Djakadam and 'Village' set for Ruby's double
Mulholland's booking of top rider should reap a reward
Djakadam will be in his element at Cheltenham when he strives to complete his Gold Cup preparations under Ruby Walsh in the Betbright Chase.
The old Pillar Chase is a race that has been underused as a trial for the main event in recent years.
Few heavyweights have contested it since Looks Like Trouble obliged in 2001, but Willie Mullins is making full use of the programme book on both sides of the Irish Sea.
As such, notwithstanding that Rich Ricci's link with the sponsors will also have been a factor, the brilliant champion trainer has identified the right horse for the right race here.
Djakadam showed exactly how much he relishes a soft ground slog in the Thyestes last year before being carried out on his shield in similar conditions in the Gold Cup. This race is tailor-made for him, so, while the likes of Many Clouds and O'Faolains Boy are admirable sorts, Walsh's mount should have no trouble justifying what are prohibitively short odds.
Another slight mystery is the manner in which Walsh has been underutilised on his cross-channel forays. That is also rectified somewhat today, with Neill Mulholland booking him for Shantou Village. Noel Fehily is claimed to partner Harry Fry's Charmix, but the suspicion is that he will be back aboard Shantou Village come the Festival.
This looks an absolute cracker of a horse, and he should confirm as much here. Unbeaten in a point-to-point, a bumper and two hurdles, the Shantou six-year-old jumps and quickens in the manner of a serious animal.
At Cheltenham in November, he drew 15 lengths clear of Champers On Ice, a visually impressive display that has since been franked on paper by the runner-up's triumph at Newbury.
Crucially, Shantou Village is proven over the two-and-a-half-mile trip, and, while he isn't proven on soft ground, his sire's progeny are admirably versatile.
His main rival is Alan King's JP McManus-owned Yanworth, which heads the betting at odds of 6/4. In contrast to Shantou Village, Yanworth has form on soft ground but not over a trip, and his pedigree doesn't scream that he needs this sort of yardage.
He looked to have an abundance of pace when cruising home at Ascot, and might not be as suited to this as Shantou Village, which is value to collect at up to 9/4.
At Doncaster, Paul Townend has three fine spins for Mullins. Over two-and-a-half miles against Barters Hill, Up For Review might be one to watch, but Morning Run and Shaneshill are both fancied. Morning Run's toughest opponent in the mares' hurdle could be Jessica Harrington's Rock On The Moor, which finished ahead of her at Leopardstown last month.
However, Morning Run - which has a tendency to race freely - was having her first run of the season that day, and she didn't seem to stay two-and-a-half miles. Dropped to two miles now, she ought to prove a more formidable opponent, and odds of 6/4 look big about a classy mare.
Shaneshill tackles Nicky Henderson's solid yardstick Vaniteux in a five-runner Grade Two novices' chase. Vaniteux heads the market, but this former smart hurdler failed to win from a commanding position at Kempton, which would have to be a worry.
Shaneshill is cracking prospect that has won a Grade One and been placed behind Douvan and Killultagh Vic. Two from two over fences, he is too big to ignore here at odds of 15/8.
Rich Ricci has indicated that Vautour will have another run before Cheltenham in March.
As of now, Ricci seems happy to let Vautour and Djakadam be aimed at the Gold Cup.
On good ground, Djakadam wouldn't appeal as a Ryanair type, but clearly it could be an alternative target for Vautour.
This corner has already advocated Vautour going for Gold. It would be interesting to see him in the interim, but you'd wonder if they will go ahead without running him again. The options are the Irish Gold Cup, the Red Mills Chase and the Denman Chase.
It looks as though Leopardstown won't happen because it will likely be such a gruelling encounter, and a Red Mills tilt might be ruled out because they want to go left-handed and there mightn't be enough value in running over two-and-half miles.
That leaves the Denman as favourite, and it's easy to see why. On the other hand, when it comes to it, will Mullins sanction a cross-channel foray a month ahead of the real thing? Maybe he will, but I wouldn't bank on it.