Laurina to land first blow for maestro Mullins
Those who crunched across the remnants of Sunday's snowstorm on Cheltenham's hallowed turf at dawn yesterday were treated to the now traditional sight of the Willie Mullins string exercising in the middle of the course.
It might be smaller in both quantity and quality, if you believe the trainer, but if you were looking for a tip, it was the pairing of Ruby Walsh and Benie Des Dieux, the OLBG Mares' Hurdle favourite with the distinctive black and white streaks at the top of her tail like a badger.
This year's Cheltenham Festival has survived equine flu and, if the weather forecast is right, it will have to batten down the hatches for 40mph winds tomorrow.
However the four-day racing extravaganza with 28 races worth €5.3 million on which an estimated €350 m will be wagered, will begin on time today and be greeted by one of the most distinctive cheers in sport, the Cheltenham roar.
The first winner Mullins sent out at the Festival was Tourist Attraction, a well-bred mare that he leased for his then 20-horse training operation, in the 1995 Supreme Novices' Hurdle. For most of her early races, she was ridden by the trainer's wife, Jackie.
Although he has saddled another 60 Festival winners since to become the meeting's leading trainer, he has inherited father Paddy's touch with mares, as well you might, having been brought up with Dawn Run, the only horse to win a Champion Hurdle and Gold Cup, stabled just across from the kitchen.
Laurina is already on the list, topped by Tourist Attraction and which also includes Annie Power, Quevega, Let's Dance, Limini, Vroum Vroum Mag and Glen's Melody, of Mullins-trained mares to win at the Festival.
However, today she can join the even more exclusive list - containing just Annie Power - of Mullins's winning mares in the Unibet Champion Hurdle, and yesterday the eye kept being drawn to the magnificent easy-striding mare.
There's an aura about any unbeaten horse but, cast your mind back 12 months, and Laurina's 18-length victory over the useful Cap Soleil in the Trull House Mares' Novice Hurdle was the most visually-impressive success of the meeting.
Her two starts this season have been little more than glorified workouts over two-and-a-half miles but she is the unexposed potential in today's race and can prevent the specialist two-miler with all the gears, Buveur D'Air, for whom the ground has come right, joining the five other horses to have won three Champion Hurdles.
In all probability, Apple's Jade's fan club is bigger, but trying to make all in a Champion Hurdle may even be beyond her undoubted talent.
Glen Forsa, in the Racing Post Arkle, is my banker of the meeting. For a slick jumper who has already won over three miles, two miles might be a bit on the short side but they are unlikely to hang around and he goes on any ground, so with conditions likely to be testing if the expected rain has arrived, he will cope.
For the past couple of seasons, Gordon Elliott and Mullins have dominated this meeting, accounting last year for over half the winners between them. Although both will do well, I have my doubts about success coming in such quantity for either this year and, along with Nicky Henderson, a resurgent Paul Nicholls can get in among them.
Nicholls has had to wait until the last day, indeed the Foxhunters and the reliable Pacha Du Polder, to get off the mark latterly, but he can get going earlier this year.
Give Me A Copper goes into the Ultima Handicap carrying a lot of confidence and Grand Sancy is a live each-way shot in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle.
The weather forecast has necessitated a few last-minute logistical changes, and one of them was the early arrival of some of Friday's Irish runners - because ferries will not allow horses to travel in high seas.
To prevent a logjam in the Cheltenham stables, Aintree's facilities have been commandeered for 30 Elliott and Mullins horses as a staging post.
Of course, it is not just a February outbreak of equine flu that has increased the paperwork involved with each runner this year. After the British Horseracing Authority's report into the six fatalities at last year's meeting, its vets will be busy making sure every runner is, at least, starting its race sound and without any obvious physical problems with a pre-race trot up.
To aid the seven BHA vets and 10 racecourse vets, trainers will have to provide a record of medications each horse has received over the previous 45 days.
On top of that, there will be a daily briefing for jockeys and mandatory course walks for those who have not ridden the track recently. (© Daily Telegraph, London)