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Big Buck's takes on Annie Power in heavyweight pugilistic bout

Richard Forristal

The third leg of the Cheltenham Festival has often been accused of not pulling its weight since the event was extended to four days in 2005, but not today.

The return of Big Buck's from injury and Annie Power getting the go-ahead for the World Hurdle means that two of the sport's true heavyweights will touch gloves in a three-mile Grade One that has the makings of a pugilistic bout.

We saw on Tuesday how one incident has the potential to ruin a championship race of which so much is expected in terms of spectacle.

That danger is ever-present, but there is a depth to this Ladbrokes-sponsored event that means it is far more than a glorified duel. JP McManus has last year's Rebecca Curtis-trained Albert Bartlett hero At Fisher's Cross and Jonjo O'Neill's More Of That fighting his corner.

When Barry Geraghty got left with Jezki after AP McCoy opted for My Tent Or Yours on Tuesday, few called that he had been left with the better hand. This time, McCoy has deserted O'Neill's progressive son of Beneficial to leave Geraghty with another plum spare.

Even the perennial champion admits it was a split decision he may have got spectacularly wrong.

Today we will find out, just as we will about the indomitable Annie Power. The debate has raged all season about which trip would suit her best, and she was last seen stretching her unbeaten record to 10 when making all the running over two miles at Doncaster.

Willie Mullins' mare has been utterly superior at up to two miles-five, so this is a question of whether she has the temperament and stamina for such a rigorous test in the unforgiving Cotswolds arena.

Already she has prompted favourable comparisons with Dawn Run, the iconic Champion Hurdle-Gold Cup heroine that was trained by Mullins' father Paddy.

Now Annie Power's right to that parallel is being put on the line on the grandest stage of all. As well as Big Buck's, Paul Nicholls calls on Celestial Halo and his 2011 Triumph Hurdle victor Zarkandar, a horse that has hitherto floundered in pursuit of Ruby Walsh's mount.

Mouse Morris' Rule The World and other locals like Salubrious and Reve De Sivola will also be in there pitching, so this won't be for the faint-hearted.

The Ryanair Chase may lack marquee names, but Tony Martin's Benefficient could emulate last year's game triumph in the old Jewson Chase, with Davy Russell standing in for Bryan Cooper, who is on Rathlin.

You can draw a line through his below-par reappearance over three miles, and he bounced back to his best to deny Hidden Cyclone and co over two miles at Leopardstown.

The ground may be quick enough for him, though that is countered by the trip, which he stays really well.

While Al Ferof is a class horse, he has now endured a couple of hard races in defeat in deep ground over a three-mile trip that seemed to bottom him. He was brilliant here in the Paddy Power Gold Cup two years ago and went through the motions against inferior opposition on his Ascot return, but there is a question mark as to what he might be capable of now.

Dynaste will also be better over this trip. While he has had two hard races in testing going, he may be more likely to bounce back, though Benefficient had his measure in 2013.

Boston Bob fell at the last when in front in last year's RSA but has a bit to prove on his first start over fences since, while Hidden Cyclone ran a blinder to be third here in November.

He lines out on the back of two Grade One seconds after also chasing Sire De Grugy home at Ascot. If his jumping holds up, he has to enter calculations.

Rathlin is a dark horse that will relish getting his ground for a first time this year.

What was the Jewson is now the JLT and has been upgraded to a Grade One. It could hardly be a better race, with Mullins saddling Felix Yonger, Mozoltov and Djakadam, while an equally strong home delegation is led by Oscar Whisky, Wonderful Charm and Vukovar.

It promises to be a spellbinding inauguration.

Seefood is interesting raider in the Pertempts Final. Second to Courage on his handicap bow over Christmas, he is up nine pounds here but has the scope to defy that hike under Bryan Cooper .

Top Wood and Josies Orders also catch the eye for shrewd stables. Both are in-form and progressive types that have got in at the bottom end of a very compact handicap.

Josies Orders gets the nod to continue his upward curve.

Colour Squadron may be the pick of the JP McManus horses in the Byrne Group chase. He always runs well at Cheltenham, but has crept up the handicap without ever winning over fences. Johns Spirit beat him when successful here for a second time in November but also seems to be in the assessor's grip.

The interesting one is Sraid Padraig, the sole Irish raider.

Defying an 11lb hike might be within his range.

In the Kim Muir, Indian Castle has a top rider up in Derek O'Connor.

That can be crucial in these races so David Pipe's charge is a live option.

Today at the Festival

1.30pm: JLT Novices’ Chase (Grade 1) 2m4f

2.05pm: Pertemps Network Final (Listed Race) 3m

2.40pm: Ryanair Chase (Grade 1) 2m5f

3.20pm: Ladbrokes World Hurdle (Grade 1) 3m

4.00pm: Byrne Group Plate (Grade 3) 2m4f

4.40pm: Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Challenge Cup Handicap Chase (Amateur Riders) 3m1f110y

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