Sun shines on Meade's Champion Hurdle bid
Our prime Smurfit Kappa Champion Hurdle candidates Go Native and Solwhit have settled in well at Cheltenham after uneventful trips as they face just 10 rivals for tomorrow's feature event.
Yet to capture the hurdling's big prize, Noel Meade was quite upbeat after watching his seven runners settle in at the Cotswolds venue where the ground was officially given as good to soft, good in places yesterday.
While the cross-country track may ride a little quicker than the watered old course, Meade was happy to rely solely on the favourite Go Native when withdrawing both Muirhead and Donnas Palm overnight.
"All is well here and it has been a great day weather-wise. If that continues, the going could be good by Tuesday," Meade explained.
Drying conditions at Prestbury Park yesterday left the official going as good to soft, good in places, on the eve of the Festival.
Some rain is expected later in the week, however, so a decision on the resumption of watering stays on hold.
Given the go-ahead only on Saturday morning when scoping clean, Solwhit took his later-than-planned initial journey to the Festival in his stride along with Weapon's Amnesty which gave their Co Limerick trainer Charles Byrnes his initial success there last March in the Albert Bartlett Novice Hurdle.
"They have travelled over okay and Solwhit only really missed one day's work. It wasn't ideal naturally that he coughed earlier in the week which means we're not as confident as we might have been."
"We're continuing to monitor him but he seems well again and is a definite runner at this stage" commented Byrnes who, however, has ruled Sounds Of Jupiter out of the Fred Winter Handicap Hurdle.
These market principals will be joined in the final running of this championship contest under the Smurfit Kappa banner by fellow Irish hopefuls Won In The Dark, Jumbo Rio and Raise Your Heart.
The Willie Mullins-trained Mourad, 8/1 joint favourite for the Coral Cup on Wednesday, could miss the race after a late injury setback.
The Closutton supremo reported yesterday that the horse has bruised a foot and is "a doubt" for the Festival, though he confirmed that Citizen Vic will run in Wednesday's RSA Chase with Ruby Walsh taking the mount.
Quel Esprit, which will be ridden by Walsh in the Neptune Investment Management Novices' Hurdle on Wednesday, is now challenging Dermot Weld's Rite Of Passage for favouritism having been cut to 4/1 last night.
Benburb, Co Tyrone-based trainer James Lambe -- a regular visitor to the British scene and has 24 winners there to his credit already this season -- will be relying solely there on the well-backed Drumbaloo.
Successful to date in a point-to-point as well as three bumpers, this Weatherbys Champion Bumper gamble is essentially a classy jumper in the making according to his Kildare-born handler.
"Drumbaloo's future really lies over hurdles and I'm pleased to have Robert Thornton booked for Wednesday's race. All the talk in the build-up has been about speed but they have to be able to stay too," said Lambe.
Athenry, Co Galway colleague Paul Gilligan likewise has a single representative at the Festival with Berties Dream due to renew rivalry with the favourite Tell Massini in Friday's Albert Bartlett Novice Hurdle.
"He ran well behind Tell Massini over the course and distance earlier in the season and the good ground will be a help this time. Andrew Lynch rides and I give them an each-way chance," Gilligan reasoned.
Of course, there are still a multitude of questions to be answered. Is Dunguib really the 'banker' of the week in tomorrow's opening race?
Is it Long Run or Punchestowns in Wednesday's RSA Chase? Master Minded or in-form Kalahari King in Wednesday's Queen Mother Champion Chase? Alaivan or Carlito Brigante in the Triumph Hurdle?
And, finally, the most important question of all, Kauto Star or Denman, in Friday's much-anticipated Gold Cup?
It is hard to describe the excitement generated on the eve of a meeting that remains the focus of the whole year for those in this admirable sport.
Despite the professional standards set by the most successful over the past two decades, the Corinthian spirit still lingers.
Champions will be cheered to the rafters as they return, but there will be concern and sympathy for those broken by the demands of a jumping course that tests a horse in a different way to Aintree.
An ability to jump under pressure, particularly when travelling at speed downhill, is essential, as too is the capacity to battle uphill to the finishing line.
For weeks, Dunguib has been the shortest-priced of the Irish raiders and already the camps are divided.
On one side, there are those who argue he lacks a sound jumping technique for the rigours of a race that sets the mood for the week for punters.
However, on the other hand there are those who maintain that his sheer class will carry him to the most celebrated Irish victory since the much-loved Danoli in the SunAlliance Hurdle 16 years ago.
Bookmakers are already trotting out their lines on how many millions will be wagered and how much it will cost them if the four so-called 'good things' -- Dunguib, Master Minded, Big Buck's and Kauto Star -- all win.
If he does triumph, Dunguib can be expected to encourage short quotes for next year's Champion Hurdle, but even more anticipation surrounds Long Run in the RSA Chase, which must first dispense with stablemate Punchestowns in what could be a prelude to future Gold Cups.
Nicky Henderson is preparing to send 36 horses to this Festival and while his stable is well-equipped to land another Champion Hurdle courtesy of title-holder Punjabi, his greatest hopes may well rest with Long Run.