Dual Cheltenham Gold Cup hero Kauto Star adds muscle to an otherwise middling renewal of the Guinness Gold Cup on day two of the Punchestown Festival.
A field of eight go to post for the three-mile Grade One this evening, including Tom George's runaway Aintree winner Nacarat. Kempes, successful in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown before flopping at Prestbury Park, is also in the line-up.
However, none of Kauto Star's rivals would hold a candle to him at his imperious best. A brave third to Long Run at Cheltenham last March in the Gold Cup, Ruby Walsh's loyal servant retains plenty of his old swagger at 11 years of age.
There will be no more popular winner this week should the brilliant chaser secure Paul Nicholls a third win in the €96,000 event.
On a programme that has 11 other cross-channel hopefuls, there is also an array of potential future stars laying reputations on the line.
Waheeb is one such sensation that has recently been signed up by JP McManus. Flawless in three previous outings, the Dermot Weld-trained four-year-old will attempt to give the Curragh handler a second successive triumph in the Champion Bumper.
Worryingly for Waheeb's opponents, there is a possibility that the Flat-bred gelding will be an even more formidable prospect on the prevailing quick ground.
3.40 Martinstown Opportunity Series Final Handicap Hurdle
An absolute minefield to get the day under way for punters. Steele's Rock is on a hat-trick and could still be competitive off a 10lb higher mark now.
The lightly-raced Laughing Boy is of particular interest after a pipe-opener at Fairyhouse when sixth to Noel Meade's Prima Vista, and Accordion To Paddy is generally a consistent sort that could feature prominently.
Red Tiger and Memories Of Milan are two others to consider.
Verdict: Steele's Rock gets a tentative vote.
4.20 Louis Fitzgerald Hurdle
The three English contenders all have chances, with Empire Levant maybe the pick of them. Ruby Walsh's mount was a tidy winner at Doncaster in January, before finding only one too good on slower ground at Kempton next time.
On the back of his win at Cork last week, Kalann must enter calculations.
So too must Total Reality, a facile maiden winner at Limerick a month ago.
Verdict: Empire Levant will appreciate the drier ground.
4.55 grade 2 novice Hurdle
Emmet Mullins retains the mount on Willie Mullins' Lambro after the partnership obliged at Fairyhouse last week. Having seemingly needed all of the two and a half miles then, the return to three ought to be in their favour now.
The unexposed Raptor may be the pick of Mullins' other two, but the champion trainer won't have things all his own way. Last Instalment, somewhat disappointing when third to Lambro, is another which looks sure to appreciate three miles, while Saint Are was a Grade One winner at Aintree.
Battle Group hosed up in a handicap at the same meeting, and Knockfierna confirmed that she is progressive by scoring at Fairyhouse. Mossey Joe, absent since losing his unbeaten record at Leopardstown in December, also appeals back in novice company.
Verdict: Mossey Joe, still an unknown quantity, to cause an upset.
5.30 Punchestown Guinness Gold Cup
Kauto Star rolled back the years when putting it up to Long Run at Cheltenham, and he is the horse to beat in this if he can reproduce that level of form. At 11 years of age, it is a slight concern that all his hard races will take their toll, but he has turned in three solid performances this term, so it's reasonable to believe he will deliver again.
Fellow English raider Nacarat poses a threat on ground that brings out the best in him. Kempes may be the pick of the home team. He was outclassed in the Gold Cup but, if Kauto Star misfires, Tony McCoy's mount could play a big role on going that suits.
Verdict: Kauto Star sets the standard.
6.05 Betchronicle.com INH Flat Race
The manner of Waheeb's three wins to date has been stunning. Stepping out of four-year-old company, this is easily the best race that Dermot Weld's gelding will have contested, but it will take a very good bumper horse to topple him.
Aintree winner Steps To Freedom is one that may have the scope to do so, and Lovethehigherlaw is another.
Although beaten on his most recent start at Limerick, Willie Mullins' son of Presenting is highly regarded.
Caoilaneoin really impressed at Leopardstown in February, and Jenari did likewise when progressing to win convincingly at Gowran on its second start.
Verdict: Waheeb looks a bit special.
6.40 Guinness Handicap Chase
Scotsirish has been in good heart and generally runs well here. While this is a competitive handicap that he must concede weight in, with conditions in his favour he can't be ruled out under Ruby Walsh.
On good ground, Cheltenham Festival runner-up Askthemaster is likely to be suited by this extra half-mile, and a similar comment applies to David Pipe's challenger I'msingingtheblues, which twice finished second on consecutive days at the Ayr Festival.
Osana, eight lengths in front of Scotsirish when second at Fairyhouse, is one that may not be suited by the trip.
Off a light weight that includes a 5lb penalty, Carrigmartin must also feature prominently on the back of his win at Leopardstown in February.
Verdict: The handicapper has given Carrigmartin a chance.
7.15 United Arab Emirates Embassy Flat Race
Faha looked an unlucky loser when flashing home late to be second at Clonmel a fortnight ago. She was well fancied, so she could make amends now -- but this is very open.
Willie Mullins' Alfred James ought to improve on a respectable debut effort at Punchestown in February, with the JP McManus-owned Some Wait, Are Ya Right Chief and Crocus Bay just a few that have shown potential.
Verdict: Faha is the one to keep on side.