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Nichols Canyon to keep Mullins machine flying high


Ruby Walsh and Nichols Canyon bid to follow up their impressive Leopardstown win in today's opener at Cheltenham. Photo: Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images

Ruby Walsh and Nichols Canyon bid to follow up their impressive Leopardstown win in today's opener at Cheltenham. Photo: Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images

Getty Images

Ruby Walsh and Nichols Canyon bid to follow up their impressive Leopardstown win in today's opener at Cheltenham. Photo: Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images

A rare clash between three previous holders of the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase crown makes for an absolutely fascinating showpiece on day two of the Cheltenham Festival.

Sizing Europe is tackling the £350,000 Grade One for a fifth time as he makes his seventh appearance at the March gala at the ripe old age of 13.

Henry de Bromhead's redoubtable 2011 hero has an astounding capacity to defy expectations, rolling down the hill here in the past couple of years like a horse half his age.

He ultimately came up short behind Sprinter Sacre and Sire De Grugy on both occasions, yet he bagged his eighth Grade One at Punchestown last spring and thwarted the leading Gold Cup fancy Road To Riches only last October at Gowran Park.

He has been some servant and he ought to give his excellent 19-year-old pilot Jonathan Burke some spin.

Indeed, Sizing Europe might even have played an unwitting part in Sprinter Sacre's fall from grace.

At Punchestown two years ago, he pushed a horse widely acknowledged as one of the most talented two-milers in the history of the sport to the pin of his collar.

While nobody can say for sure, there is an obvious chronological link between that gruelling encounter and Sprinter Sacre's subsequent problems.

Nicky Henderson's nine-year-old didn't respond when Barry Geraghty took him off the bridle on his eagerly awaited reappearance at Ascot.


Connections are adamant that he is in a good place now, but this is the most unforgiving environment imaginable. He will need to be up for the fight.

Sire De Grugy is the reigning champion. The Moore family's pride and joy hasn't always got the credit he deserves, but he has returned to form in the nick of time.

Dodging Bullets is this year's Sire De Grugy, while Champagne Fever is a bit of an enigma.

We thought he'd win the Arkle last year, but he didn't. We thought he'd stay three miles, but he doesn't.

We thought his jumping was bomb-proof, but he fell at Thurles. We thought he went well fresh, but this is his third race in two months. There's little we know, really.

The same cannot be said of Willie Mullins, and if he and Ruby Walsh conspire to get the gangly grey to belatedly secure his third Festival success, it will be some feat.

In the bumper, a Grade One that Mullins has won eight times, the champion trainer saddles seven horses. Walsh is on Bellshill and Mullins' son Patrick is on Bordini, but the chances are even they don't know which is the pick of the bunch. What chance do the rest of us have!

1.30 Grade One Neptune Investment Management Novices' Hurdle 2m 5f

Nichols Canyon is a dual Grade One winner whose only reversal in four hurdle races came when he unseated Ruby Walsh over Christmas.

He would appreciate if the rain came early, but the manner of his victories suggest that he is a horse with oodles of class. Stamina shouldn't be an issue given that he stayed nearly two miles on the Flat.

His stablemate Outlander left behind a Limerick defeat to Martello Tower to turn the tables on the same horse when dropped back to this trip at Leopardstown, with Windsor Park and No More Heroes also behind. That is fair form, and he won't mind any rain that falls.

We still haven't seen the best of Windsor Park. He kept on nicely to be second to Nichols Canyon last time and has the potential to play a big role on this better ground.

Snow Falcon might be a touch shy of this level, while Beast Of Burden, Vyta Du Rock and Parlour Games are the best of the home team. That said, they don't look nearly as precocious as the raiders.

Selection: Nichols Canyon (Nap) looks a pretty solid favourite

2.05 Grade One RSA Chase 3m 1f

Don Poli has progressed steadily since winning the conditional jockeys' race 12 months ago.

He was a ready winner on his fencing debut before toppling Apache Stronghold over this trip in a Leopardstown Grade One in late December. That form has been franked spectacularly, so he has a lot of pluses, with the lack of a recent outing the chief negative.

Apache Jack, Adriana Des Mottes and Wounded Warrior are fair sorts without having shown they will be good enough for this.

The Young Master has improved hand over fist, effectively going unbeaten in four chasing starts. He was receiving weight when toppling Houblon Des Obeaux at Ascot in December, but that is still pretty serious form.

While Paul Nicholls has done well with Southfield Theatre, he might lack a touch of quality. Kings Palace was beaten when falling at the last in the 2014 Albert Bartlett, and he has been untroubled in three low-key races over fences. He is stepping up markedly in grade but he has the scope to make an impact.

