Revitalised Hurricane can blow away field
In a record-breaking season that has seen him utterly dominate the domestic scene, Willie Mullins leads a robust-looking contingent of cross-channel raiders into battle on day one of the Cheltenham Festival.
On the opening salvo of the most enthralling racing carnival in the world, the champion trainer's brilliant two-miler Hurricane Fly is charged with regaining the Champion Hurdle crown that he forfeited a year ago. Already a 14-time Grade One winner, the 2011 victor's chief task is to prove that he simply wasn't at his scintillating best when third in 2012.
Unbeaten under the peerless Ruby Walsh this term, Hurricane Fly will be in his element on the prevailing soft ground, and he has seemed on far better terms with himself than last spring. However, with last year's Noel Fehily-ridden hero Rock On Ruby and the 2010 title-holder Binocular among his rivals in Stan James' £400,000 promotion, he will need to be.
Binocular's trainer Nicky Henderson, who bulldozed his way to the Irish Independent leading trainers' award a year ago with a mind-boggling seven winners, will also saddle the veteran 2010 runner-up Khyber Kim, as well as Barry Geraghty's mount Grandouet. The Champion Hurdle apart, Henderson is undoubtedly the man best equipped to frustrate Mullins' quest for the three winners that he needs to top Tom Dreaper's record tally of 26 for an Irish handler.
The Closutton maestro combines with champion jockey Davy Russell for Un Atout in the opening William Hill Supremes' Hurdle, with Ruby Walsh on Champagne Fever and Paul Townend aboard Pique Sous. Jessica Harrington's Jezki is another live contender, but it is Henderson's fellow JP McManus-owned My Tent Or Yours that lured AP McCoy's vote.
In the Racing Post Arkle Trophy, Henderson's unrelenting grey Simonsig is a justifiable odds-on shot, likewise Mullins' Quevega, which is on the verge of a historic fifth win in the OLBG Mares' Hurdle. Again, Henderson's Une Artiste is the chief threat there.
Of course, to reduce the entire week to a straight duel between the two most powerful yards either side of the water right now would be to do the vast majority of handlers a great injustice. Still, the head-to-head is sure to be one of many compelling facets to a week of pulsating activity that never fails to live up to expectations.
1.30 – Grade One William Hill Supreme Novices' Hurdle
My Tent Or Yours couldn't possibly have been more impressive on stepping into handicap company at Newbury last time. He is clearly a horse with tremendous talent, he goes on soft ground, and there never seemed any chance that AP McCoy might get off him to ride Jezki.
Given the way that he readily conceded weight to runner-up Cotton Mill at Newbury, he could be a formidable prospect.
Jezki has gone from strength to strength over hurdles. He turned the tables on his Champion Bumper conqueror Champagne Fever at Fairyhouse in December, before seeing off Waaheb and Bright New Dawn at Leopardstown. Waaheb was then well held at Fairyhouse by Art Of Logistics, which Un Atout had slammed at Naas.
That reads encouragingly for Mullins' unbeaten and unexposed Un Atout, which relishes soft ground. Champagne Fever left behind two defeats to record a game, front-running Grade One win over Bright New Dawn at Leopardstown last month.
If he is on form, he won't be all that easily overtaken now that the ground has come in his favour, and Ruby Walsh's decision to remain loyal is not insignificant.
Stable-mate Pique Sous probably won't appreciate the cut underfoot, though the improving Cause Of Causes might just about handle it. Gordon Elliott's five-year-old went out like a light on bad ground in My Tent Or Yours' race at Newbury, but he is far better than that.
Cheltenian and Puffin Billy are smart animals, though both come here on the back of defeats.
Verdict: Un Atout represents a value option on slow ground he will appreciate.
2.05 Grade One Arkle Challenge Trophy Chase 2m
Last year's Champion Hurdle runner-up Overturn has been a wonderful servant across the disciplines, and three typically bold front-running wins over fences suggest that he is equally proficient at this job. That said, he tends to need a decent surface to show his very best.
Simonsig is the one that ticks the most boxes at this stage. A sensational winner of the two-mile-five-furlong Grade One novice hurdle here in 2012, he has annihilated fair opposition in his only two starts over fences, latterly over this trip at Kempton after Christmas.
The bit of give in the ground will suit, he jumps cleanly and Barry Geraghty should get a lead for as long as he needs one from Overturn. Arvika Ligeonniere and Baily Green represent the raiding party, and the chances of both will be helped by the slow underfoot conditions.
However, Arvika Ligeonniere's tendency to jump right is a negative, especially when he is unlikely to get his own way in front.
Baily Green, prolific earlier in the season, also likes to race close to the pace, but he has come up short in better company on his last two starts.
Verdict: Simonsig stands out as a precocious talent of enormous potential.
