Cheltenham tips 2016: From Canyon and Vroum Vroum Mag to Douvan
As the most enthralling equine spectacle in the world dawns once more, it is maybe prudent to reflect on absent friends.
Faugheen, Arctic Fire, Hurricane Fly and Jezki, the first four home in last year's Stan James Champion Hurdle, are all missing.
The New One, fifth in a 2015 cracker that was ultimately graced by three worthy title-holders responsible for four wins in the two-mile Grade One, is the sole survivor.
Jump racing at such an exalted realm can be attritional. Coneygree, the reigning Gold Cup victor, is also on leave and, while three former champions will pursue the indomitable Un De Sceaux tomorrow, each has since struggled.
A calm majesty descended on the glorious Cotswolds amphitheatre yesterday.
When the tapes go up to that baying Supreme Novices' roar today, though, Prestbury Park will be transformed into a coliseum of unadulterated ferocity.
Annie Power has the capacity to avenge her two previous Festival reversals, though on paper it is a sub-par edition of the £400,000 showpiece.
While that may be a little crass, it is the reality of the situation. Nonetheless, there is solace in knowing that this grand old battleground tends to reduce such theory to rubble.
Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh could well stamp their authority all over proceedings, but it is the horses that elevate this four-day gala above all others. Watch them soar.
1.30 Grade One Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle 2m 1f: Min is far from the complete package but he has enormous potential. His form has generally held up impressively well, but he ran extremely freely at Punchestown last time, essentially bolting with Ruby Walsh.
If he gets lit up by the mayhem here, he could be vulnerable. Stablemate Bellshill isn't as poor as his latest turn suggests. He will relish the strong pace over this shorter trip and has the quality to run into a place, although he might lack a gear.
Supasundae and Silver Concorde were first and second at Leopardstown over Christmas. Both are exciting prospects with famously expert handlers.
That said, their profiles lack a little. Silver Concorde did win the Champion Bumper two years ago, but he is nil from three over flights.
Altior was eight lengths behind Bellshill in Punchestown's Champion Bumper. He has progressed to win four over flights, and is probably the pick of the British contingent.
Buveur D'Air is a similar sort. Fourth behind Barters Hill at Aintree when Bellshill was second, he is two from two at this job, but this is a step up.
The likes of Tombstone, Petit Mouchoir, Charbel and Penglai Pavilion are all talented.
Verdict: If Walsh can keep a lid on Min, it is hard to see him being beaten.
2.10 Grade One Racing Post Arkle Challenge Trophy Chase 2m: Races here don't come much more one-sided on paper. Douvan is a league apart.
Unbeaten in seven for Mullins, he was a sensational winner of the opener here 12 months ago, and recently added two Grade Ones over fences. We haven't seen a flaw yet.
Though we have no idea how he responds to pressure. There is a good reason for that.
Sizing John is a lovely prospect, but has never troubled Douvan. In the event of misfortune befalling the favourite, he would be most likely to pick up the pieces, while The Game Changer is also capable.
Verdict: Barring accidents, Douvan will win.
2.50 Grade Three Ultima Handicap Chase 3m 1f: Out Sam has been well backed following two wins in novice company, but this is a sterner task. Beaten 11 lengths in the only handicap he ever ran in off 142, he is in off 139 now.
Holywell won this in 2014 off a mark of 145. Fourth in last year's Gold Cup, he is off 153 now, which isn't a bad mark.
Spring Heeled is in a similar boat, out of form but just six pounds higher than when winning the 2014 Kim Muir. Shanahan's Turn has plenty on under joint top-weight, while Morning Assembly could go close for the raiders. A Grade One winner over flights, he has twice run well since returning from injury. On better ground, he has a life under 11st 9lb.
Verdict: Pat Fahy's Morning Assembly can go close at a price for Davy Russell.
