Silviniaco Conti can get Nicholls jumping for joy
Impressive King George winner can continue his excellent form and make amends for last year's fall by securing Gold Cup glory
Despite just emerging from one of the wettest winters on record, the best hope of a first Irish-trained Cheltenham Gold Cup winner for eight years might yet be undone by a lack of rain.
Last Instalment has long promised to develop into a serious contender for jump racing's marquee steeplechase. His arrival on the grandest stage of all has been frustratingly delayed and strewn with an array of unforeseen incidents, so it would be cruel if he doesn't now get the chance to show just how good he might be in the revered Cotswold arena.
After two years on the sidelines with leg injuries, Philip Fenton patiently nursed the classy son of Anshan back to fitness, culminating in a barnstorming Hennessy Gold Cup triumph at Leopardstown last month. Soon after, it emerged that Fenton was being charged with possession of illegal animal remedies that included anabolic steroids dating back to 2012.
That prompted the British Horseracing Authority to runs tests on his Prestbury Park entries. The Carrick-on-Suir handler received the all-clear last week, only for Michael O'Leary, who owns the horse through his Gigginstown House Stud operation, then to indicate that the nine-year-old might not participate at Cheltenham if the ground wasn't sufficiently soft.
Conditions have been a topic of much conjecture all week. The New Course that will be raced on today has been watered, but, with Fenton's similarly fragile Dunguib retired after breaking down on Wednesday, he and the Gigginstown team have a tough call to make.
Of course, the latest twist in Last Instalment's saga saw Gigginstown's first-choice rider Bryan Cooper suffer two nasty fractures to his leg in a fall from Clarcam on Wednesday. That paved the way for Brian O'Connell to fill the breach, which he did so brilliantly when Cooper opted for Mouse Morris' re-opposing First Lieutenant in the Hennessy.
There are shades of Tuesday's Champion Hurdle about the booking. As was the case then with Barry Geraghty and Jezki, which AP McCoy had spurned, O'Connell is unbeaten in four rides on Last Instalment, so lightning could strike twice in the week's two headline events.
Geraghty tries to plunder successive renewals of the £550,000 showpiece aboard Nicky Henderson's relentless Festival specialist Bobs Worth and Paul Nicholls and Noel Fehily combine with the King George VI victor Silviniaco Conti. Willie Mullins tilts at windmills, having supplemented his dual Thyestes Chase winner On His Own at cost of £20,000.
Safe to say that he and Ruby Walsh have better chances elsewhere on the finale, not least the mighty Briar Hill. Later on, the Foxhunters could throw up the week's most popular winner.
A year ago, after landing in the clear at the last fence, Oscar Delta inexplicably jinked halfway up the run-in, leaving Jane Mangan distraught on the ground. Expect a few tears to be shed if the talented young rider and her father Jimmy's charge make amends now.
1.30 GRADE ONE JCB TRIUMPH HURDLE 2M 1F
Guitar Pete has improved, graduating to Grade One level with aplomb last time. There could be more in him, though he relishes the mud and has been beaten twice on goodish ground.
Tiger Roll was second to Guitar Pete at Leopardstown on his Irish debut. That was a fair effort that he should build on, but this could just come too soon in his progression.
Broughton beat Clarcam easily at Musselburgh, form that might have received a fine boost had Clarcam not fallen on Wednesday. He had just been denied by Fox Norton in a Grade Two on his first try at hurdling, so he comes here with serious credentials.
Royal Irish Hussar was held in third that day at Doncaster. That didn't seem to be his true running, as he had previously beaten Fox Norton at Market Rasen and he also accounted for Guitar Pete here in the autumn. It would be unwise to write him off after one disappointment.
Calipto is Paul Nicholls' representative. He has won twice at Newbury in taking fashion, beating the classy Activial on the first occasion, so he is another live contender. Abbyssial looks the pick of Willie Mullins' two, but he surely needs more cut in the ground.
Verdict: Calipto is fancied to complete his treble in a wide-open contest
2.05 GRADE THREE VINCENT O'BRIEN COUNTY HANDICAP HURDLE 2M 1F
Never Enough Time is 11lb higher as he goes in search of his hat-trick. Tom Foley's progressive charge accounted for the subsequent easy winner Art Of Payroll at Leopardstown last month, so his form reads well. The main worry is how he will cope with this ground.
Flaxen Flare won the Fred Winter last year off 127 and is now on 149. Life will be more difficult, but he has been running consistently well to be placed in these valuable handicaps.
Minella Foru is a different prospect, having been mixing it in good novice company. He beat last week's Naas winner Empire Of Dirt when third at the Kildare track in January, and he gets in here off a fair mark of 139 for 10st 11lb under AP McCoy.
Arctic Fire is a similar prospect for Willie Mullins. An unexposed novice, he is a little bit fractious, something that could prove his undoing in such a large field.
Cheltenian stands out for the locals. The 2011 Champion Bumper winner has had a stop-start hurdle career, but he could be thrown in off just 10st 9lb.
