Harchibald is not here at all, of course, while Hardy Eustace must erase a dispiriting failure at Leopardstown in January. In contrast, Brave Inca shows up every time. You could set your clock by him. But the improvement he has made under Tony McCoy this year can be measured in ounces, rather than pounds, and it is hard to believe he is as invulnerable as the betting would suggest. He has had several hard races this winter, and there will be much fresher animals in the field.
The popular theory that Macs Joy should improve considerably on his rather tame finish last year is based upon the fact that he had himself taken too tough a road to the Festival. This time round he is considered to be peaking at the right time, having been restricted in midwinter by his stable's loss of form, but he may be the kind who will never really relish the stiff finish here.
Hardy Eustace is certainly capable of bouncing back. After all, he prepared so anonymously for his first Champion Hurdle that he went off at 33-1. This is his time and place, and he worked brightly at Leopardstown last Sunday. It is curious that he is tried in a visor this time, rather than the blinkers he normally wears for this race: there is perhaps a slight implication that he might need a bit more motivating in his old age. His chief problem, however, is that he cannot expect the easy lead he enjoyed for both previous wins in this race. This time he is liable to be taken on for the lead by one or more from The French Furze, Briareus, Fiepes Shuffle and Asian Maze.
Briareus is the least exposed runner in the field and was a revelation at Wincanton last time. He is certainly an interesting candidate, but he is an energetic type and his amateur partner will do well to conserve his stamina.
They cannot go fast enough, however, for Asian Maze (3.15), who blossomed into a top-class novice last spring and made such an encouraging resumption against Macs Joy at Gowran Park. Though she has won over three miles, she had pulverised her rivals before the home turn in a Grade One race over two and a half miles at Punchestown last season. Istabraq and Hardy Eustace himself both dropped down in trip after their novice seasons and, as a mare, Asian Maze gets a generous 7lb allowance.
She is fresh, too, which also counts in favour of Arcalis - as does his proven aptitude for a strongly run race over this course. His stable has been badly held up, but seems to have hit form in the nick of time. Certainly it is safe to disregard that non-event at Haydock in January, where he was pulled up the moment the gruelling conditions threatened to take their toll. He is a big danger, if fit enough to produce his best, but bookmakers are taking few chances and the mare represents better value.
The Irish Independent Arkle Trophy looks too good a race to spoil with a bet, but there are mercenary opportunities later on the card. No Half Session and Moulin Riche (4.00) are the pick in the William Hill Handicap Chase, with the French horse looking particularly well treated on his hurdles win here last year. He jumped the stiff fences at Haydock with great flair and will prefer this quicker ground.
The Sporting Index Cross-Country Chase is the impostor who crept through the back door when the Festival was extended to four days, but supporters of NATIVE JACK (nap 4.40) will not object after he proved himself equipped for a similarly eccentric test at Punchestown.
The most tempting price of the day is 16-1 against Artist's Muse (next best 5.20), who has been given a break after failing to justify heavy support last time and is likely to have been freshened up with this race in mind. A useful handicapper on the Flat, she looks on a good mark and Ted Walsh would presumably not prevent his son from riding for Paul Nicholls without good reason.
Nap: Native Jack (Cheltenham 4.40)
NB: Artist's Muse
The experts' predictions for the Champion Hurdle
CHRIS McGRATH 1. Asian Maze
3. Hardy Eustace
SUE MONTGOMERY 1. Asian Maze
2. Brave Inca
3. Royal Shakespeare
HYPERION 1. Briareus
2. Hardy Eustace
3. Asian Maze