Min to make most of doubts around Altior and Douvan
You could have gotten long odds about it happening a few months ago - and even in the past 72 hours with various talk surrounding the lead protagonists - but the dream Champion Chase is finally upon us.
Two horses with big reputations put their credentials on the line as the Festival's most successful trainers, Nicky Henderson (59 winners) and Willie Mullins (57), cross swords with Altior and Douvan.
Last year's Arkle winner Altior was foot perfect on his seasonal debut and looks to have overcome a scare on Monday with Henderson declaring him "perfectly sound" yesterday morning as he bids to become the fifth Seven Barrows winner of the 2m showpiece.
Similarly, Douvan's participation looked unlikely at various stages over the past four months after initially being ruled out for the season ahead of the Tingle Creek but with Ruby Walsh opting to side with him over Min, it would suggest the eight-year-old is impressing on the Closutton gallops.
Douvan's daily work rider Holly Conte recently declared him "in the form of his life" and should he deliver his best come 3.30 today, this could be the race of the Festival. Throw the underrated but classy Min into the equation and this contest could light up the Cotswolds.
There will also be huge Irish focus on the opener as Gordon Elliott's Samcro - one of the most hyped horses in recent memory - bids to get punters off to a flyer in the capable hands of Kerry teenager Jack Kennedy.
While he may "not be the next coming of Jesus Christ" as owner Michael O'Leary so eloquently puts it, there has rarely been as much excitement about a runner crossing the Irish Sea.
It should be a successful day for the visiting team with leading claims in all seven races and Galway trainer Pat Kelly - who operates with just 15 horses in his Craughwell yard - hoping to win at his third successive Festival when he tackles Henry de Bromhead's Monalee in the RSA Chase on a day dripping with quality.
1.30 Grade One Ballymore Novices' Hurdle 2m 5f 26yds
The debate about what Festival engagement the exciting Samcro will take up is over and the time has come for Elliott's superstar to deliver the goods when it matters most; in one of the most eagerly-anticipated races of the week.
Not since Dunguib's colossal reversal in the Supreme nine years ago, when carrying the weight of a nation, will there be such expectancy surrounding a novice hurdler and this is not the formality it is being described as by many.
Unbeaten in seven career starts and outstanding at the Dublin Racing Festival last month, Gigginstown's brilliant six-year-old has the jumping world at his feet with talk of contesting Gold Cups in future, but even subsequent blue-riband winner Denman was turned over in this race 12 years ago at short odds.
He may well be a good thing but at odds-on in a competitive heat, in testing going, value is sought elsewhere with Mullins saddling Next Destination - fourth in last year's Champion Bumper - against the hotpot.
Next Destination has oozed class in his three hurdle wins, getting the better of Cracking Smart on two occasions, and has been put away since winning a Grade One at Naas in January.
Preference is for Black Op, however, with Tom George's charge ruing a final-hurdle mistake on his last run when looking set to hand Albert Bartlett fancy Santini a defeat in a Cheltenham Grade Two. The six-year-old is game and will relish the conditions.
Verdict: Black Op (e/w) to provide value against the red-hot Samcro.
2.10 Grade One RSA Insurance Novices' Chase 3m 80yds
A FASCINATING renewal is in store with Irish raiders Presenting Percy and Monalee heading the betting while the exploits of the remarkable Black Corton and jockey Bryony Frost have been one of the stories of this year's National Hunt season.
Paul Nicholls' seven-year-old would be a hugely popular winner but it looks like a battle between the top two with last year's Albert Bartlett Hurdle second Monalee bouncing back from a Christmas spill to score at Leopardstown last time out.
De Bromhead's charge had the re-opposing Al Boum Photo and Dounikos just behind on that occasion and while the step up in trip to 3m will suit, that form doesn't blow any of these rivals out of the water.
There is no better form on offer than Presenting Percy's last run when a length second to Irish Grand National winner Our Duke, a leading fancy for Friday's Gold Cup, and last year's Pertemps Final winner looks a tough nut to crack back in novice company.
Kelly, owner Philip Reynolds, and jockey Davy Russell have combined to score at back-to-back Festivals and the trio could have something special on their hands.
Verdict: Presenting Percy's second to Our Duke makes him the stand-out choice.
