1.30pm - JCB Triumph Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m1f)
Vauban looks assured off going as favourite following last month's Spring Juvenile Hurdle win at the Dublin Racing Festival for Willie Mullins and Paul Townend. That's strong form, with re-opposing Fil D'or behind in second - meeting defeat for the first time on his fourth hurdle start that afternoon for Gordon Elliott. It's potentially hard to see him bridging the three-length gap on the Mullins horse.
Icare Allen was fourth in the same race, for Mullins, Mark Walsh and owner JP McManus, and has easily won a Grade 3 at Fairyhouse on soft ground since.
Leopardstown was his only defeat so far and he could outrun his odds this time, albeit there's a need for him to be more fluent at the hurdles in this hot contest.
The real eye-catcher that afternoon was another Mullins horse, Il Etait Temps, on his first start over hurdles. Twice-raced in French bumpers, he has form on testing ground and despite an SP of 40/1 the last day he ran a cracker under Danny Mullins to finish third. He finished well and should be suited by this test and looks like one to keep a close eye on.
Pied Piper, in the same ownership as Fil D'or, beat Vauban on their jumping debuts at Punchestown on New Year's Eve, a race Gordon Elliott felt he was only 'half-fit' for. There wasn't much in it, and the popular opinion goes that the Mullins horse will turn it around.
Pied Piper came here on Trials Day and readily won over C&D, travelling powerfully and not even coming off the bridle. That form isn't the strongest and his rivals did appear to capitulate, something that won't happen here, but three recent winners of that race have also bagged this. Davy Russell has partnered Pied Piper and Fil D'or in all six hurdles starts and nails his colours to the latter, with Jack Kennedy on Pied Piper now. This smart son of New Approach was rated 90 on the Flat and makes plenty appeal today.
The Irish hand is strong but the English horses are seemingly priced as if this is a foregone conclusion - which it is almost certainly not - for them.
Gary Moore's Porticello, Doctor Parnassus for Dan Skelton and the Milton Harris-trained KNIGHT SALUTE all have their merits. The last-named should be value at 14/1 as an each-way contender.
The Sir Percy gelding has won 5-5 since going hurdling this season, three of them at Grade 2 level including a C&D trial for this in November. He's not the biggest physically but he's got a willing attitude and, so far, has turned away the notion of defeat when it was put in front of him. His status as 'best in class' for Britain is assured and he might well give the Irish their fill of worry today too in what has been a really impressive season to date for his trainer.
Selection: Knight Salute
Next Best: Pied Piper
2.10pm - McCoy Contractors County Handicap Hurdle (Grade 3, 2m1f)
Strap yourself in, this will be hectic as a full field of 26 are set to engage. Belfast Banter won last year at 33/1 and in doing so ended a run of six years where Willie Mullins and Dan Skelton had passed this between themselves. The Irishman has won it four times since 2010, while Paul Nicholls grabbed four in a decade from 2004-2014.
State Man looks the clear pick of Mullins' five runners and gets the nod from Paul Townend. He's in the colours of Gold Cup contender Al Boum Photo for the Donnelly's, likely still seeking a pick-me-up after Shishkin's rainy day woes on Wednesday. Placed in a Listed Auteuil hurdle on soft ground in May 2020, State Man fell on belated debut for this team at Leopardstown on St Stephen's Day before easily winning a Limerick maiden hurdle last month.
He goes into handicaps now and has untapped potential.
Mullins also fires Dysart Diamond, Farout, TAX FOR MAX and Tempo Chapter Two at this - the last-named must jump with more fluency to go well but Sean O'Keefe's mount is interesting at a big price. He was twice tried in graded races last spring, including the Triumph Hurdle here, before finishing second in a maiden at Tipperary last May behind useful Slip Of The Tongue (done well this season).
At the Galway Festival in July he was a bit too keen in finishing second behind stablemate Farout. He makes his handicap bow here and the probability of a helter-skelter pace should assist him greatly. Only one of Mullins' four County Hurdle winners has gone off at single-figure odds and he's perhaps some value.
Skelton, meanwhile, has two runners here as Greatwood Hurdle winner West Cork is joined by Faivoir. The latter finished a good third in the Morebattle at Kelso recently behind Cormier (also runs in this) but has more to do now.
West Cork won that big November handicap here, form that worked out well, after 631 days off. He was held at Ascot in December behind Tritonic - both with claims here.
Top Bandit, Surprise Package (for last year's winning trainer/jockey), I Like To Move It and Nicky Henderson's First Street are all shortlisted too. The last-named, a son of Golden Horn, didn't get the clearest run in the Betfair Hurdle and, with proven stamina, might be one that can offer more in the long run to the line here for his top trainer/jockey.
