Identifying cream of crop and winners from no-hopers, as all eyes focus on Cheltenham
Michael Verney sets the scene for racing's greatest festival
With just eight days to go to the Cheltenham Festival, it's time to scour the markets for the best value and break down the 14 Grade Ones which look set to get pulses racing.
Supreme Novices' Hurdle
All eyes will be on Willie Mullins' Getabird (6/4 favourite) as punters latch on to the Closutton maestro in the hope of getting the Festival off to a flyer once again.
Mullins has taken the opener in three of the last five years and Getabird shot to the head of the market after swatting aside Gordon Elliott's Mengli Khan at Punchestown in January.
Unbeaten in four starts for Mullins, the Rich Ricci-owned six-year-old looks rock solid at the head of the market, but 25-year-old English trainer Amy Murphy looks set to pit stable star Kalashnikov (5/1) against the hotpot.
It's a surprise to see Tom George's Summerville Boy at double figure odds (10/1) given the four-length beating he handed to Kalashnikov on his last run and he may be the value option in an ultra-competitive affair.
Verdict: Summerville Boy.
Arkle Challenge Trophy Novices' Chase
Footpad drifted alarmingly over the weekend (evens to 6/4), but with connections rubbishing fitness concerns, Mullins' brilliant novice chaser deservedly heads the market after being foot perfect in his three starts over fences.
Fourth in last year's Champion Hurdle, Footpad has shown himself to be even better over the larger obstacles and humbled second-favourite Petit Mouchoir (5/2) last month.
Henry de Bromhead's charge had Footpad's number over hurdles, but the seven-year-old made some costly errors at Leopardstown and Cheltenham will not be as forgiving, so he might be seen to best effect at Punchestown.
Harry Whittington's Saint Calvados (4/1) turned the Grade Two Kingmaker Novices' Chase into a procession and may be the fly in the ointment, while Nicky Henderson's Brain Power (7/1) is a danger if he can stay on his feet.
Verdict: Footpad (NAP).
Reigning champion Buveur D'Air (4/9) bids to make it a magnificent seven of Champion Hurdles for Henderson and while he has done nothing wrong this season, there are worries that his star hurdler hasn't been tested.
Buveur D'Air has beaten just nine rivals in his three races this season, but there are question marks hanging over his opposition, most notably Faugheen (6/1), who wasn't back to his best when second to Supasundae in the Irish Champion Hurdle, but improved enormously on a shocking Christmas run. If further progress comes, the 2015 Champion Hurdle hero will be on the scene.
Mullins also sends the enigmatic but brilliant Yorkhill (8/1) back over the smaller obstacles and while there's no doubting the dual Festival scorer's ability, flopping on his last two chase starts is hardly ideal preparation.
Perennial bridesmaid My Tent Or Yours (10/1) - runner-up in three Champion Hurdles - is a capable back-up for Henderson, but Ryanair Hurdle winner Mick Jazz (25/1) has improved at a rate of knots and could make the frame for Elliott.
Verdict: Mick Jazz (e/w).
Apple's Jade (4/7 favourite) is the horse Elliott is most looking forward to seeing next week and it's easy to see why given what she has already achieved as a six-year-old.
The Gigginstown House Stud mare will be expected to follow up last year's win and reward favourite backers against a string of Closutton challengers, including Vroum Vroum Mag, Benie Des Dieux and Let's Dance (all 6/1 shots), but another Irish runner might give her most to think about.
Jer's Girl (20/1) fell at the third-last a year ago when still travelling sweetly and Gavin Cromwell's mare is an interesting contender if she runs.
Verdict: Jer's Girl (e/w).
Ballymore Novices' Hurdle
One of the most eagerly anticipated races of the week, as Samcro (8/11 favourite) bids to back up the hype.
Unbeaten in seven career starts and outstanding on his most recent run at Leopardstown, Elliott's awesome six-year-old has the jumping world at his feet, with connections confident that he could be a Gold Cup horse in time.
Should he be turned over, it would be a disastrous result for Irish punters, but we all remember Dunguib's colossal reversal in the Supreme (2009) when carrying the weight of a nation.
Mullins pitches in Next Destination (7/2) against the hotpot having twice gotten the better of Elliott's Cracking Smart - a leading Albert Bartlett Hurdle fancy before being ruled out at the weekend - and having been put away since winning a Grade One at Naas in January. He is the chief danger.
A lot of uncertainty remains about the preferred engagement for Monalee (3/1), with Henry de Bromhead's runner cut significantly in the JLT Novices' Chase market over the weekend.
Last year's Albert Bartlett second bounced back from a fall at Christmas when defeating Invitation Only and Al Boum Photo last month, but Presenting Percy (5/2) looks a cut above.
Galway trainer Pat Kelly, owner Philip Reynolds and jockey Davy Russell have combined to score at the last two Festivals and the trio could have something special on their hands. He lost nothing in defeat when second behind leading Gold Cup contender Our Duke at Gowran Park last time out; if anything, it enhanced his reputation.
Verdict: Presenting Percy.
Undefeated in nearly three years and bidding for his 13th consecutive win, two-time Festival winner Altior (4/6 favourite) will be considered banker material for the English.
The brilliant eight-year-old was as good as ever on his seasonal reappearance when comfortably disposing of the re-opposing Politologue (8/1) and there's no reason to suggest that Paul Nicholls' charge can turn the tables.
Mullins provides the main opposition and what a race is in store should Douvan (7/2) - which was ruled out for the season but has returned to full fitness - be back to his best. Sent off 2/9 favourite when last seen in this race 12 months ago, he came home lame as Special Tiara prevailed, but if he is on song, Rich Ricci's star chaser would push Altior to his limit.
