Strength in depth to Irish team
So how are we looking? Seventeen winners, if you believe the general PCE (Pre-Cheltenham Evening) talk that still fills ballrooms from Malin to Mizen Head despite perennial talk of their demise. Maybe 18. And word is that one of Gordon Elliott's has just snuck into the charity race as first reserve with a top class rider booked.
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Championship races? Looking good. Of the 14 Grade 1 and Grade 2 races at the Festival, six of the favourites are Irish, and there is at least one Irish-trained horse in the top three in the betting in all 14, if you include Monksland in the World Hurdle, although his participation is looking unlikely at present. More Cheltenham bad luck for Noel Meade, this time before they have even gone to post for the Supreme Novices' Hurdle.
Amateur races, non-handicaps? Also good. In Boston Bob or Back In Focus (whichever Willie runs - get used to that one), we have the likely favourite for the National Hunt Chase, and in Salsify we have the defending champ and favourite for the Foxhunter.
Handicaps? There are pockets of strength. Very strong in the Cross-Country Chase, chances in the Rewards4Racing Chase depending on what ultimately runs, chances in the Coral Cup, although the potential blots may not get in, chances in the Martin Pipe Hurdle, most notably with the possible Coral Cup defectors, and a big chance in the Grand Annual.
Tuesday is all about Hurricane Fly for many. Same as last year then. Champion Hurdle day fell flat in 2012 for the visitors when Hurricane the Invincible got beaten in the feature race. This year, though, we're back for more. We'll never learn.
There is a good chance that the 2011 champ will drift as the race draws closer. He has always been tight enough in the market, so bookmakers may not have significant ante post liabilities. Also, there is a groundswell of opinion gathering against him. Nine-year-old (Rooster Booster the only nine-year-old winner since Royal Gait), former champion (ref. Comedy Of Errors), and suddenly people are starting to question the strength of the Champion Hurdle that he won. He is the type of horse that bookmakers are sure to want to lay on the day, and he could go off a fair bit bigger than current best odds of 2/1.
Quevega is surely gone by barring mis-haps in the Mares' Hurdle and, with Outlaw Pete, Arabella Boy, Bostons Angel, Sizing Australia and Chicago Grey on the Irish team in the Cross-Country, we must win that too.
My Tent Or Yours is a formidable opponent in the Supreme Novices', but Jezki and Un Atout lead a strong team in a race that the Irish have won seven times in the last 14 years and three times in the last six. And Carlito Brigante could be well-handicapped on a mark of 137 in the Rewards4Racing Chase, considering he is rated 139 in Ireland and that he won the Coral Cup in 2011 off a hurdles mark of 142.
The vibe for Pont Alexandre continues to get stronger the closer we get to the starting line, and he is coming perilously close to taking up the green Irish Banker armband. We love to run the Irish Banker in the Neptune.
Susannah Ricci's horse's form entitles him to be high in the Neptune Hurdle betting, but it is the regard in which he appears to be held by Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh that makes him a 2/1 shot. He is the first horse that Mullins ran in a Grade 1 race on his debut for him, which he won, before going on and carrying his Grade 1 penalty to victory in a Grade 2 contest at Leopardstown. Also, the fact that stable companion and fellow Grade 1 winner Champagne Fever (also owned by Susannah Ricci) has the Supreme Novices' Hurdle over two miles and the Albert Bartlett Hurdle over three - but not the Neptune over two and a half - as his Cheltenham options is surely significant.
Wednesday could be Willie's day. As well as Pont Alexandre, the champion trainer will run Boston Bob (probably) in the RSA Chase and Back In Focus (probably) and Vesper Bell in the National Hunt Chase on the second day. He still has a strong hand in the Bumper, despite the regrettable absence of his probable number one Clandaw Court, and he has Fatcatinthehat and/or Djackadam and/or Blood Cotil for the Fred Winter, and Abbey Lane and/or Tennis Cap and/or Inish Island for the Coral Cup. Second-guessing Willie Mullins' plans a week out is a futile exercise but, whatever formation the trainer chooses, Wednesday could be one of the good days.
Monksland's setback is a blow to Irish hopes on Thursday, but we have a strong back-up team this year in the World Hurdle, a race that we haven't won since Dorans Pride and Shane Broderick danced clear in 1995.
It looks like Solwhit is going to take his chance now. Charles Byrnes' horse has to prove his stamina for the three-mile trip, but we know that he stays two and a half miles well on soft ground and, an Aintree Hurdle winner who was an average of 1.8 lengths inferior to Hurricane Fly in his pomp, if he did happen to stay the trip, he would be a serious player.
Tony Martin says that Bog Warrior will take his chance as long as the word soft appears in the ground description. Unbeaten in four completed runs over hurdles, prophetically named as he was, his chance would be greatly enhanced if the word heavy appeared in it as well.
Thursday is the day on which Irish horses have historically struggled but, with Aupcharlie and Argocat for the Jewson, possibly First Lieutenant and Sizing Europe for the Ryanair, a couple of lurkers in the Kim Muir and the Pertemps Final and a certainty in the charity race, it could be a little different this year.
It is always difficult to weigh up the relative strengths of the Irish and British juvenile hurdle form before the Triumph Hurdle is run, but Ruacana, fortuitous Grade 1 winner in Britain, was well beaten in the Spring Juvenile Hurdle at Leopardstown, so chances are that the Irish horses are not far behind the British at worst.
That Spring Juvenile Hurdle has been a solid pointer to the Triumph in the last two years, with Unaccompanied winning the Leopardstown race in 2011 before going on to finish second to Zarkandar in the Triumph, and Triumph Hurdle runner-up Hisaabaat winning the Spring Hurdle last year, followed home in third place by subsequent Triumph Hurdle winner Countrywide Flame.
This year's renewal of the Spring Hurdle looked like a strong one, with the best three juveniles in Ireland taking each other on, and Our Conor was an impressive winner. The time of the race was really good, five seconds faster than the time that Tennis Cap clocked in winning the handicap hurdle later on the card, and there is nothing not to like about Dessie Hughes' horse.
Ballycasey has looked good in all that he has done for Willie Mullins, beating Our Vinnie in a good bumper at Leopardstown's Christmas Festival last season and easily winning both his races over hurdles on heavy ground this term. He has to step up on the form of those two races if he is to win an Albert Bartlett but, by Presenting, he should improve for better ground, and this race has been his target for a long time.
Salsify has a favourite's chance in the Foxhunter, while County Hurdle winner Alderwood looks well-handicapped in the Grand Annual on a mark of 140, 8lb lower than his hurdles mark.
Then there is the Gold Cup. It is appropriate that, seven years on from War Of Attrition, Gigginstown's first, Ireland's last, our main hopes lie with another Gigginstown horse in Sir Des Champs. Two for two at the Festival, the Willie Mullins-trained gelding has been progressing nicely all season, and he should improve again for the return to Cheltenham, for better ground and for the step up to three miles and two and a half furlongs.
It could be a memorable one all right.
* For more of Donn's thoughts, visit www.donnmcclean.com.