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1.20 - JCB Triumph Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m1f)
The Irish have been well and truly lording it in the Cotswolds this week and will fully expect to kick off day four with another winner. Zanahiyr and Quilixios would have presented Gordon Elliott with quite the tag-team in this, bar his suspension, and so the latter now represents the dream team of Henry De Bromhead and Rachael Blackmore instead in the Cheveley Park colours.
Both Zanahiyr and Quilixios have dismissed Saint Sam readily in Ireland this term, that rival of course finishing second-best in the Fred Winter here on Tuesday.
Zanahiyr has gripped ante-post favouritism for this race for most of the winter and Jack Kennedy's mount - sporting a first-time tongue-tie now - is a strong player but the clock says Quilixios might have his measure based on last month's Spring Juvenile win at the Dublin Racing Festival.
There's not much to split the pair on form, but this looks anything bar a duel between the former stablemates. The raiding party completes half the field with Willie Mullins saddling both Haut En Couleurs and Tax For Max.
The former won a newcomers race in France in the autumn on heavy ground and has not yet raced for Team Closutton, he'll look to get Al Boum Photo's owners off to a flyer on this day of days for them. Tax For Max was too keen on his Irish bow at Fairyhouse last month, chasing home Teahupoo in a Grade 3 but could improve for that experience.
Britain's quartet includes outsiders in Talking About You and Historic Heart alongside live contenders Adagio and TRITONIC.
Historic Heart was second to Adagio over C&D in December before David Pipe's runner went on to win the Grade 1 Finale at Chepstow in January.
He put away Nassalam quite readily there with the likes of Hous Grix and Elham Valley well behind - that trio ran respectably in the Fred Winter this week but it does suggest Adagio needs more for this assignment.
The hope is that Alan King's Tritonic will have too much flat-speed for them all. He was rated 99 on the level and mixed it in Group 3/Listed company before turning his hand to jumping in January.
He won at Ascot (1m7½f, soft) despite having lots to do in reeling back Casa Loupi after the final jump and he confirmed his promise when putting 10-lengths between himself and that same rival in the Grade 2 Adonis at Kempton last month. Good ground there was advantageous to him and so continuing sunshine in the Gloucestershire countryside is to his benefit this week.
He clocked a good time at Kempton and the fact so little jumping has to be done in the closing stages of this race really should play to his strengths. Trainer King has won this race twice before, including with future Champion Hurdler Katchit, and Tritonic can quell the Irish charge in the opener and remain unbeaten over timber.
1.55 - McCoy Contractors County Handicap Hurdle (Grade 3, 2m1f)
As it almost always does, the County Hurdle pitches together some experienced and classy runners in the twilight of their careers seeking to show they still possess a knockout blow, in amongst some up and coming young rivals with bright futures eager to show they are streetwise enough for this fierce battleground.
The likes of Petit Mouchoir - placed in a Champion Hurdle in his pomp and fifth behind Epatante in that race last year - goes into the former camp with Jordan Gainford taking a handy 7lb off his top-weight burden.
He's joined by Mengli Khan in that category, third in both the 2018 Supreme Novices' Hurdle and the 2019 JLT (Marsh) Novices' Chase in previous Festival starts. They represents Denise Foster and Nicky Henderson respectively and wouldn't be crossed off too readily.
Willie Mullins and Dan Skelton have provided the last six winners of this race between them - three each - and have excellent hopes again in Ganapathi and Third Time Lucki.
Both have come up just shy of graded-level but could be good enough in here, with the Skelton runner in particular having plenty potential and enough experience.
Jack Kennedy is on Eclair De Beaufeu for the Foster team and, along with Martin Brassil's You Raised Me Up they are prominent in the betting.
Strong Glance has been winning all-weather bumpers for Olly Murphy and could improve on his Greatwood Hurdle run here earlier in the season but two to side with are GOWEL ROAD and Fifty Ball.
The latter has been improving all the while since arriving from France for Gary Moore and did so again when second to Soaring Glory in last month's Betfair Hurdle at Newbury. He wasn't able to cope with the winner but should have a challenge in him again from this 4lb higher mark.
Nigel Twiston-Davies is routinely able to find something that goes close at his local track and the Naunton handler might do that with Gowel Road. He, too, is very much a work in progress but he's been strong through the finishing stages in record back-to-back Newbury wins since the turn of the year.
