Footpad poised to kickstart Cotswold success for Irish
Around four minutes after the famous Cheltenham roar signals the start of a feast of Festival racing, many punters will be hoping there's another familiar sound as dockets are collected on a Willie Mullins-trained jolly ridden by Ruby Walsh in the opener.
The master of Closutton has housed the favourite for the last four runnings with Douvan (2015) and Vautour (2014) both scoring while the champion trainer also saddled Champagne Fever to take the spoils five years ago with the Festival's most successful jockey up.
Getabird - unbeaten in four starts under rules - is the chosen one on this occasion for the powerful Mullins/Walsh axis in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle while the pair will hope another hotpot, Footpad, can remain foot perfect in a small but select Arkle field.
Day one is dripping in quality, headlined as always by the Champion Hurdle and while Getabird and Footpad are some of the game's future stars, one of the older brigade will be bidding to rediscover old glories as Faugheen tackles reigning champion Buveur D'Air in a mouth-watering duel.
It's a credit to Mullins' persistence that the 'Machine' has made it back to the Cotswolds for the first time since scorching to success in this race three years ago, but as a 10-year-old, he faces a huge challenge to usurp the new king of two-mile hurdling .
It's a four-pronged attack on Nicky Henderson's star with the equine enigma Yorkhill reverting to the smaller obstacles in his bid for a Festival hat-rick while the classy Wicklow Brave returns from a stint on the Flat and Melon completes the quartet as Mullins goes in search of his fifth Champion Hurdle in eight years.
It's an intriguing start to an equine marathon with several Irish hopes - led by Gordon Elliott's Apple's Jade in the Mares' Hurdle - but with heavy deluges expected at the Cotswolds, it is likely to be the softest ground the Festival has witnessed in more than 20 years.
Described yesterday as "heavy, soft in places", it will make winners even harder to find than normal with stamina-sapping conditions bringing different horses to the fore, but that won't take away from what is always one of the most exhilarating days in the racing calendar.
1.30 GRADE ONE SKY BET SUPREME NOVICES' HURDLE 2M 87YDS
All eyes will be on Getabird - which shot to the head of the market after humbling Elliott's Mengli Khan in a Grade Two at Punchestown in January - and while the Rich Ricci-owned six-year-old looks rock solid, it remains to be seen whether he's spectacular.
He may well oblige but at short odds in a competitive heat, others are preferred.
English trainer Amy Murphy (25) bids for a first Festival winner with stable star Kalashnikov, which prepared for this 20-runner contest in fine style when taking the competitive Betfair Hurdle at Newbury.
That is one of the best pieces of form available but the forgotten horse may be Tom George's Summerville Boy, which handed Kalashnikov a four-length beating in the Grade One Tolworth Hurdle and was since put away with the Festival in mind.
Heavy going will play to his strengths and at double-figure odds, he may be the value while Mullins' second string Sharjah - which had the Future Champions Novice Hurdle at his mercy at Christmas before falling at the last - and Paloma Blue are interesting Irish contenders at bigger prices.
Verdict: Summerville Boy to spring a surprise and turn over Getabird.
2.10 GRADE ONE RACING POST ARKLE NOVICES' CHASE 1M 7F 199YDS
Footpad's jumping marks him out as one of the most exciting chasing recruits in recent years and Mullins's novice, fourth in last year's Champion Hurdle, deservedly heads a five-runner field for a fascinating renewal.
Petit Mouchoir had Footpad's number over hurdles but the boot looks to be on the other foot over fences given the five-length beating that was handed out to Henry de Bromhead's runner at the Dublin Racing Festival.
The way Petit Mouchoir performed after returning from a minor setback was admirable and it's clear that Cheltenham was the long-term target after an interrupted preparation but there are some minor concerns about his jumping.
Tactics are likely to be different on this occasion with Davy Russell instead opting to bowl along in front and get the Gigginstown runner into a rhythm but if he clouts a Cheltenham fence, his chance will be seriously diminished.
Harry Whittington's Saint Calvados has done everything right thus far and will thrive in the testing conditions. He may be the fly in the ointment while Henderson has lauded Brain Power's home work, but if it comes down to class, it's hard to see past Footpad.
Verdict: Footpad (nap) is banker material for Mullins and Walsh.
2.50 GRADE THREE ULTIMA HANDICAP CHASE 3M 1F
Amazingly, there is no Irish runner among the 18 for this stamina test where several are likely to come home wearily. One horse sure to revel in the conditions is Coo Star Sivola, however.
