Missing Sprinter Sacre means door open for Nicholls' charge
There's a touch of Hamlet without the prince at Cheltenham today as Sprinter Sacre's absence renders the Queen Mother Champion Chase a pale reflection of the race it might have been.
Sire De Grugy has stepped into the breach admirably through the winter months, and he remains an uneasy favourite to again exploit Nicky Henderson's spectacular chaser's absence.
It would be the stuff of fairytales if he were to claim the BetVictor-sponsored two-miler for the famously hard-working father-son partnership of Gary and Jamie Moore, but doubts persist over his ability to perform to his absolute best around Prestbury Park.
That might leave the door open for Paul Nicholls' Hinterland or one of the four Irish raiders, and it says something of the race's unusually subdued status that Henry de Bromhead's 2011 hero Sizing Europe couldn't be written off with any great conviction.
Sure, he is unlikely to win at 12 years of age, but you can readily draw a line through his two latest outings following a typically comprehensive defeat of Baily Green on his Gowran Park reappearance in October.
He went toe-to-toe with Sprinter Sacre 12 months ago before ultimately crying enough en route to filling the runner-up berth for a second time, and then got within five lengths of him when Andrew Lynch wisely choose not to eyeball the champion at Punchestown.
De Bromhead clearly believes Sizing Europe is spritely enough to do himself justice again.
The shrewd Co Waterford handler's Special Tiara is another that thrives on a bit of spring ground, likewise Mouse Morris' Baily Green, a surprise runner-up to the mighty Simonsig in last year's Arkle.
Willie Mullins relies on Arvika Ligeonnniere in his quest to claim the £350,000 showpiece for a first time.
Sire De Grugy has excelled this season, and the manner in which he has been winning his races suggests he is worthy of his top rating here. Although all ground comes alike to him, he handles soft better than others might.
His record at Prestbury Park is the chief concern, with a pair of seconds against Kid Cassidy and Captain Conan all he has to show from two starts.
That said, he is 10lbs better off with Kid Cassidy now than he was last November. Kid Cassidy struggled in soft ground at Leopardstown subsequently and doesn't appeal as a serious contender at this level.
Captain Conan might be a more likely type. He has some quality form, and probably has more to give than when third behind Sire De Grugy on his Tingle Creek reappearance.
As a novice, Hinterland certainly should have room for improvement.
Held by Captain Conan at Sandown last term, he has progressed to win both his outings this time round, latterly edging out Grandouet in the Henry VIII Chase.
The evergreen Sizing Europe still has a chance of a place at 12 years of age. He has not been out of the first two here for four years, and is still a far better horse than his most recent turn at Leopardstown suggests, when he went far too quick on heavy ground.
Arvika Ligeonniere has a moderate record here, he would prefer deeper going and doesn't seem to enjoy going left-handed. Of more interest would be Special Tiara and Baily Green, both of which relish a decent surface and come into their own at this time of year.
But it is Hinterland that appeals as having the scope to step up in what is a wide-open renewal.
In the Neptune Investment Novices' Hurdle, Willie Mullins unleashes Faugheen. Some people's idea of banker material, the precocious six-year-old puts his flawless record on the line as he tackles Grade One company for a first time.
Ballycasey also boasts a 100 per cent record over fences.
The handsome grey was this corner's idea of banker material until he fell while schooling at Leopardstown last week.
That is enough to cool expectations slightly, though Mullins' Rule Supreme also hit the deck during the same routine before claiming this 10 years ago.
The champion trainer saddles three in his quest to secure a remarkable ninth Champion Bumper success.
Incredibly, his Black Hercules, Shaneshill and Ulster-owned Killultagh Vic contest the first three places in the betting, while Dermot Weld will strive to bring his 24-year Festival drought to an end with Vigil and Silver Concorde, both of which have live claims.
Larne trainer Stuart Crawford runs Izzini which will be ridden by his brother Steven.
It will go down as one of the shocks of the week if this doesn't cross the water for a 17th time since its inception in 1992, with Philip Fenton looking to lift his spirits by adding to Dunguib's incredible 2009 rout with Value At Risk.
Pat Fahy saddles Stack The Deck, and his modest Carlow stable also has a cracking chance with Morning Assembly in the RSA.
Both will be steered by the exquisite Davy Russell, who is also aboard Special Tiara. The now freelance champion jockey was never likely to spend too much time sitting on his hands.
Forristal selections: 1.30pm: Red Sherlock; 2.05pm: Ballycasey; 2.40pm: Bayan; 3.20pm: Hinterland; 4.00pm: Star Neuville; 4.40pm: Katgarry; 5.15pm: Value At Risk.
Today at the Festival
1.30pm: Grade One Neptune Investment Management Novices’ Hurdle 2m 5f
2.05pm: Grade One RSA Chase 3m 1
2.40pm: Grade Three Coral Cup (Handicap Hurdle) |2m 5f
3.20pm: Grade One Queen Mother Champion Chase 2m
4.00pm: Glenfarclas |Cross-country Handicap Chase 3m 7f
4.40pm: Grade Three Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle 2m 1f
5.15pm: Grade One |Weatherbys Champion Bumper 2m 1f