Last year's Irish Grand National hero Lion Na Bearnai is the sole Irish contender in this afternoon's Coral-sponsored Scottish equivalent at Ayr.
Tom Gibney's 11-year-old is joined on his first start since pulling up in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury in December by the recent Aintree victor Auroras Encore, chinned on the line in this by two-time winner Merigo 12 months ago. In short, Lion Na Bearnai, with amateur rider Robbie McNamara up for a first time, has an awful lot on his plate under 11st 11lb.
As he bids to become just the second Irish-trained winner of the four-mile feature – after Huntsman in 1869 – he is 12lb higher than when he scored his famous Fairyhouse triumph, while Auroras Encore is up 11lb for his Liverpool exploits. Needless to say, Ryan Mania's mount has his work cut out to become the first top-weight to collect since Grey Abbey in 2004.
Sue Smith's charge may be only 5lb higher than he was when going so close a year ago, but the prevailing heavy ground is another major negative. Our Mick and Rival d'Estruval are two others with over 11st that will be popular after big showings at Cheltenham last month.
However, neither appeals as being quite good enough to carry their respective burdens to success. Neptune Equester, Big Occasion and Monsieur Cadou are three with more positives.
Neptune Equester gets in here off 129 for the in-form Brian Ellison and Danny Cook partnership, a mark off which he won a three-and-a-half-mile handicap chase at Haydock 18 months ago. He was eighth off 133 over that course and distance in February, having won a pair of hurdles – including a handicap off 126 – on his only other two outings this term.
He never figured in this marathon contest off 142 in 2011, but he is value for a place at up to 16/1 now that he has dropped in the weights. David Pipe's Big Occasion has been allotted 3lb more here off 10st 10lb, with amateur rider Mikey Ennis taking seven off that.
Successful in the Midlands National at Uttoxeter, he is a progressive six-year-old, though he may need to improve his fencing on his seventh chasing start if he is to figure off a 6lb higher mark. His price has tumbled from 14/1 in recent days, and 8/1 now looks about right.
If you include Ennis' claim, Big Occasion meets Monsieur Cadou off the same terms as when he was 14 lengths in front of him at Lingfield in February. On that basis, Big Occasion has the edge, but the suspicion that Monsieur Cadou was below par there was reaffirmed by his eight-length win in a decent handicap over Haydock's three-and-a-half-mile test last time.
Having prevailed in a similarly gruelling test at Haydock prior to Lingfield, Tom George's eight-year-old's stamina credentials look rock solid, and he also has just six outings over fences to his name.
As such, Monsieur Cadou strikes as a still progressive prospect, which makes him intriguing here off 10st 4lb despite a 12lb penalty for his latest win. At up to 16/1, then, he could deliver Paddy Brennan a second win in this since 2009.
In the Champion Hurdle, James Lambe's Silk Hall has plenty on, likewise the top-weight Grumeti. Sametegal is probably a worthy favourite for the Ruby Walsh-Paul Nicholls axis, having finished third to Our Conor at Cheltenham. That said, he was beaten most of 20 lengths there, and he is short enough in the betting for a race in which four-year-olds have a poor record.
Shotavodka might be the one to keep on side here. The Pipe-trained runner ran far better at Aintree than his finishing position of seventh suggests, as he led over the last before keeping on at one pace on a track and on ground that were both quick enough for him.
As a horse that likes to make or sit close to the pace, Ayr will suit the improving novice better, as will the deep going.
Earlier, Barry Geraghty stands in for AP McCoy on Lucinda Russell's Tap Night in the two-and-a-half-mile novices' chase. A fine second to Captain Conan at Aintree, the JP McManus-owned triple course winner is the class act on duty.
Best Bet: Tap Night