Nick Williams' six-year-old has kept good company this season and is proven over the course, trip and the heavy going having shown a marked improvement when stepped up to score over 3m at Exeter last month.
With Festival form in the book having made the frame over hurdles at the last two editions, Lizzie Kelly's mount looks the one to beat, although Sue Smith's Vintage Clouds and Venetia Williams' Yala Enki will also love the sapping conditions.
Verdict: Coo Star Sivola to continue his fine Festival form.
3.30 GRADE ONE UNIBET CHAMPION HURDLE 2M 87YDS
There's no such thing as a one-horse race in a big championship event but this is as close it comes with reigning champion Buveur D'Air bidding to make it a magnificent seven Champion Hurdles for Henderson.
The JP McManus-owned seven-year-old, which will once again be partnered by Barry Geraghty, has done nothing wrong in his three races this season and while he hasn't beaten much, those fearing a lack of race fitness are probably clutching at straws.
Racing fans salivate at the thought of 2015 Champion Hurdle Faugheen hero returning to his best but his last two runs are miles below that and he comes to the Cotswolds with serious question marks hanging over him.
Were Mullins to produce him to reclaim his crown, it would be one of his finest training performances but he looks to be playing for place money at best while stable-mate Yorkhill is sent back to the smaller obstacles in hope rather than expectation.
Wicklow Brave, in the hands of the trainer's son Patrick, could prove his best hope while perennial bridesmaid My Tent Or Yours - runner-up in three Champion Hurdles - is likely to find a couple too good in his bid to finally land the big one.
There are very few horses on an upward curve in the race so from a betting perspective, a speculative each-way wager on Elliott's Mick Jazz is suggested. Winner of the Ryanair Hurdle on his penultimate start, Russell's mount has progressed immensely this season and could be in the frame at a huge price.
Verdict: Mick Jazz (e/w) is improving and can take a place at big odds.
4.10 GRADE ONE OLBG MARES' HURDLE 2M 3F 200YDS
This race has really cut up with many avoiding defending champion Apple's Jade as Elliott's mare looks a cut above the opposition, and the Meath trainer has nominated her as the horse he is most looking forward to this week.
It's easy to see why the Gigginstown runner is rated one of the bankers of the meeting having fended off the challenge of Stayers' Hurdle favourite Supasundae on her last run at Christmas and teenager Jack Kennedy can steer her home.
Mullins has farmed this race - winning eight of its 10 runnings - and his challenge is led by the versatile Benie Des Dieux, which switches from fences to hurdles and looks a classy sort.
This is a massive step up in class, however, and the seven-year-old's odds look too skimpy, with another Irish runner likely to cause her the most problems.
Dual Grade One winner Jer's Girl - just two lengths behind Apple's Jade when second in the Lismullen Hurdle at Navan in November - fell at the third-last a year ago when yet to play her cards and Gavin Cromwell's mare is great value to place.
Verdict: Jer's Girl is one of few that can give Apple's Jade something to think about and can make the frame.
4.50 GRADE TWO NATIONAL HUNT CHALLENGE CUP AMATEUR RIDERS' NOVICES' CHASE 3M 7F 170YDS
Elliott has claimed this prize three times in the last seven years - with just five runners - and looks primed for another bold bid with Jury Duty and Mossback in the four-mile novices' contest for amateur riders.
Grade Two scorer Jury Duty has outstanding novice chase form in the book and is the preference of the two with last year's Pertemps Final third coming into his own over fences during the testing winter conditions.
The booking of Jamie Codd makes the seven-year-old even more appealing and the Wexford rider will need to be at his best to fend off Derek O'Connor on Philip Hobbs' No Comment but he should do so in a dour contest.
Verdict: Trust Jamie Codd to do the business aboard Jury Duty.
5.30 LISTED CLOSE BROTHERS NOVICES' HANDICAP CHASE 2M 4F 78YDS
With just nine pounds separating the 20 runners this is a bit of lottery to close the day.
Likely favourite De Plotting Shed for Elliott was nominated by BHA senior handicapper Phil Smith as their highest-profile 'headache horse' but is priced accordingly and value should be sought elsewhere in a difficult betting heat.
Any Second Now has been living up to his name; chasing home the likes of Footpad (twice), Invitation Only and Monalee - all Festival fancies - but Ted Walsh's charge could go one better in the hands of Mark Walsh, with Fergal O'Brien's Barney Dwan also a big danger.
Verdict: Any Second Now can score for racing legend Ted Walsh.