The 'Black Aeroplane' can take off
Will racing's 'Black Aeroplane' take off at Cheltenham once again after so many months in the hangar? We will learn the answer just after 3.30pm today.
The nickname given to Sprinter Sacre had never looked more appropriate than in the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase of three years ago, as he delivered the consummate destruction of six useful rivals.
More victories followed, before disaster struck at Kempton the following Christmas, when Barry Geraghty came to a halt after a handful of fences.
An irregular heartbeat was diagnosed; not life-threatening but enough for the precious specimen to disappear for more than a year.
Nicky Henderson had never seemed truly happy with Sprinter Sacre last season and it was only in November that this gelding delivered one of the finest Cheltenham moments outside of the Festival, coming 14 lengths clear of reliable yardstick Somersby.
The irresistible cruising speed and effortless motion across fences had returned, and it is that performance, rather than his subsequent battling defeat of Sire De Grugy, which gives him a valid chance of winning.
Un De Sceaux, the hot favourite, raced with such zeal as a novice that it was bordering on the reckless. It won him the Arkle, but he was a noticeably more relaxed in landing the Clarence House at Ascot in January.
What lingers about Un De Sceaux is his tendency to make the odd, brainless error - over Christmas he basically ran into Leopardstown's second-last fence.
Another such mistake seems a possibility, but we are in for a treat if the big two, along with a couple more former winners in Dodging Bullets and Sire De Grugy, are all in contention up the home straight.
It could be a memorable afternoon for the returning wounded. The last time Balthazar King was on a racecourse, it looked ominous, as he lay hidden behind the dreaded green screens while the Grand National field passed around the Canal Turn.
The veteran had not only broken ribs but punctured a lung, and spent six weeks recovering in Liverpool.
Balthazar King is quite fantastic around the cross-country course and was twice a winner of this Glenfarclas Chase when it was a handicap.
He is even better suited by the revised race conditions that have eliminated the handicap.
Josies Orders, which has taken the two lead-up races in the old champion's absence, is clearly improving and should be afforded the utmost respect because of the tried-and-tested combination of Enda Bolger and Nina Carberry, but still has a few pounds to find.
Richard Johnson regards Balthazar King as his best ride of the week, even if trainer Philip Hobbs is slightly more cautious.
"There's a little bit of a doubt about his lung capacity, and there's a little bit of a dent in his side," Hobbs said.
"I don't think that is an issue or we wouldn't be running. His work has been just as good as ever it was."
The RSA Chase might also go the way of the home team. Sandy Thomson's Seeyouatmidnight beat Blaklion at Cheltenham on New Year's Day and, as both should be in their element over this extra distance, it would come as no surprise if they again fought out the finish of this Grade One.
If Yanworth, perhaps the most impressive winner of a Festival trial this season when dotting up at this course in January, is a bit of a no-brainer in the Neptune Novices' Hurdle, both the Coral Cup and the Fred Winter Hurdle, as ever, induce severe headaches.
Paul Nicholls' lightly raced, improving novice Politologue might be a few pounds in front of the handicapper in the Coral Cup, while the joint bottom weight Our Thomas, at 25/1, is in with a shout in the Fred Winter on the pick of his form.
Mullins first made his name at this Festival in the mid-Nineties when beginning a stable domination of the Champion Bumper and he is mob-handed again today in his attempt to win this race for the ninth time.
The easy Navan winner Augusta Kate, owned by a syndicate that includes Lee Westwood, Alan Shearer and Ant and Dec, looks best of Mullins' septet.
But trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies is sweet on the chance of Ballyandy, which looked really good when scoring at Newbury last month, and he might be another for the home side. (© Daily Telegraph, London)