grade One Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle 3m
Barters Hill isn't flashy but tends to gets the job done.
He is unbeaten in seven, is a Grade One winner and stays the trip. It's not easy to find a fault.
Shantou Village's form took a knock when Yanworth, which beat him here in January, got smashed by Yorkhill.
Then again, time might show there was no shame in that.
Shantou Village had previously looked the part, including when winning a Grade Two here in December, and he will be thereabouts if he stays.
Long Dog is also trying three miles for a first time. He has won over two-five, but his two Grade One wins were over two miles.
He is tough, but this is by some way the best race that he has contested in his career.
Gangster hasn't been seen since winning well at Fairyhouse in December. This is another step up and, while he is likeable, he could be up against it.
Bleu Et Rouge beat Tombstone in a Grade One last time and is also trying the trip for a first time.
Verdict: Shantou Village (nb) is one to keep on side now that he steps up in trip.
3.30 Grade One Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup Chase 3m 2f
Last year's gallant runner-up Djakadam warrants a little extra respect after relegating Vautour to the consolation race. It's fair to assume that he has been working the house down.
A proven mudlark, he fell here for a second time in January and has a tendency to land steeply. Winning this on the back of a fall is a huge ask, but he had looked in mean shape when winning at Punchestown in December.
His stablemate Don Poli is a dual Festival winner. In last year's RSA, he bounded home in memorable fashion, although it wasn't a vintage edition.
His lazy running style makes him hard to assess and he is another that would relish slower ground, but he has a habit of doing enough.
Don Cossack has endured a less charmed time here, and was again unlucky when crashing two-out in the King George when seemingly about to challenge.
At Thurles last time, he enjoyed a confidence-boosing round, though it remains a concern that he tends to run in snatches a little on big days.
His two best displays came last spring, when he destroyed the likes of Cue Card, Road To Riches and Djakadam at Aintree and Punchestown, so he clearly has the capacity to prevail.
Cue Card, second to Sprinter Sacre in an Arkle, has won a Champion Bumper and Ryanair Chase before.
He has belatedly bloomed over three miles, chinning Vautour to claim the King George.
He races more maturely now, so, should he settle and stay this extended trip, he is the horse to beat.
Carlingford Lough won his second Hennessy with the help of a little luck last time, but history tells us he isn't up to this.
While Smad Place was well beaten in the race last year, he has been placed three times in Grade Ones at the Festival and won the old Pillar Chase in style last time, beating Sunday's smooth winner, Many Clouds.
He is capable of an upset but might need softer ground to really excel. On His Own, O'Faolains Boy and Irish Cavalier shouldn't be good enough, notwithstanding On His Own's 2014 second in this and his sporadic good recent performances.
Verdict: The heart craves an Irish victory but the head says Cue Card (Nap).
4.10 St James's Place Foxhunter Chase Challenge Cup 3m 2f
Last year's facile winner On The Fringe didn't run his race on his return. He was in a league of his own last term and would be again if he bounces back, which he might do for Nina Carberry.
Marito won a decent event at Down Royal but was then beaten in a point-to-point. He is a fair horse, as is Aupcharlie, which beat him in the point. Aupcharlie represents another top team.
Paint The Clouds was well held in third last year on soft ground but comes here in winning form. He needs decent going and he will get it now.
The circus surrounding Pacha Du Polder's participation makes a mockery of the sport.
If put into the race, it will soon end in tears, and, if he isn't, the integrity of his presence is undermined; it is an ill-advised publicity stunt.
Verdict: Trust On The Fringe to bounce back to his best.
4.50 Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' Handicap Hurdle 2m 4f
Squouateur has the assistance of a top young rider. He has won three of his last four and is 13lbs higher than for his latest Fairyhouse win, when he had recent winner Total Recall well behind.
Willie Mullins likes to run a decent prospect in this, but his four here are what they are. Childrens List might be the pick of them, having run well in defeat in a good race at Leopardstown. He is nine pounds higher here.
Tully East has run nicely in good company and is potentially well treated, while Westend Star makes its handicap bow. Qualando is eight pounds higher than when winning here last year and has come into form.
Verdict: Rising star Jack Kennedy can guide Squouateur home.
5.30 Grade Three Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Chase 2m 1f
Next Sensation won last year off 143, was a close fourth off 142 in 2014 and is in off 144 this time.
He has hardly risen a gallop in deep ground this term but will surely run his race again now. Bright New Dawn could run well for Sandra Hughes with conditions to suit, while Velvet Maker has twice been placed in Grade Ones behind Douvan.
Verdict: Next Sensation has it within its remit to collect again off a fair mark.