2.50 Grade Three Coral Cup Handicap Hurdle 2m 5f 26yds
Walsh has never won the Coral Cup and rightly describes the 36-horse cavalry charge as the most competitive race of the meeting.
Favourite backers have had their fingers severely burnt with just two winning favourites in the last 25 runnings. Horses priced in double digits have won eight times in the last 10 years so value should be sought.
It's not often that a horse finishing sixth in the Melbourne Cup is next seen at Cheltenham but that's the case with the well-handicapped Max Dynamite who bids to give Mullins and Walsh their first winner in this race.
It would be a fairytale should Ruth Jefferson follow in her late father Malcolm's footsteps and secure a Festival winner with Mount Mews, which will love the ground, but 2016 winner Diamond King may hold the key.
Racing off four pounds higher than his mark from two years ago, Elliott's 10-year-old was last seen when chasing home Killultagh Vic on New Year's Eve and looks primed for this.
Verdict: The 2016 winner Diamond King can score again for Elliott and Davy Russell.
3.30 Grade One Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase 1m 7f 199yds
Questions are hanging over the participants of today's main course with Altior a doubtful runner just 24 hours ago, although he has since been given the green light to take his chance.
Undefeated in nearly three years and bidding for his 13th consecutive win, Henderson's two-time Festival winner would have been considered banker material before that setback came to light after the eight-year-old comfortably disposed of Nicholls' Politologue last month.
There's no reason to suggest why that form would be turned on its head and his chief rivals are led by the Mullins team of Douvan and Min.
What a race is in store should Douvan return to his best but he has not been seen on a racecourse since coming home lame behind Special Tiara in this race 12 months ago, when sent off 2/9 favourite.
At his best, Douvan would push Altior to the limit but with doubts lingering about that pair, Min may pick up the pieces in the hands of Paul Townend. Min is almost the forgotten horse of this race but took the Grade Two Dublin Chase in fine style at Leopardstown and has always been held in high regard at Closutton.
Verdict: With doubts hanging over Altior and Douvan, Min has the class to take full advantage.
4.10 Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase 3m 6f 37yds
Nina Carberry is usually the one to follow over the cross-country fences with four wins and it would be another feather in her cap if she can come back from missing last year's Festival - to give birth to her first child - to take this stamina-sapper on 2016 winner Josies Orders.
Elliott could also hold the key here, however, with last year's winner Cause Of Causes bidding for an astonishing fourth straight Festival win under Jamie Codd. Preference is for his stable-mate Tiger Roll.
The two-time Festival winner will have learned a lot from his first attempt of this unique circuit when fifth over course and distance in December and can fend off The Last Samuri.
Verdict: Tiger Roll to take his third Festival victory.
4.50 Grade Three Boodles Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle 2m 87yds
No favourite has prevailed in the last seven runnings with double-priced winners the order of the day, so a chance is taken on Knight Destroyer.
Jonjo O'Neill is no stranger to Festival success with 26 winners and his four-year-old comes into the equation based on a facile win at Uttoxeter in October before running with credit at Cheltenham behind Triumph Hurdle favourite Apple's Shakira.
Verdict: Knight Destroyer has been kept fresh and may spring a surprise in a wide-open heat.
5.30 Grade One Weatherbys Champion Bumper 2m 87yds
Just seven of the 24 runners are Irish-trained - which is surprising given that six of the last 10 winners have been trained on these shores - but quality definitely trumps quality this year with the three market principles trained by Mullins (two) and Elliott.
Favourite Blackbow galloped into the picture for Mullins with back-to-back wins at Leopardstown but having gotten first run on Joseph O'Brien's Rhinestone last time out, Barry Geraghty's mount may be able to turn the tables on Patrick Mullins.
Closutton have five runners with Walsh aboard recent Naas scorer Carefully Selected and Townend on Fairyhouse winner Tornado Flyer but the best of the Irish may prove to be Elliott's Felix Desjy.
The Meath trainer took this race 12 months ago in dramatic fashion with the ill-fated Fayonagh and all the vibes from Cullentra suggest that this hooded Gigginstown runner has improved immensely since scoring at Down Royal 131 days ago.
A strong home team is led by Anthony Honeyball's Acey Milan, which strode up the Cheltenham Hill on New Year's Day in fine style but Elliott can secure back-to-back wins.
Verdict: Felix Desjy can leave Irish eyes smiling in the last