Verdict: For a horse with proven quality, Cheltenian appears very well treated
2.40 GRADE ONE ALBERT BARTLETT NOVICES' HURDLE 3M
Briar Hill sets a formidable standard. Last year's Champion Bumper hero has barely broken sweat in three hurdle starts and this step up to three miles ought to suit him ideally.
For all that, he hasn't met a worthy rival over flights, his indomitable method has left most viewers gawping. King's Palace is surely his most potent threat. David Pipe's six-year-old is proven here over this trip, having completed his hat-trick in facile style in December.
Good ground seems to suit him well, though his penchant for front-running has the potential to play into the hands of Briar Hill. While Deputy Dan comes here on a hat-trick, the deep ground that we had in the winter was the foundation of his improvement.
Nicky Henderson's Captain Cutter also won the Grade One Challow Hurdle in a bog. The form is nothing special, but he is less ground dependent and is clearly a smart individual.
Verdict: Briar Hill ought to justify his banker tag with some panache
3.20 GRADE ONE BETFRED CHELTENHAM GOLD CUP CHASE 3M 2F
Bobs Worth comes here having recaptured his best at Leopardstown after a lifeless Haydock reappearance. It was hard not to be impressed by the manner in which he swooped by First Lieutenant, though he ought to have been beating him with that sort of authority.
A three-time Festival winner, he clearly comes into his own here every year, so he must have a serious chance of retaining his crown.
Last year, Silviniaco Conti came here on the back of four wins, but tipped up three-out when still travelling within himself.
He needed the run when third to Cue Card at Haydock first time up. Back over a proper three-mile test at Kempton, he ground out a fantastic King George VI triumph.
With Cue Card, Al Ferof and Dynaste left toiling, that is the single best performance we have seen this term. Last Instalment's Hennessy Gold Cup triumph was also comprehensive.
He destroyed Tidal Bay and First Lieutenant with a relentless display on soft ground. He has form as a novice on decent ground, so his class and bold-jumping should ensure he has a say.
Last Instalment ought to appreciate the trip, something that couldn't be said with any confidence of First Lieutenant, though the ground will certainly help his cause. It is significant that Mouse Morris has deemed this worth a stab, as he isn't usually too far wrong.
A similar comment applies to Willie Mullins, who chose to supplement On His Own. Still, the dour 10-year-old has plenty to find on the ratings at this stage in his career.
Triolo D'Alene also has plenty to find on official figures However, at just seven, the Hennessy Gold Cup winner has the scope to find more, with a place not out of the question.
The Giant Bolster has similar prospects. He runs above himself here and is in form.
Verdict: Silviniaco Conti is at the top of his game, so is trusted to atone for last year's spill
4.0 CGA FOXHUNTER CHASE CHALLENGE CUP 3M 2F
Oscar Delta seems to save his best for this course, so that he hasn't won yet this term isn't a huge concern, as he has been running well in defeat. He has twice been placed in this and would have surely won had he not unshipped Jane Mangan up the run-in last year.
He is 11, but that doesn't mean that he won't win. Tammy's Hill and On The Fringe are closely matched on their Leopardstown clash, when Tammy's Hill finished strongly to get up.
On The Fringe had come out on top in the north before that, but he found himself in front very early at Leopardstown. Nina Carberry will be a bit cannier here.
Carsonstown Boy and The Hollinwell are other raiders with chances. Of the home team, Harbour Court has won his two completed starts, coping well with this track back in May.
Verdict: On The Fringe appeals as nap material on this better ground
4.40 MARTIN PIPE CONDITIONAL JOCKEYS' HANDICAP HURDLE 2M 5F
Une Artiste had a fine record here prior to taking on Quevega last year. She has been in good form over fences and isn't necessarily in the grip of the handicapper yet over flights.
Carlito Brigante is another with a previous Festival win to his name, though he is quite exposed now. Don Poli is interesting for Willie Mullins, especially as he has opted to take 3lb off by booking Mikey Fogarty. He is a capable novice but may prefer more cut.
Vieux Lion Rouge has run up a sequence of three wins in weak races. However, the Pipe stable is as shrewd as they come, so he may not be badly treated off 139 for 11st 4lb.
Verdict: Vieux Lion Rouge has the potential to run this field into the ground
5.15 GRADE THREE JOHNNY HENDERSON GRAND ANNUAL HANDICAP CHASE 2M 1F
Next Sensation is a horse on a steep upward curve. He has won his last three completed starts in style, his form looks solid and he goes on good ground. JP McManus has Mr Mole, Eastlake, Competitive Edge and Ned Buntline on duty. McCoy has opted for the finicky Mr Mole, but Ned Buntline is more interesting in a first-time hood.
Noel Meade's novice has been keeping good company and gets in here off lovely weight under Paul Carberry. Savello is capable of running well but has a high enough mark.
Verdict: Noel Meade's team hasn't been firing, but Ned Buntline is nicely handicapped
Irish Independent Supplement