Fire burning bright for Aintree
Arctic Fire gets the chance to step out of his illustrious stablemate Hurricane Fly's shadow when he goes for glory in the Doom Bar Aintree Hurdle at the Liverpool course on Thursday.
With the 22-times Grade One winner being saved by trainer Willie Mullins for Punchestown, Arctic Fire attempts to open his account at the highest level after a string of valiant efforts.
The progressive six-year-old has been placed in a succession of top races and after twice finishing behind Hurricane Fly in both the Ryanair and Irish Champion Hurdles at Leopardstown, he had the great horse back in third when runner-up to another stable companion, Faugheen, in the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham.
"He's been in good form since Cheltenham so we decided to let him take his chance," said Mullins.
"I just felt we should keep Hurricane Fly for Punchestown as he's always good there.
"It's his first time over the trip (two and a half miles), but the way he was coming up that hill at Cheltenham, you would be hoping he'll stay. We'll find out on Thursday.
"I still can't see a rib on him. He's an exceptional horse and I still think there is a lot of improvement in him."
While it is no certainty the step up to two and a half miles will suit, jockey Ruby Walsh is optimistic he will stay.
"The trip is an unknown but the way he came home at Cheltenham you would have to be hopeful," said Walsh.
"He's improving and Willie always thought he was a Champion Hurdle horse."
Jezki was behind Arctic Fire when fourth in defence of his crown at Cheltenham and c onnections admit it looks a tall order for the Jessica Harrington-trained seven-year-old.
"He seems in good form. Jessie's happy with him," said Frank Berry, racing manager to owner J P McManus.
"He has a bit of ground to make up on Arctic Fire. It will be very hard to turn the tables round, but we'll hope for the best.
"Arctic Fire is the one to beat and is sure to be hard to turn over."
Harry Fry is hoping it will be third time lucky in this race for Rock On Ruby, who has been placed in the last two years.
Two years ago he was third to Oscar Whisky and 12 months later he was touched off by The New One, who misses this year's race after a setback.
"Obviously we were forced to bypass Cheltenham, but the distance of this race is perfect for us," said Fry.
"He's run very well in it in the past, not least last year when he was denied a head by The New One.
"He seems to be right back on his 'A' game. I couldn't be happier with him at home. He'll love the ground and we go there full of confidence.
"It's a very tough race, as you'd expect for a Grade One. It will be fascinating and I'm looking forward to it."
Dan Skelton admits the big three will take some beating but he equally feels Blue Heron has earned the right to take them on after his win in the Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton in February.
"We deliberately missed Cheltenham, not especially to come here but because we decided not to go there," said Skelton.
"It's going to be hard to beat the top three. They are pretty clear on ratings. We go there because we think he deserves his place.
"The Kingwell was his Gold Cup, make no mistake."
The Nicky Henderson pair of Vaniteux and Volnay De Thaix complete the six-runner field after Melodic Rendezvous was declared a non-runner on Wednesday.