3.30 Grade One Stan James Champion Hurdle 2m 1f: Last year's Triumph Hurdle one-two-three, Peace And Co, Top Notch and Hargam, all have lots to prove at this level. The best juveniles often don't progress as well as many expect, and this trio has done little to dispel that theory. The New One and My Tent Or Yours are surely the pick of the home team. To date, The New One hasn't excelled in this race, but this is the worst edition that he has contested.
My Tent Or Yours split him and Jezki two years ago. He is a horse with a massive engine, but raced ruinously keen. Connections have opted to prepare him for his first start in nearly two years by eschewing a run in favour of a couple of racecourse gallops.
It is a bold policy, but, if the principals go at each other early on and Barry Geraghty can get My Tent Or Yours settled, he has it within his range.
Annie Power has also had an unorthodox preparation. She, too, is a keen runner, but she might be less so at this trip, which she hasn't tackled for over two years. We haven't seen many better mares and she was carried out on her shield in the 2014 World Hurdle, prior to last year's last-flight calamity in the mares' race; getting seven pounds from her rivals is not to be sniffed at.
Sempre Medici is hard to fancy, but he will be ridden to place and might well go close to doing so. Nichols Canyon and Identity Thief are two still relatively unexposed contenders.
Henry de Bromhead's decision to swerve the Irish Champion Hurdle with Identity Thief looks inspired, given the price that Faugheen and Arctic Fire have since paid, and how tamely Nichols Canyon was beaten.
A Grade One winner this term when defying Top Notch in the Fighting Fifth, he will improve for better ground.
Nichols Canyon has to bounce back from that Leopardstown submission. He had previously put Identity Thief in its place over and remains the only horse to topple Faugheen.
He stays and enjoys decent ground; if you scratch his last run, he would likely be a raging favourite here.
Verdict: Every horse is entitled to a bad run and Nichols Canyon (Nap) has scope.
4.10 Grade One OLBG David Nicholson Mares' Hurdle 2m 4f: Vroum Vroum Mag is the outstanding candidate in this. In eight starts for Mullins, she has never been bettered.
She is hugely versatile, although this will be the best ground that she has raced on. On ratings, she is upwards of six pounds superior to her 19 rivals.
Things haven't gone Bitofapuzzle's way over fences of late. Third to Glens Melody here in 2015, she won a decent mares' race when last seen over flights at Fairyhouse last year. She could be the danger.
Gitane Du Berlais is a Grade One winner over fences. She is not the easiest to predict and is probably best with more ease underfoot, but clearly has the quality.
Polly Peachum was just denied by Glens Melody in 2015. She comes here in winning form and will appreciate the ground, so her claims are obvious.
Verdict: This is Vroum Vroum Mag's big chance and she won't pass it up.
4.50 National Hunt Challenge Chase (Amateur riders) 4m: Minella Rocco is the talking horse. He enjoyed a much-needed educational round at Ascot, but has twice looked out of sorts here and the main positive is the team that he represents.
Pont Alexandre's career has been blighted by injury. Nonetheless, he has returned at a fair level, latterly finishing third to Outlander in a Leopardstown Grade One.
Measureofmydreams and Noble Endeavor are also likely types, as is Neil Mulholland's dour Southfield Royale. A Doncaster Grade Two winner, he kept on well to be second to Tea For Two in a Kempton Grade One.
Verdict: With Nina Carberry up, Southfield Royale (nb) appeals.
5.15 Close Brothers Novices' Handicap Chase 2m 4f: It's hard to get too excited about Domesday Book or McKinley, so Bridgets Pet might be the best of the Irish trio. He could run well, but isn't the most reliable.
Aloomomo has been carefully laid out for this and the compaction of the weights - just four pounds cover the entire field - aids the joint top-weight's case. Twelve Roses is another of note.
Fifth here to Faugheen as a novice hurdler, he beat Southfield Royale on his fencing bow. He was second to Killala Quay in a Kempton Grade Two last month, and could go close.
Verdict: On this ground, Twelve Roses appeal as being well treated.