Selection: Tax For Max
Next Best: First Street
2.50pm - Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle (Grade 1, 3m)
The acid test stamina-wise for novice hurdlers at this Festival, this will expose all but the strongest of stayers. In the last eight runnings, winners have come in at 33/1 (twice) and 50/1, with 5/1 Monkfish in 2020 the only winner at single-figure odds, so there's plenty reason to see an upset.
Ginto is 3-3 over hurdles for Gordon Elliott and won the Grade 1 Lawlor's Of Naas in January in good style from the front. He appeared to have something in hand in the home straight and connections elected to bypass the Ballymore for this stamina-test. He is a contender to give his trainer a first win in this race.
The Nice Guy has won two bumpers and a Naas maiden hurdle (2m3f) for Willie Mullins so far. This is a sharp rise in class and Paul Townend prefers Dublin Racing Festival Grade 1 scorer Minella Cocooner. He made all under Danny Mullins that day over 2m6f and might not get things as easy now.
Stag Horn is one the smartest Flat horses to go jumping in recent times having attained a rating of 108 and gone well at Royal Ascot last summer. He loved to be in front in that code and has made all in both hurdles wins at Haydock and Warwick (2m5f, soft) so far. He wasn't stopping that day and the runner-up has shone a positive light on the form with his two runs since, including winning at Huntingdon on Wednesday.
The third, Scipion, however was absolutely no match for HILLCREST at Haydock in February in a heavy-ground trial for this race.
Henry Daly's 7YO has won 4-5 hurdles starts, including a win here on New Year's Day, with his only blip coming on Trials Day when he unseated Richard Patrick at the third flight after Harper's Brook fell in front of them. Some feel the Haydock run since was too close to Cheltenham but it was a day short of four weeks ago, plenty time to recover, and connections were probably right not to come here on the back of a mishap as that, too, would have been deemed negative.
This big imposing gelding was awesome on Merseyside last time when upped to three-miles. He was up front the whole way with Green Book, who runs here, but that rival cried enough at three out and came home tired in fourth at walking pace. After setting that gallop, it might have looked as though Hillcrest could tire too but he actually quickened again in the home straight, winning by eight-lengths. Sectional breakdowns of his run compared with other races on the card showed it was an immense display and he's going to take some halting if in the same mood now.
Having identified that big-price runners can go well, Dan Skelton's 25/1 chance Ballygrifincottage is next best. He finished third over C&D in December behind Blazing Khal, who probably would have been favourite for this bar picking up a minor injury, and has since gone to Lingfield and won a 2m7f heavy-ground novices' hurdle in cosy fashion. Runner-up High Stakes was left punch drunk since in Hillcrest's Haydock race, but the Skelton inmate has scope for better and is priced accordingly.
Next Best: Ballygrifincottage
3.30pm - Boodles Cheltenham Gold Cup Chase (Grade 1, 3m2f)
The main event and, as with Wednesday's Champion Chase, the one-two-three from 2021 are all re-engaged. That didn't go well, with Put The Kettle on last of five, Nube Negra a last-minute absentee on ground reasons and Chacun Pour Soi firing Patrick Mullins out the side door midway through when leading.
Minella Indo, A Plus Tard and Al Boum Photo will surely do better today and they are a logical starting point.
Minella Indo won this week under Jack Kennedy last time and was a pleasing second in the Irish Gold Cup last month. He typically reserves his best form for this meeting and connections will be expecting Robbie Power's mount to come up well.
His Henry De Bromhead-trained stablemate A Plus Tard is favoured on the betting. He routed the Betfair Chase field in November, with Royale Pagaille a long way behind in second, on his comeback run.
One run since saw him second to Galvin at Christmas in the Savills Chase, pipped on the line. Rachael Blackmore committed him a fair way out and might do things differently given her time again as she gave Davy Russell a target on Galvin.
They are both major contenders on that that form and Festival winners to boot. A Plus Tard may edge out his old rival now, though the wily Russell is a trusty ally for Galvin, who has a real winning habit these days and will see this trip out strongly.
Al Boum Photo of course won this in 2019 & 2020, finally providing Willie Mullins with glory in the race. He was third last year and is now a 10YO. Only twice since Desert Orchid in 1989 has one so old landed a Gold Cup and, more concerning even, the great Kauto Star is the only horse ever to reclaim this prize after winning and then losing it.
That's the big three from last year. Royale Pagaille ran no race in this 12 months ago and was miles off A Plus Tard in November, rain will help him but surely a place is the best he can do.
Santini was second in 2019 and ran ok in a Grade 2 on Trials Day in January, ahead of Aye Right, but he, too, is a 10YO and his best days are past, you would imagine.
Tornado Flyer won the King George at Christmas after sitting out the back while those up front well far too quickly for them to sustain their efforts. He picked them off under 'Canny' Danny Mullins. This might not fall into his lap as easily.
Stablemate Asterion Forlonge was set to be his closest pursuer on Boxing Day but fell at the last. He was heavily backed for last month's Irish Gold Cup but finished fourth. He was third behind one of today's rivals in the Marsh here last season.
