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1.20 - Ballymore Novices' Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m5f)
As with the opener on Tuesday's card it's something of an anomaly to be left with a seven-runner line-up for the Ballymore, leaving each-way punters squirming with generally just two places on offer.
Henry De Bromhead and Rachael Blackmore combine with Bob Olinger, winner of the 2m4f Lawlor's of Naas Grade 1 in January. He was impressive in that score and his only defeat thus far was on hurdles bow when a close second to last year's Champion Bumper winner Ferny Hollow at Gowran Park in November.
There's almost certainly more to come from Bob Olinger and many people cannot entertain the notion he will be defeated here but - in spite of the small field - this race is extremely tricky and won't be easily won.
Willie Mullins saddles Gaillard Du Mesnil, a Grade 1 winner over 2m6f at the Dublin Racing Festival last month. This French-bred horse will stay on strongly up the Cheltenham hill and should not be underestimated in the Al Boum Photo colours.
A trio of Irish runners is completed by Joseph O'Brien's Keskonrisk, third behind Appreciate It in a Leopardstown Grade 1 over Christmas, and is seemingly set to improve upped in distance now. He has plenty to find on the figures to down these rivals.
Britain outnumbers Ireland by four/three in the opener, though in all truth both Does He Know and Optimise Prime are likely bit-part players today, though the former did win a C&D Grade 2 trial for this in November. Kim Bailey's charge has lost his way since and must bounce back, and some, to prevail here.
Bear Ghylls is the potential wildcard in the mix for trainer Nicky Martin. He's 3-3 over hurdles and unbeaten in his career to this point. His jumping his lacked fluency and has a touch of 'accident waiting to happen' about it, but there's no doubting he has a massive engine and writing him off is ill-advised.
However, it's BRAVEMANSGAME that is deemed the strongest player for Britain's champion trainer-elect Paul Nicholls, whose name is a surprising omission on the Roll of Honour for this Festival race.
He came closest with Denman in 2006, the future Gold Cup winner having his pocket picked by Paul Carberry and Nicanor, and Bravemansgame is the first Nicholls horse since 'The Tank' to win the Grade 1 Challow at Newbury en route here. The Ditcheat supremo isn't shy on suggesting when he has a good one and he believes Bravemansgame to be special, repeatedly calling him out in the run-up to this meeting. He looks to have a Denman-esque engine and is fancied to repel the strong Irish challenge up the Cheltenham hill by putting that to good use.
1.55 - Brown Advisory Novices' Chase (Grade 1, 3m)
The big fish is left in a small pond here as only five rivals have dared to sign up for the challenge of stopping MONKFISH in his tracks. It's no shock to find Willie Mullins' superstar in the making is long odds-on for this challenge and he could turn out the shortest-priced favourite of the entire meeting.
Winner of the Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle here last March, just holding off Latest Exhibition in a thriller, Monkfish has truly come into his own since going chasing this season. He's won three from three, including a pair of Leopardstown Grade 1s over 2m5½f/3m, where he has sickened old foe Latest Exhibition with his supreme dominance.
In a season where Envoi Allen and Shiskin are in the arena with him, it's no understatement to suggest Monkfish probably edges the pair as the most exciting of a stellar class of novice chasers. He should be back here in 12 months with major Gold Cup aspirations and it will be a shock to the system if anything can prevent him taking this prize home.
Eklat De Rire represents De Bromhead and Blackmore here and is the only Irish runner opposing Monkfish. He won a Naas Grade 3 over this sort of trip in January on heavy ground but has only raced in the mud. There's plenty of scope for better as he's so lightly-raced, but this is the major league.
Sporting John for Philip Hobbs and The Big Breakaway for Colin Tizzard are the leading British players attempting to serve it up to Monkfish, with both Dickie Diver (Nicky Henderson) and Fiddlerontheroof (Tizzard) liable to come up a fair way short.
The Big Breakaway was let down by jumping at Kempton on Boxing Day when second to Shan Blue in the Grade 1 Kauto Star Novices' Chase. He ran well enough behind Envoi Allen (fourth) at this meeting last spring and the shoots of recovery from the Team Tizzard in recent times after a testing winter certainly bring hope he can put up a career-best today.
He was well ahead of Sporting John in the Ballymore last March but the latter comes into this on the back of a noteworthy Sandown success last month in the Grade 1 Scilly Isles Novices' Chase (2m4f, heavy). He looked ill at ease early in that race under Richard Johnson, jumping slowly and needing to be cajoled along, but he came to life late on and won going away from the aforementioned Shan Blue.