Stablemate Min (11/4) is almost the forgotten horse of this race, but took the Grade Two Dublin Chase in fine style at Leopardstown last month and makes this a mouth-watering renewal should all three take their place.
With six Irish winners in the last 10 runnings, there was some surprise that the visiting party had just nine of the 31 entries, but Mullins has his usually strong team, including 6/1 joint-favourites Blackbow and Hollowgraphic.
Blackbow galloped into the picture with back-to-back wins at Leopardstown, but Joseph O'Brien's Rhinestone (8/1), may reverse the form from their Dublin Racing Festival clash, while Hollowgraphic has always been viewed as one of their leading contenders since swatting aside several subsequent winners in early December.
Nick Gifford's Didtheyleaveuoutto (7/1) leads a strong home team and there was something particularly eye-catching about the way Anthony Honeyball's Acey Milan (8/1) strode up the Cheltenham Hill on New Year's Day.
Verdict: Acey Milan.
JLT Novices' Chase
One of the most volatile Festival markets with few certainties as to what will actually line up in the race, so caution is advised until the picture becomes much clearer. Modus (7/1) , though, is one horse certain to take its place.
Nicholls' novice chaser easily scored in a Wincanton Grade Two in November before falling at Exeter, but he showed no hesitation in scoring at Kempton last month and boasts good Festival form having finished six lengths adrift of Supasundae in last year's Coral Cup.
With much debate about the targets for many of the top Irish novices, Henderson's Terrefort (10/1) - a gutsy winner of the Grade One Scilly Isles Novices' Chase at Sandown last month - looks the best of the rest.
Last year's winner Un De Sceaux (9/4 favourite) has looked better than ever this season and his cosy success in the Grade One Clarence House Chase in January should have him cherry ripe for his back-to-back effort.
With his growing years, Mullins' 10-year-old has learnt to settle a lot better in his races and the exuberance which saw him hit the deck twice in his younger days looks to be a thing of the past as he develops into one of the finest chasers of his generation.
Ruth Jefferson sets her sights on a poignant Festival winner with Ascot Chase champ Waiting Patiently (7/2), having taken the training reins following the death of her father Malcolm.
It would be a fairytale story if the progressive seven-year-old were to prevail, but 2013 Ryanair Chase hero Cue Card bids to turn the tables after his brilliant second last time out at Ascot and strike a blow for all veterans at the age of 12 in his seventh Festival.
Footpad's owners Simon Munir and Isaac Souede have another live chance with Ascot fourth Top Notch (7/1) - which was just a length adrift of Yorkhill in last year's JLT and looks ready-made for a the 2m5f trip - but it's hard to oppose the favourite.
Verdict: Un De Sceuax.
Jessica Harrington insists there was no temptation to have Supasundae (4/1) supplemented for the Champion Hurdle following his defeat of Faugheen and last year's Coral Cup winner deservedly tops the market after an impressive season to date.
Harrington instead bids to turn the tables on Alan King's Yanworth (9/2) having finished a length behind him at Aintree last season over a similar trip, but Supasundae looks a totally different prospect this year. With Yanworth returning from a stint over fences, the Irish runner is preferred in that duel, but there are several other dangers, including Sam Spinner, in a cracking field.
Cancer survivor Jedd O'Keeffe saddles Grade One Long Walk Hurdle winner Sam Spinner (5/1), which has progressed immensely this season.
Last year's Albert Bartlett Hurdle winner Penhill (8/1) also takes his place for Mullins but the lack of aprep run is a worry. With that in mind, 71-year-old Harrington can complete the only missing piece of her jigsaw to secure each of Cheltenham's 'Big Four'.
Henderson reported favourite Apple's Shakira (3/1) in fine fettle after sparkling in a Kempton gallop last week and there was a lot to like about how his filly responded when shaken up to score over course and distance in January.
While she may not have beaten much, it's better to know how she will react when pressured while King's Redicean (9/2) - a commanding winner of Grade Two at Kempton - also leads a strong home effort.
Mullins nominated Grade One winner Mr Adjudicator as his best juvenile - he also runs Stormy Ireland and Saldier (all three trade at 7/1) - in a recent stable tour but with King claiming Redicean has more gears than Champion Hurdle winner Katchit, which won this race in 2007, he may be the most likely winner.
Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle
Mullins won this race 12 months ago with Penhill, but the picture for his runners this year is not yet clear, with Duc Des Genievres (5/1) likely to be his leading candidate and he may have to play second fiddle to Henderson.
Santini (9/2) and Chef Des Obeaux (6/1) have both impressed this season and preference is for the former, a course winner when defeating Black Op in January.
Cheltenham Gold Cup
There will be no shortage of Irish challengers for the Festival showpiece, with Harrington double handed through last year's blue riband winner Sizing John (6/1) and reigning Irish Grand National hero Our Duke (7/1), but the prize may be kept in England.
Might Bite (4/1) hasn't been seen since claiming the King George in decent fashion on St Stephen's Day and while question marks remain about him idling in front, Henderson's nine-year-old is far less likely to be sent for home until the time is right on this occasion. He drifted massively right in the straight 12 months ago in the RSA Chase, but hasn't blotted his copybook this season.
Last year's third, Native River (6/1) may lack the class to pick up a race of this magnitude for Colin Tizzard but is respected, while the progressive Definitly Red (16/1) is a live outsider for Brian Ellison.
Killultagh Vic (10/1) leads Mullins' bid for a first Gold Cup along with Total Recall (16/1), while Leopardstown Christmas Chase winner Road To Respect (9/1) vies for glory for Noel Meade. But if Might Bite keeps a straight course, he will be very hard to beat.
Verdict: Might Bite.