He gave weight and a beating to a promising four-year-old in Paul Nicholls' Good Ball last time and a mark of 137 looks well within range. First-time cheekpieces are deployed for this tough test but he's an upwardly mobile five-year-old with a bright future and is much-respected at around 16/1.
2.30 - Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle (Grade 1, 3m)
Willie Mullins has won this twice 2017 and has strong contender Stattler in the mix now. Paul Townend's mount has excellent form claims after a Grade 1 third at Leopardstown (2m6f, soft to heavy) last month and he does seem sure to appreciate this increased trip. He's been put in as favourite however and maybe is too short in the betting.
Fakiera was right behind him in that Dublin Racing Festival contest and is another of the likely sorts for the Irish as they go for three Albert Bartlett wins in a row.
This is the least flashy of the Grade 1 novice events at The Festival and perhaps given how the week is playing out, it's fitting therefore that it's also the one in which the home challenge looks to be strongest and a British-trained winner looks likely.
Threeunderthrufive, The Cob, Alphaphillipe and Pats Fancy are amongst those worth considering - with Rebecca Curtis enlisting Rachael Blackmore to partner the last-named.
Both trainer and jockey have won this race before and, having finished second in a C&D trial in December, it's likely Pats Fancy can leave behind his January disappointment at Doncaster when he was pulled up in the trial won handsomely by The Cob for trainer Ben Pauling.
The two chose however are Adrimel for Tom Lacey and BARBADOS BUCK'S for Paul Nicholls.
Adrimel is 3-3 this season over timber and the lone defeat of his career was in last year's Champion Bumper here, a race in which he probably paid the price for engaging in the early pace. He can run a big race and his form ties in nicely with Fergal O'Brien's runner Alphaphillipe. Both should be in with chances.
It is Barbados Buck's that gets the nod however. Trained by Paul Nicholls, owned by Andy Stewart and related to four-time Stayers' Hurdle winner Big Buck's - he's made for this test it seems.
He has progressed with each start over hurdles, winning his last three over this trip. He moves especially well and always seem to have something in reserve. This track will be something different but connections appear very confident he's going to handle it and he may have the ability to win under Harry Cobden.
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3.05 - Wellchild Cheltenham Gold Cup Chase (Grade 1, 3m2f)
AL BOUM PHOTO faces 11 rivals in his quest to complete a hat-trick of Gold Cup wins. The race that for so long eluded Willie Mullins now so suddenly seems eminently winnable again for the Closutton maestro, who also runs Kemboy in this.
The two-time winner has proved versatile around here he infamously gave Ruby Walsh a broken leg in 2018, just a month or so before he even more infamously took the wrong course under Paul Townend at Punchestown with a Grade 1 novice at his mercy. Those days are long forgotten now, for all concerned, with Al Boum Photo having won five-from-six starts since.
His Cheltenham prep involves a reappearance win at Tramore on New Year's Day (three years running now) and then coming straight here. The peak years of his career are effectively being stage-managed in brilliant fashion by Mullins.
Less is more, and the imperiously prudent campaigning by his trainer is yielding the richest dividends in jumps racing. His 2019 Gold Cup win came off a strong pace, while last year's victory was in a more tactically run affair.
This year, the likes of Native River, Frodon and Kemboy are all potential front-runners given their recent exploits and so a fast pace is probable. That should prove to be right up Al Boum Photo's boulevard and he can come through strongest to prevail again and cement his status as a Cotswolds legend.
King George winner Frodon is admirable, and a Ryanair scorer here in the past, but he's unlikely to get things his own way and may find this mission beyond him. Native River excelled last time at Sandown on heavy ground, seeing of Bristol De Mai and Santini readily, but at 11-years-old it's improbable he can emulate the mighty Kauto Star in regaining this crown. He can play a big part with his forcing tactics, however.
Kemboy won the Irish Gold Cup from the front and seems best in the lead, but his jumping has held him back at times and he's failed to really fire in four Cheltenham Festival starts.
Last year's third Lostintranslation has endured a tough season, though Colin Tizzard's string are now starting to return to form. He would have claims if back to his best, though a leap of faith is needed to see that happening. Veteran stablemate Native River has more going for him.
Minella Indo has lost his way and while Santini is better than the likes of Aso and Black Op, they probably all lack the quality of a Gold Cup horse.
The threats to Al Boum Photo then are perhaps headed by Champ, A Plus Tard and Royal Pagaille - each tackling this race for the first time.