Selection: Don Poli (nb) has ticks in all the right boxes

2.40 Grade Three Coral Cup (Handicap Hurdle) 2m 5f

Tony Martin's Blackmail is interesting on his handicap debut. He ran a tidy race when returning from a lay-off at Leopardstown over Christmas and will strip fitter now.

His stablemate Marinero is in off a lovely weight. Third to Douvan in January, he ought to relish some nice ground.

Un Atout is potentially well treated. Last seen over flights winning a Punchestown Grade One two years ago, he hasn't fired over fences this term but is no forlorn hope. Zabana is a consistent sort but may not be too kindly handicapped off 144, having been beaten off 130 at Leopardstown in December.

Of the locals, Dell' Arca and Activial are of note. Dell' Arca sports first-time blinkers for David Pipe, while Activial steps up in trip. His form is solid so he could be a big player if he improves for the longer journey.

Selection: At the weights, Marinero should give you a run for your money

3.20 Grade One Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase 2m

Sire De Grugy left behind a worrying reappearance to stamp his authority all over a Chepstow handicap.

This will be his third race in just over a month and it will be a far more rigorous examination, but it is possible that new plastic shoes fitted for Chepstow have solved a foot problem that caused his jumping to fall apart at Newbury.

He was by far the best in this division last season. Prior to that, Sprinter Sacre set the benchmark so high that he seemed sure to dominate for a long time. It is nearly two years since we saw him at his best, as he found nil off the bridle on his Ascot return, when he also bled slightly. Any kinks will be fully uncovered here.

Dodging Bullets has been a revelation, knuckling down to draw clear of Sprinter Sacre to win his second Grade One, having landed the Tingle Creek previously. That would normally be sufficient to see him start favourite here, but he remains unfashionable. He has clearly improved dramatically, though he will need to do so again now.

While Mr Mole is a similar sort, he looks as if he might have reached the limit of his ability. Champagne Fever is hard to get a handle on.

He was gallingly denied a third Festival win in last year's Arkle, and this season has been a mixed bag. At Gowran Park last time, he got back on track in convincing fashion, but he hasn't won over this trip for two years. On the flip side, he always tends to perform here.

Of the others, the venerable Sizing Europe is hard to fancy at this stage but he will doubtless show up for a long way once again. His stablemate Special Tiara is more interesting for the place market as long as the rain doesn't come, following a really impressive turn at Kempton.

Selection: Sire De Grugy's overall profile is the most appealing

4.00 Glenfarclas Cross-country Handicap Chase 3m 7f

Plenty of familiar faces but little quality, as is the norm for this race.

While Quantitativeeasing ran well here in December, he never figured in this 12 months ago, so the faster pace may not suit him. Any Currency beat him in December and was second in this in 2014. He has a lot of weight to carry but this is his forte.

Duke Of Lucca, Chicago Grey, Uncle Junior and Sire Collonges are others that know their way around here, which is always a help. 

Dogora is an interesting newcomer to the novelty arena, and on the pick of his form he could figure if he takes to the fences.

Selection: Any Currency is a tentative choice

4.40 Grade Three Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle 2m 1f

Hostile Fire is an eye-catcher. Second to fair sorts on his first two hurdle outings, he won nicely at Fairyhouse last time.

Gordon Elliott tends to target this race and this fellow is a likely type, as is stablemate Thunder Zone.

He has been placed behind Dicosimo and Kitten Rock, which is not to be sniffed at in the context of today's opposition.

Other raiders that must enter the equation are Buiseness Sivola and Dai Bando, while it's fair to speculate that Box Office can do better in the JP McManus silks than he did on his English debut at Taunton.

Bouvreuil and Arabian Revolution are others that are also capable of mixing it at this level.

Selection: In a tricky contest, Hostile Fire is worth a look

5.15 Grade One Weatherbys Champion Bumper 2m 1f

Moon Racer could be the best of the local contingent, although it's difficult to view his absence since scooting up here in October as anything other than a negative.

Wait For Me is another that could have done no more than he did on his recent Ascot bow.

Willie Mullins' septet are difficult to rank. Stone Hard is a gorgeous horse that has filled the eye in his two bumper wins, but he hasn't beaten much in those races.

A similar comment applies to his fellow son of Robin Des Champs, Au Quart De Tour.

The form of his Fairyhouse rout is better, likewise that of Bordini's Listed win at Navan. Vigil beat Bellshill at Leopardstown over Christmas but he wasn't good enough 12 months ago.

Jetstream Jack is live outsider. He beat Anibale Fly with some authority on his Fairyhouse debut in January. The runner-up's subsequent facile Fairyhouse triumph is a resounding recommendation.

Selection: Jetstream Jack has a real chance at fancy odds

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