Grab a grand
Pipe's charge can see off challenge of Big Buck's
Once the Cheltenham Festival was extended to four days in 2005, it quickly became apparent that the third day would struggle to match the other three for prestige, and today's programme is another reminder of that.
Notwithstanding the prospect of a mouth-watering clash between Big Buck's and Grands Crus in the Ladbrokes World Hurdle -- a race that never had the glamour appeal of the other three championship events anyway -- the remainder of the card is a disappointment for what is supposed to be jump racing's showcase meeting.
The Ryanair Chase remains a desperately sub-standard Grade One, the Jewson Novices' Chase lacks a potential star, while handicaps make up 50pc of the six-race card.
For those involved, a winner at Cheltenham is a winner at Cheltenham, and a punter's job is no less difficult as a result of the diminished quality.
Big Buck's at least adds a bit of muscle to proceedings, and it will be fascinating to see how the talented Grands Crus fares now that he is pitted against Paul Nicholls' dual winner.
When Nicholls first burst onto the scene in the 90s, it was Martin Pipe, father of Grands Crus' handler David, who presented the most stubborn obstacle to him becoming champion trainer.
It is rare that the Pipes have had one good enough to compete with Nicholls' firepower since their West Country rival finally assumed the mantle of top dog in 2006, so there is added spice to this particular showdown.
There are many Irish contenders throughout the day. In the main event, former Festival winner Fiveforthree joins his Willie Mullins stablemate Mourad. Both have place prospects.
Berties Dream, which gave Galway-man Paul Gilligan a memorable first win here last year, is also in there, as is Rigour Bob Back and Cheltenham regular Powerstation.
In the Ryanair, the drying conditions may not help Rubi Light, Roberto Goldback and J'y Vole, but there are plenty that could benefit from it in the handicaps, while Noble Prince leads a robust-looking Irish challenge in the opening novice chase.
Paul Nolan's booking of AP McCoy on that one is significant. McCoy has only ridden for the Wexford trainer once in England in recent years, and that resulted in a win.
1.30 Jewson Novices' Chase 2m 4f
The inaugural running of this Grade Two, one that offers an alternative intermediate distance than the two-mile Arkle Trophy or the three-mile RSA Chase.
Given what has turned up, it's also fair to say that Grade Two status is as much as the 2m 4f race merits.
Four Irish contenders take their chance, with Noble Prince an intriguing prospect under Tony McCoy.
Paul Nolan's son of Montjeu, which sired its first Cheltenham winner when Hurricane Fly collected on Tuesday, has been frustrating at times, but he is the kind of horse that might benefit from the iron will of McCoy.
Noble Prince ran a blinder to be fifth in the County Hurdle last year, and finished second to Realt Dubh in two Grade Ones at Leopardstown since winning on his fencing debut.
In light of Realt Dubh's third in the Arkle, that form has held up well.
Loosen My Load and Mr Cracker are not without chances, with the latter potentially very smart.
He has progressed well for Michael Hourigan this term and, while 10 lengths behind Noble Prince when third last time, the return to this trip will help him.
Robinson Collonges may be the pick of the home team under Ruby Walsh.
That one has looked good when his jumping has held up, and he will be more comfortable in this company, after mistakes cost him in a decent handicap here in December.
Verdict -- Tony McCoy could be the man to get a tune out of Noble Prince.
2.05 Pertemps Final (H'cap Hurdle) 3m
A typically intricate renewal of this race, with a couple of particularly interesting raiders among the 24-runner field. Tom Cooper's Son Amix ran well to be fourth in the Fred Winter 12 months ago, so he has plenty appeal off just a 2lb-higher mark.
When he kept on for second at Leopardstown last time, Sivota was just a couple of places further back, but that one is 8lb better off here.
Willie Mullins' representative won easily the last twice he has run on decent ground at home, and could be hard to beat now that conditions are in his favour again.
The most interesting English challenger is the David Pip-trained Chartreux.
Lightly raced with just three hurdling starts to his name, he caught the eye when third to Ashkazar on his seasonal debut over course and distance in January, and is just 1lb higher now.
Verdict -- Chartreux might just shade it from Sivota.
2.40 Ryanair Chase 2m 5f
Poquelin will be a warm order to give Paul Nicholls and Ruby Walsh a third success in this. Second to Albertas Run 12 months ago, he ran a race full of promise when filling the same spot behind Monet's Garden at Aintree in October.
