Cheltenham Festival: Sacre and Sire coming under fire
For many, the two-mile Queen Mother Champion Chase, the supreme test of jumping fences at speed, is always the race of the week and especially so this afternoon when Sprinter Sacre and Sire De Grugy will slug it out for a second title.
One extra reason for the excitement is that, up to quite recently, this was a meeting that never looked likely to happen.
Sprinter Sacre, the breathtaking winner in 2013, was laid low with a career-threatening heart condition before he had the chance to defend his crown, while last year's winner Sire De Grugy had problems of his own and was a doubtful participant right up until last month, when a striking Chepstow victory finally convinced his trainer Gary Moore that all was well.
If the Barry Geraghty-riddenSprinter Sacre were back to his very best, this would be no contest, but it is unrealistic to suppose that he will be.
He is best judged on his respectable comeback performance at Ascot in January, when he chased home Dodging Bullets.
We can perhaps expect him to shrug off the rust and turn the tables on that winner with normal improvement, but he might still fall short of a fully firing Sire De Grugy (3.20).
This is no two-horse race; Paul Nicholls' much-improved pair Dodging Bullets and the enigmatic Mr Mole - with Ulster great Tony McCoy on board - are ready and, maybe, able to take advantage if the main protagonists fall short, while Cheltenham brings out the best in Champagne Fever, a Festival winner in 2013 and 2014 and pipped at the post last year.
Willie Mullins may have had his big guns out on the opening day, but today's weapons are not exactly pea-shooters.
Apart from Champagne Fever, the nine-time Irish champion trainer has three favourites and a host of other likely sorts throughout the afternoon.
Don Poli (2.05) already looked the perfect candidate for the RSA Chase, even before Coneygree was bravely rerouted to the Gold Cup on Friday.
A winner over hurdles at last year's Festival, Don Poli has since taken to fences like a duck to water and is likely to be a serious Gold Cup candidate himself next year.
Nichols Canyon and Outlander are a formidable Mullins duo in the Neptune Hurdle, but the English form reads a little stronger than the Irish in this department and Parlour Games (1.30), ridden again by McCoy, looks best of the home contingent.
No Festival race has been dominated more by Mullins than the Champion Bumper, a contest he has won eight times since its inception in 1992, and the trainer is mob-handed for this latest edition.
Bordini and Pylonthepressure are considered the best of the bunch, according to the betting, but neither has impressed more than Supasundae (5.15) when beating eight previous winners at Ascot in December.
Expensive French import Dell'Arca (2.40) has not quite managed another victory since his winning start for David Pipe last season, but big fields seem to bring out the best in him and the fitting of blinkers for the first time in the ultra-competitive Coral Hurdle might just make the difference.
Top weight Hey Big Spender (4.00) is unpredictable, but if he takes to the unique demands of the Cross-Country Chase, might spring a surprise, while Hostile Fire (4.40) is a strong Irish fancy in the Fred Winter Hurdle following his convincing Fairyhouse win.