His relative lack of experience over fences (two runs) is a worry and he was easily beaten by Fiddlerontheroof at Exeter in November, but he's always been very well thought of by his Minehead trainer and if he's on the premises turning for home, Sporting John might be the one to have a front row seat to see Monkfish clearing away up the hill.
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2.30 - Coral Cup Handicap Hurdle (Grade 3, 2m5f)
Absolutely no need for numerical worries here, with the Coral Cup attracting a field 28 (two reserves) and looking as tricky as ever for punters as a problem-solving equation.
Nicky Henderson has won the last two renewals of this race and he is on the attack again with a four-strong assault led by Craigneiche. He defied a year on the sidelines to win in fine style at Ascot (2m3½f, soft) in January and a mark of 139 leaves him with an excellent chance again, despite going up 12lb.
Ireland had captured this race three times in a row prior to Henderson's intervention and there's a strong raiding party now.
Grand Roi and Koshari haven't been done any favours by the handicapper but it's not hard to see them being involved, while Sneaky Getaway could have a say in first-time cheekpieces for an Emmet Mullins yard enjoying a really fine season.
Guard Your Dreams stayed on from an unpromising position to be sixth in last month's Betfair Hurdle at Newbury, that sort of strong finish would give him a chance for Nigel and Sam Twiston-Davies and so he goes on the shortlist.
The very nature of this race demands some value in the market and, to that end, BOTOX HAS (14/1) and Saint Sonnet (33/1) are put forward.
Gary Moore's charge was behind Craigneiche at Ascot in sixth last time but he is much better off at the weights now and owns a fine record around here, with Arkle contender Allmankind the only horse to beat him in three starts at this track.
He was a winner here in October over 2m and while he has been well held in two competitive handicaps since, the return here and a first crack at this increased trip give real reason for optimism.
Saint Sonnet requires more of a leap of faith. The French import won over fences on his debut for Paul Nicholls last spring at Catterick and ran a very decent race in the Marsh Novices' Chase here (seventh) a year ago.
It's all gone wrong for him this season as his jumping has let him down over fences but he's had a short break and could stage a revival sent back over the smaller obstacles. At a chunky price, he might be worth giving a chance to despite recent form figures looking rather glum.
3.05 - Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase (Grade 1, 2m)
Just as he was a year ago, two-time winner Altior was a late, late defection from this race when Nicky Henderson confirmed on Monday morning he wouldn't be making it. The veteran is a big loss, though arguably he'd have faced a mammoth challenge to stop CHACUN POUR SOI in any case.
It's long been considered a logical destination that Willie Mullins' star would end up in the winners' enclosure here after winning this two-mile Championship and he now gets his chance. Like Altior, he was an 11th-hour withdrawal last year but he looks a golden ticket now.
He's been immaculate in Ireland this season, with three wins in a faultless campaign. His ability through the air puts pressure on this rivals and many of those he faces today won't have met his likes before. He travels through races effortlessly and it seems nothing has been able to trouble him for some while.
His only defeat since arriving from France was on seasonal comeback last year when A Plus Tard collared him, at a Leopardstown Christmas meeting where Mullins' string were unusually subdued. No signs of weakness in his form this season and he's a strong fancy. The only question comes from this being his first taste of Cheltenham but nothing in his back-story suggests he'll be upset by this place.
He looks destined to complete Mullins' set of the four Championship races at this great Festival.
Last year's winner Politologue was readily brushed aside by First Flow in the Clarence House at Ascot in January and the grey surely will surrender his crown today. Kim Bailey's charge, meanwhile, is on a six-race winning sequence but now faces the acid test of his credentials.
Any drying of the ground might present Rouge Vif with a shot at place money, given his impressive handicap win here at the start of the season, but last year's Arkle winner Put The Kettle On and Desert Orchid Chase winner Nube Negra are the closest pursuers of the market leader on the betting.
Henry De Bromhead's mare is very determined and 3-3 at this circuit, she is much-respected in the hands of regular partner Aidan Coleman. Her stablemate Notebook has proved no match for Chacun Pour Soi recently but, at massive odds, could show up well.
Dan Skelton's Nube Negra was fourth in the 2018 Fred Winter at this meeting and his Christmas dismissal of Altior at Kempton was a statement success. Rouge Vif was a long way behind him there and it remains questionable how muck stock should be invested in that form.
The manner in which Put The Kettle On rallied up the hill here in November to go and claim Duc Des Genievres in the Shloer Chase was highly encouraging as she had lots to do turning in. She gets 7lb from the boys and her course record is impeccable.
