The Smurfit Champion Hurdle build-up has been focused on two horses that weren't going to run, and do; and another that probably should run, and doesn't.
Binocular is here, if not quite against not all odds, then at least against the odds of 999-1, laid so recently on Betfair; and so is Solwhit, whose trainer feared only last week that he could not make the trip from Ireland.
Every instinct suggests that they have done well to get themselves involved, because things will probably be a good deal tougher next time round.
Dunguib might well have started favourite, had he not been kept to novice company in the opener. If he wins the Spinal Research Supreme Novices' Hurdle the way he has been winning everything else, then shorter odds will probably be offered against him for the 2011 Champion than will be returned about any horse in the 2010 version, barely two hours later.
There was a literal lack of distinction among the first three in the Champion last year, only a neck and a head dividing Punjabi, Celestial Halo and Binocular. And subsequent events suggest the field that day lacked quality to match its quantity, not one of the 23 runners having posted a significant success since.
Nicky Henderson, who saddles three of the 12 runners today, says he would have “to paint Punjabi pink” to persuade anyone that the reigning champion is at all sexy.
But even his own camp owes its renewed confidence in Punjabi only to an exhibition round at odds of 1-6 at Kempton last month. Even assuming he returns to his best, Celestial Halo was exposed to a punishing pace last year before all but repelling him up the hill. Cheltenham and spring ground demonstrably bring out the best in him, and he has worked well in the blinkers.
Of last year's protagonists, the enigma is Binocular. Hot favourite that day, he did stifle doubts about his relish for the hill, but largely by dint of a somewhat stolid finish.
There has been less zip still to the horse in three starts since, and Henderson seemed to have discovered why when declaring that Binocular would miss the rest of the season. All of a sudden, however, the horse began to move more fluently and has been not so much restored to contention, as resurrected.
The other one back from the brink is Solwhit, who was coughing last week. His record of relentless improvement had made him seem the most reliable of the present elite, but now the poor thing must suddenly be viewed as an uncertain proposition.
Pending the arrival of Dunguib and, indeed, the injured Hurricane Fly, fresh blood is best represented today by GO NATIVE (3.20). It is scarcely credible that Paul Carberry, of all people, should have gone for home prematurely when this horse won here last year. That enabled Medermit to run him down to a neck after the last — where he had, moreover, been hampered — but the fact is that Go Native had settled the race decisively before idling.
We saw as much once again at Kempton on Boxing Day, when he sauntered into the lead only to lose concentration on the run-in, all but collared on the line. Go Native has sometimes hinted at a deficiency in resolution, but he comes here fresher than some of his trainer's past Festival disappointments — and is the one horse in the field who does not need painting pink. Certainly he looks well equipped for a sprint in a field lacking obvious sources of pace.
Starluck, the Kempton runner-up, looked less at home over this stiffer track once coming off the bridle in another novice championship here last year. That was in
the JCB Triumph Hurdle, behind Zaynar, who has the cheekpieces restored for the first time since today. He lost his unbeaten record at Kelso last month, at odds of 1-14, but the ground was ghastly and he bumped into a pretty formidable rival. With hindsight Zaynar's impressive reappearance success at Ascot was achieved at the expense of stayers, and he might just lack the necessary dash.
Successive wins here in the autumn suggest that Khyber Kim, previously unfulfilled, has turned over a new leaf. He has been astutely freshened up, and the only reservation is that he may prefer softer ground.
A case can be made for and against most runners, leaving the race is potentially ripe for an upset.
And Jumbo Rio has intriguing possibilities at 80-1 with Paddy Power, having been caught out by a slow pace on his last couple of starts and improved considerably since disappointing in the Triumph last year.
DUNGUIB (1.30) could set up a sensational first day for the Irish. As a past Festival winner, Captain Cee Bee is a worthy favourite for the Irish Independent Arkle Trophy but his fall out of nothing at Leopardstown was unnerving. Somersby does jump brilliantly but may ultimately prove best over farther, so SIZING EUROPE (2.05) gets the nod after his break.
CASEY JONES (2.40) was sick in the autumn but duly arrives fresh for the William Hill Handicap Chase. QUEVEGA (4.40) and Nina Carberry, the rider of GARDE CHAMPETRE (4.0), can confirm themselves two very dependable females by winning the last two races for the second year running.