Champ's preparation has been unorthodox, with one run in a Grade 2 at Newbury over an two-miles last month since he won her last March, flying up the hill in heroic style to pip Minella Indo in the RSA. His jumping is not yet reliable and while he's enormously talented, this is a lofty enough ask given his preparation.
A Plus Tard surged home late at Christmas to foil Kemboy and Melon in the Savills Chase. He's a Festival winner too and would complete a remarkable Champion Hurdle, Champion Chase & Gold Cup haul for Henry De Bromhead if he can do it. He gets the vote from Rachael Blackmore over Minella Indo and is a viable contender given how strong he was at the final at Christmas.
The relative unknown is Venetia Williams' novice Royal Pagaille. He's been remarkably progressive this term, winning all three starts in imperious fashion. He defied a 16lb hike when winning a Haydock handicap last time off a mark of 156. Can he translate that rapid improvement into taking on proven Grade 1 horses? That's a big enough leap of faith but he's just seven-year-old and it would be foolish to dismiss him.
All considered, this race doesn't look any stronger than last year and, with it likely to be run favourably, Al Boum Photo can capture another Cheltenham moment for the best in the business.
3.40 - St. James's Place Festival Challenge Cup Open Hunters' Chase (3m2f)
Some of the lustre of the 'amateur riders Gold Cup' is almost certain to be lost by the fact that professional riders are stepping in for 2021 in the pandemic era, of that there's no doubt.
It Came To Pass caused a big shock as the 66/1 winner of this race last year, fending off favourite Billaway readily. The latter is better placed this time for a repeat showing and will once again be up near the front of the betting, with that man Townend on board.
Enda Bolger fires two, with Staker Wallace and Stand Up And Fight likely sorts. Both have form ties with Billaway and can be entertained as contenders.
Bob And Co is 4-4 in this arena since joining Paul Nicholls from France and the Ditcheat trainer has an excellent recent record in the Foxhunters. He's expected to go close but, at the prices, maybe an each-way punt on LATENIGHTPASS is preferable.
He's more commonly known for his point-to-point exploits but he has won both starts in Hunter Chases - over this C&D in 2019 and last month at Haydock when seeing off 16 rivals under Bridget Andrews. He might well outrun a decent price.
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Mrs Paddy Power Mares' Chase (Grade 2, 2m4½f)
The Dawn Run Novices' Hurdle proved a benefit for Willie Mullins after it arrived in 2016 and now the Festival's newest race looks set to do something similar.
The Irish champion trainer has a high-class team of mares at his disposal and he's unleashing four of them at this prize, with ELIMAY and Colreevy dominating the market.
Both have run well against males recently. Colreevy is 3-3 over fences so far but has raced exclusively on testing ground in that sequence. She also ran a bit below expected levels in the Dawn Run at this meeting a year ago and that's enough to sway a confident vote to stablemate Elimay, the mount of Mark Walsh for his boss and owner JP McManus.
She gave stablemate Allaho a proper race at Thurles over this trip in January, the pair miles clear, and that's her only defeat from four over fences. She brushed aside the re-opposing Shattered Love since at Naas over two-miles and looks set for success. She's rated 5lb superior to Colreevy, but gets 2lb from that rival here.
It's hard to make a case for anything bar this pair, and it won't be a shock if they have it to themselves late on.
4.50 - Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' Handicap Hurdle (2m4f)
Last weekend's Imperial Cup winner Langer Dan turns up here having crept into the race under his penalty. Connections opt to go again six days later with a chunky bonus offered if they can secure a Cheltenham Festival success.
He looked to have plenty in hand at Sandown and is officially 5lb 'well-in' now as a result. The turnaround is a quick one but he's on the same mark as when shaping well in the Boodles at this meeting last year and further progress isn't ruled out back up in trip.
Not since Gaspara in 2007 has any horse completed the Imperial Cup/Cheltenham Festival double and his trainer David Pipe could have one to go well in a race the Pond House handler would clearly love to win.
MARTINHAL has banked successive wins at Exeter over hurdles since undergoing wind surgery before Christmas. Those successes have come on testing ground and so he must prove himself on this slightly quicker surface but a mark of 133 and a featherweight certainly afford him every chance.
The four horses that finished closest to him in those Exeter success have all won their next starts and Richard Patrick's mount is a big price at 33/1 for the Festival finale.
The betting is always a strong guide to this race and Willie Mullins challengers Gentleman De Mee and Galopin Des Champs have plenty scope for improvement. The former looks quite promising and has an excellent partner in Simon Torrens and they should be a major force.