Dan Skelton's Protektorat leads the British charge on paper after his Grade 2 Many Clouds win at Aintree in December. He won by 25-lengths from 2018 Gold Cup winner Native River that day, with that rival taking out the 'pipe and slippers license' soon after in going into retirement. Unexposed as he is at this sort of trip, Protektorat will find this a much more challenging assignment and the early pace might well and truly unsettle him.
Which leaves CHANTRY HOUSE. He also found the early pace unsettling in the King George, for which he was favourite remember, but the likes of Frodon and Minella Indo went an unhealthy gallop early on at Kempton and it saw the race fall apart.
Having dawdled around Sandown in a two-horse race in November's comeback, Chantry House was all at sea in the King George and Nico de Boinville called it quits early enough. Strike that run from the memory and he surely wouldn't be the price he is now.
He ran well behind Shishkin in the 2020 Supreme here and gathered up the Marsh (2m4f) last season after Envoi Allen's demise before a wide-margin Aintree win upped to 3m1f.
On Trials Day in January he put his Christmas disappointment behind him, winning the Cotswold Chase from Santini and Aye Right in first-time cheekpieces.
That performance won't be good enough here, but he is seemingly still progressing and, at the prices, can give the Irish a race.
Selection: Chantry House
Next Best: A Plus Tard
4.10pm - St. James's Place Festival Challenge Cup Open Hunters' Chase (3m2f)
The amateurs' Gold Cup is restored this year, the pros having stepped in 12 months ago amid restrictions.
Billaway has been second-best in the last two renewals, agonisingly so last March, and has claims again as Patrick Mullins looks to continue a fine week. He is, though, prone to mistakes at the fences.
He won his prep-race nicely at Naas in first-time cheekpieces, retained now, but was earlier beaten by Winged Leader at Thurles in January. There was a dozen lengths between them there and the younger horse is surely good value at the prices now to go well.
BOB AND CO is preferred as Paul Nicholls looks to win this race for the third time in six years. He was going very well in the race a year ago when unseating his rider Sean Bowen three out. Owner/jockey David Maxwell then helped him out-scrap Billaway at Punchestown in April and he prepared for his Cheltenham return with an excellent second at Haydock last month behind re-opposing Cousin Pascal.
Both are contenders now but Maxwell has been enjoying a fine time in the saddle in 2022 and would be a really worthy winner of this contest.
Selection: Bob And Co
Next Best: Winged Leader
4.50pm - Mrs Paddy Power Mares' Chase (2m4½f)
A field of eight is relatively small for the second staging of the Festival's newest race. Willie Mullins had the one-two last year, Colreevy defying jumping to her right and impeding runner-up ELIMAY for the win.
The winner showed the strength of that effort when signing off her career with a defeat of Monkfish at Punchestown the following month.
Elimay defeated Mount Ida at Fairyhouse on her next star following Cheltenham, though Gordon Elliott's charge avenged that defeat on New Year's Day at the same track.
Last year's Kim Muir win here saw Mount Ida jumping alarmingly to the right. That remains the only race of her career going left-handed and so it has to be a worry coming back to this venue. Elimay has won well at Naas since and is 3lb better off for a half-length defeat last time and assuming Mark Walsh keeps her out of trouble, she can go one better back in the Cotswolds.
Her stablemate Concertista is unbeaten since going chasing this season but has to concede 3lb to her main rivals and lacks their experience over fences, a concern here. She won here as a novice over hurdles at the 2020 Festival but was worried out of doing the same in the Mares' Grade 1 by Black Tears last March as they came up the hill together. Elimay might be too streetwise for her now.
Next Best: Concertista
5.30pm - Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' Handicap Hurdle (2m4f)
And so to the final curtain call, race 28 of 28 and if you're not in profit by now, things aren't about to get any easier in the 'get-out stakes'!
Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott have won this five times in the last eight, so following them is an option, though they have eight runners between them (Elliott 6, Mullins 2).
Chemical Energy and I A Connect are both respected for the Cullentra team but HOLLOW GAMES edges the call. He won his first two starts over hurdles and has twice finished third since in Grade 1 company - form that could be advertised by winners Ginto and Minella Cocooner in the Albert Bartlett earlier today.
He's got plenty stamina but also the speed to win both bumpers last season at two-miles and in Jordan Gainford he has a superb partner for this Conditional Jockeys' finale.
Adamantly Chosen is perhaps the best of Mullins' duo stepping up in trip here, while Langer Dan looks rock-solid for the Skeltons in a race he was second in last year behind Galopin Des Champs. He could though be vulnerable to more unexposed types again.
Herbiers has stamina to prove strictly, but he might have gone close over 2m5f at Kempton last time had he not stumbled at the last, while Joseph O'Brien's Banbridge makes the shortlist with a step back up in trip in his favour.
Selection: Hollow Games
Next Best: I A Connect
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