He then disappointed in the Paddy Power Gold Cup, but left that behind with a game win in the Vote AP Gold Cup the following month. Alongside Somersby, he is the highest rated today off 170.
Albertas Run has struggled to recapture his best form since doubling up at Aintree in April. However, he hasn't raced on his favoured good ground this term, so he could conceivably leave recent form behind now that he gets that opportunity here.
J'y Vole ran a peach of a race to finish third behind Albertas Run and Poquelin in 2010. She, Rubi Light and Roberto Goldback are consistent, but may be best on soft ground.
Tartak, a course and distance winner in January, isn't without a chance. Paddy Brennan's mount has been knocking on the door in this type of race for a while, so he could still find it within himself to win one.
In a contest that has thrown up two 10-year-old and two nine-year-old winners in just six runnings, Kalahari King (10) is of note. On his only completed start over this trip, he won over flights at the Punchestown Festival, so the step up could be key.
Kalahari King has consistently come up just shy of the best behind Master Minded and co, but his Festival record is impressive. He was fourth here to Captain Cee Bee in 2008, got short-headed by Forpadydeplasterer the following year, and kept on well for third in the Champion Chase in 2010.
Verdict -- Kalahari King will appreciate the extra distance.
3.20 Ladbrokes World Hurdle 3m
Many will deem 11/10 against Big Buck's bringing up his hat-trick as massive value, but this might not be as straightforward as previous years.
Needless to say of a horse that is unbeaten in 10 successive hurdling starts, he is still the one to beat, and there is no reason to believe he won't be as indestructible as ever.
Nonetheless, the likes of Grands Crus, Fiveforthree, Celestial Halo and Mourad might not be easily dismissed. Fiveforthree and Mourad are unknown quantities to an extent. The former won here as a novice, but he has been plagued by injury since.
After returning to land the equivalent of this race at Punchestown in April 2009, he was then off for two years before easily accounting for middling opponents at the Kildare track last month. You just couldn't write him off.
Mourad has blossomed this season. He was only five lengths behind Hurricane Fly at Fairyhouse in November, and has since won at his ease twice. Interestingly, Paul Townend has opted for him over Fiveforthree.
Powerstation has been placed in the race twice, and three times at the meeting in all, though that is the best he could hope for again.
Celestial Halo, which has made the frame in two Champion Hurdles and always runs well at Cheltenham, stepped up to two and a half miles with an effortless win at Fontwell, so he has place claims too.
Grands Crus, though, is the real springer. He has been a revelation since being dropped in this term, winning with his head in his chest three times, twice here, including over today's trip on his latest start in January.His form looks rock solid, and David Pipe knows how to handle a good horse.
Verdict -- Grands Crus is the improver in the field.
4.0 Byrne Group Plate (H'cap Chase) 2m 5f
Aigle D'Or could start a short-priced favourite for Jonjo O'Neill and Tony McCoy. Disappointing over flights, he may be well handicapped over fences, as a 9lb hike for his win at Newbury in November still leaves him 8lb short of his highest rating over hurdles.
The in-form Peplum is another to consider. Although beaten into second at Sandown at the weekend, he had won his previous two, and he may not be done with yet.
Quartz De Thaix comes here on a hat-trick. Venetia Williams' charge completed a trio of wins over flights in November before switching back to fences last month, and he is just 5lb higher than when scoring at Newton Abbott last week.
Gordon Elliott's Beautiful Sound has been beaten just once, taking ninth in the Paddy Power Chase at Leopardstown before regaining the winning thread at Fairyhouse. He ought to be bang there, with the decent ground potentially aiding his cause.
Verdict -- Beautiful Sound may represent a bit of each-way value.
4.40 Kim Muir H'cap Chase (Amateur riders) 3m 1f
Ferdy Murphy and Nina Carberry team up with Galant Nuit for the second year in a row.
Third to Ballabriggs in 2010, Galant Nuit is 1lb higher now, but ran badly on his only subsequent outing in December, so may not be sharp enough for this.
Alderley Rover, from Ballabriggs's trainer Donald McCain's stable, should figure prominently under Richie Harding. Second on three of his first five starts over fences, he comes into this on a winning note after scoring at Musselburgh in February.
Junior also has a chance. Third here to Midnight Chase in November, he turned in a decent second here behind Ashkazar when reverting to hurdles last time. With the ground drying up, Billie Magern is a contender for the Twiston-Davies team, while conditions probably won't suit Pomme Tiepy. The first-time blinkers will help, but she just may lack a gear for this.
Verdict -- Alderley Rover is taken to run well at a big price.