2.40 – Grade Three JLT Specialty Handicap Chase (3m 1f)
White Star Line has a tremendous chance here for Dessie Hughes and Bryan Cooper. Second to Hunt Ball in the Pulteney here last year, he has continued to run well without winning since, and is 3lb lower than the 135 that he ran off 12 months ago.
Merry King is less exposed, with just four runs over fences for Jonjo O'Neill. A winner at Bangor in November, he was then a game second to the useful Rolling Aces in a very good race at Newbury, before going down by a nose to Cannington Brook in a Haydock thriller.
Richie McLernon's mount is 5lb higher now, but he is going the right way. Others to consider are the late-blooming Monkerty Tunkerty, and last year's third Our Mick (1lb higher), which unseated when still bang in contention on its reappearance here in January.
Verdict: The progressive Merry King appeals for a trainer that does well in these handicaps.
3.20 – Grade One Stan James Champion Hurdle Challenge Trophy (2m 1f)
Hurricane Fly has been a revelation this term. In the sort of deep ground that he thrives on, he has stormed to three emphatic victories, leaving Thousand Stars and Binocular in his wake en route to a facile third triumph in the Irish Champion Hurdle last time.
He has certainly cut a more potent figure than he did on signing off with two subdued efforts last term, and sets the standard here. Zarkandar also has three successive wins to his name.
Crucially, he had Grandouet and Rock On Ruby behind when grinding out a result here in December. He won't mind the soft ground but, while he has improved, it is worth noting that he was two places behind the seemingly below-par Hurricane Fly in this in 2012.
Last year's winner Rock On Ruby may not enjoy the mud, but his handler will have him ripe for the big day. First-time blinkers appeal as a plus at a fixture at which he has twice excelled.
Binocular will come on a bundle for his Leopardstown outing, but all the form tells us that, wherever Hurricane Fly finishes, he will be behind him. Grandouet may pose a bigger threat.
On his last start here before a 12-month lay-off in December 2011, he had the subsequent Champion Hurdle runner-up Overturn four lengths behind, and looked deeply progressive at the time. On his reappearance in the same race this season, he turned in an eye-catching display on unsuitably heavy going to split Zarkandar and Rock On Ruby.
If he copes with conditions, which is a moot point, he has the scope to step up. Cinders And Ashes and Countrywide Flame, successful in novices here in 2012, need to improve.
Verdict: Hurricane Fly is napped to redeem himself, but the unexposed Grandouet is feared.
4.0 – Glenfarclas Cross-country Handicap Chase
Enda Bolger's Arabella Boy unseated before the race that Outlaw Pete won here in December had really unfolded.
He had previously beaten Bostons Angel over banks at Punchestown, before returning there to make it two from three in cross-country races last month.
Interestingly, he is 5lb better off with Bostons Angel now. Bostons Angel, well held on bad ground last time, hasn't won since landing the RSA Chase here two years ago, but he is a classy performer that seems to have taken well to this novelty discipline.
Previous winners A New Story and Sizing Australia haven't been at their best of late, while other regulars such as Uncle Junior, Outlaw Pete, Big Shu and Freneys Well could all feature.
Verdict: Arabella Boy is weighted to give a good account of himself under Nina Carberry
4.40 – Grade Two OLBG David Nicholson Mares' Hurdle
This is arguably the best renewal of a contest that has lacked depth of any real significance since its inception in 2008.
Quevega returns in search of a fifth successive win, and the outcome will doubtless turn on whether or not she performs within 20lb of her best.
If she does, she will again win at a canter for Ruby Walsh. In the event that the triple Grade One winner disappoints, last year's Fred Winter heroine Une Artiste could take advantage. She has twice beaten Alasi to remain unbeaten this term, though Geraghty's mount did show some signs of temperament when refusing to race at Punchestown in April.
There is little to choose between many of the remainder, with David Pipe's Spring Bowler, third to My Tent Or Yours at Newbury, one of the more progressive options.
Verdict: Spring Bowler appeals each-way, but she won't spoil Quevega's date with destiny.
5.15 – Rewards4Racing Novices' Handicap Chase
There is none more interesting in this race than Gordon Elliott's Carlito Brigante.
The 2011 Festival winner gets in here off a favourable 137, which is 5lb lower than that off which he won the Coral Cup. Twice successful over fences, he hasn't been seen over jumps since running really well to be fourth to Dynaste here in November.
Carlito Brigante had a blow-out on the Flat at Dundalk and, notwithstanding that connections would have hoped for better ground, he should still figure prominently.
The Tom Mullins-trained Klepht is another to consider. Fifth in Grade One company to Boston Bob last time, he is lightly-raced and kept on well for third in a decent Leopardstown handicap previously.
Colour Squadron should figure prominently under AP McCoy if he brushes up his fencing, while Hazy Tom is another of the home team that has more to give.
Verdict: Carlito Brigante is weighted to win if he copes adequately with the ground.