JUST FIVE TAKE ON SPRINTER SACRE
View from connections ahead of Tuesday's Racing Post Arkle at the Cheltenham Festival.
Sprinter Sacre is set to face just five rivals in the two-mile novice championship, and arrives on the back of three ultra-impressive wins over fences.
The six-year-old was an easy scorer on his debut at Doncaster in December before demolishing former top-class hurdler Peddlers Cross at Kempton over Christmas, although the runner-up was found to have problems afterwards.
A six-length win in record time in Newbury's Game Spirit Chase last month sealed his reputation as red-hot Arkle favourite.
However, Henderson is concerned that his keen style of racing could work against him, as it did with Finian's Rainbow who could finish only second in the Arkle in 2011.
"He's looked like a horse we hope might be a bit special. He hasn't beaten anything, but you have to look at his times. He beat the course record at Newbury and he was just beating the clock all on his own," said Henderson.
"He's a classy, good-looking horse and I think he knows it.
"The one worry is that Finian's Rainbow tried to do the same thing last year (go off quickly) and he got mugged. But Sprinter Sacre is a two-miler through and through."
Sprinter Sacre himself was beaten at last year's Festival when third to Al Ferof in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle, but the Seven Barrows handler expects him to fare better up the famous Cheltenham hill this time.
"I'm not quite sure why he didn't get up the hill last year, but I think he will (this time)," Henderson added.
Barry Geraghty again takes the mount, and makes no secret of the regard in which he holds him.
He said: "He seems to have it all, he has pace, and he jumps really well. He has so much scope, he ticks every box.
"I have no doubts (about the hill), he ran keen last year and was probably in front earlier than ideal.
"He may get to the front early this year as well, we'll have to wait and see, but with age on his side and the way he jumps I don't think the hill will be an issue.
"It's a very hot race, there's no doubt about that, but this fellow is the most exciting horse I've ridden since Moscow Flyer. He's hard to describe he's so good."
Al Ferof finished just over five lengths in front of Sprinter Sacre over the smaller obstacles last year, and Nicholls is taking heart from that effort.
The seven-year-old has done little wrong in winning his first two chase starts, including the Grade One Henry VIII Novices' Chase, before finishing third when upped to full company in the Victor Chandler Chase at Ascot last time.
Nicholls reports his charge to be primed for the race, but expects it to be a close-run affair.
"With Al Ferof all I know is he is as well as he has been all season. He worked very well on Saturday and always comes good at this time of year," said the Ditcheat handler.
"Sprinter Sacre looks the one to beat but on form this year there's not a lot between them.
"Two out in the Supreme we were sixth and Sprinter Sacre looked the winner, so I hope it's the same again. It's going to be tough, but he couldn't be better."
Blackstairmountain is another previous Grade One winner after triumphing at the highest level at Leopardstown on Boxing Day.
He disappointed in the Irish Arkle subsequently, but Mullins is hoping he can get involved on the sounder surface he will encounter tomorrow.
"Hopefully he'll run a good race and maybe get some of the place money," said Mullins.
"There are only six runners but there'll be plenty of pace on and that will suit us I think.
"If he runs into a place and picks up a bit of prize-money I'll be happy."
Joe Tizzard partners Cue Card for his father as he tries to supplement his Champion Bumper win two years ago.
The six-year-old was sent off favourite for last year's Supreme only to finish fourth and he has endured a mixed campaign over fences this term.
A comfortable win on his debut at Chepstow was following by disappointment when unseating over two and a half miles at Cheltenham next time, in a race won by Grands Crus.
He was then beaten just a short head over the same distance at Newbury, trying to give Bobs Worth weight, before dropping back to two and a quarter miles for a convincing victory over a subsequent Grade One winner.
With connections believing stamina is assured, Tizzard jnr is keen to test the mettle of the others over the minimum trip.
"I'll ride him very handy, really prominent and see if we can get them at it at some stage," he said.
"It's going to come down to tactics. We've had a brilliant prep, he seems in fantastic form and we'll do our best on the day."
High-class hurdler Menorah has failed to live up to expectations over fences with a string of blunders costing him dearly, most recently when falling at Doncaster in January.
However, jockey Richard Johnson has certainly not given up on the seven-year-old.
He said: "I think he's got a great chance, the favourite will be very hard to beat on his Newbury run, but he is back to himself and I am hoping he can put a big run in."