If there's any chink in the favourite, it's that he appears not to do all that much after invariably being put in front before the last jump. If any weakness manifests itself up the hill, Put The Kettle On could pick his pocket.
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3.40 - Glenfarclas Cross County Chase (3m6f)
If Easysland turns up in the same form as when he swatted aside Tiger Roll a year ago, the French horse should be winning this race again.
However, David Cottin's charge was a disappointing fourth in a handicap here in November when Kingswell Theatre won and hasn't raced since. His trainer endured a tough winter, with his string out of sorts and suffering, something they've only just started to bounce back from.
That has to be a concern for Easysland now. He ideally would have had a prep-run before returning to the scene of his best performance. As such, and while he remains a big player, taking odds-on is tough.
Tiger Roll was odds-on for this a year ago but he had no answer to the winner, eventually being 17-lengths down at the line. His Aintree date with destiny was lost to the pandemic afterwards and nothing we've seen in three runs this season suggests this Cheltenham legend is about to record another storybook win at this meeting.
Indeed, it looks far more likely this could be his farewell to the Cotswolds and to racing. Writing him off could look premature if he sparkles but there's too much doubt now to back him.
Just 13 are left standing after Potters Corner was taken out and December's course and distance handicap scorer might be the value for John McConnell and Richard Johnson. He rattled home to deny Defi Des Carres that afternoon and had a recent spin over hurdles to leave him pitch-perfect for what is clearly a tough assignment.
LE BREUIL is a former National Hunt Cup winner at this meeting - something Tiger Roll managed before he bagged this race twice - and Ben Pauling's charge has shaped well at times this season in defeat, notably in Warwick's Classic Chase in January. The Edinburgh National at Musselburgh might have come up soon enough after that race and he can be a player for trainer Ben Pauling if taking to this unique set to jumping tests.
4.15 - Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Challenge Cup (Grade 3, 2m½f)
Traditionally the finale on the Friday of the meeting, the Grand Annual has a new home on Wednesday afternoon, just shy of half-way, but that won't make it any less demanding for punters.
A field of 19 are due to square off in what routinely proves a helter-skelter race over the minimum distance.
If there's an obvious one lurking this time then surely it is SKY PIRATE for Jonjo O'Neill. He was something of a nearly-horse as a chaser before this season but the drop back to this distance has transformed him. He won over C&D in December, with re-opposing and progressive Ibleo in second, and backed that up when repelling Amoola Gold (also re-opposes) at Warwick in January.
Subsequent to that, he ran a fine race in a Grade 2 at that same venue behind leading novice Allmankind. There was absolutely nothing lost in defeat there and this eight-year-old could still have plenty more to offer in handicapping terms.
Both Ibleo and Amoola Gold are considered contenders too, while Glen Forsa, Entoucas and Ashutor are worth a look. Paul Nicholls has won this four times and it would not be a shock if the last-named produced a career-best at a big price. The same is true of Not That Fuisse for Dan and Harry Skelton.
He's often run this track well and was second to Al Dancer over this sort of trip in a novice chase last season. He won over 2m4f at Perth on his comeback but should be suited by the strong pace of this and was successful in a jumpers' bumper at Newcastle last month. A mark of 137 is exploitable if he's on song.
4.50 - Weatherbys Champion Bumper (Grade 1, 2m½f)
He's won this race ten times and Willie Mullins already had the outstanding candidate in KILCRUIT before the recent relocation of Sir Gerhard to his Closutton team.
They hold the outstanding form claims, of that there's no doubt. Sir Gerhard had two easy wins before Christmas in Ireland when trainer by Gordon Elliott and will bid to emulate Envoi Allen in winning this for Cheveley Park Stud. He looks high-class.
Kilcruit was touted as a star of the future by previous trainer Tony Mullins before he was beaten at Clonmel on debut last March. He also moved to Closutton and was on the scoresheet at Navan on debut for his new trainer in December.
It was last month's scything Leopardstown Grade 2 win that really marked him out, however. That was an 'aeroplane-like' display and he immediately became hot-favourite for his. Was it too good to be true, coming from a collapsing pace? Time will tell, but it certainly was very, very impressive and he could just be too good again here.
Grangee is another part of a five-strong Team Mullins assault and could go well at around 20/1, while once-raced winner Three Stripe Life isn't overlooked easily for Denise Foster. Dan Skelton's Elle Est Bell is a leading British hope, while you could not pretend to be shocked should Shearer, Super Six or even Wonderwall have a say in the finish.