Back to Liverpool, then, and all its familiar conundrums. For one thing, Saturday's big race so consumes public imagination that some of the best jumpers in training tend to find themselves brusquely neglected in the build-up. The meeting opens today, for instance, with a rematch between Big Buck's and Grands Crus, responsible for one of the most absorbing hurdle races of recent seasons at Cheltenham last month. Later on the card, Denman will be offering further proof of his amazing longevity, having just finished runner-up in the Gold Cup for the third time since his 2008 success.
Yet even for those who grant such names due attention, there is a perennial, unsatisfying dilemma. All those horses that ran at Cheltenham arrive here three weeks after what will often have proved the most searching examination of their careers. Moreover, the track could hardly be more different, flat and frantic as it is, while a forecast of spring sunshine promises increasingly altered conditions, too.
Denman's appearance in the Totesport Bowl distils the situation perfectly. With Long Run roughed off for the season, Denman is miles clear on the ratings. On paper, odds of around 6-5 qualify him as the nearest thing imaginable to a minting machine. Unfortunately, the race is on grass, not paper.
There are various reasons to tread warily, most obviously the fact that Denman goes so well fresh. His performance at Cheltenham vindicated Paul Nicholls in resolving not to run Denman again after his reappearance, at Newbury in November. But while the horse has very few miles on the clock for the season, he has had just 20 days to recuperate from some massively generous exertions. When he contested this race two years ago, in similar circumstances, he was flat to the boards when taking an uncharacteristic fall two out. He has won just one of his last nine starts. Were he to run below his best today it would take about two seconds to explain why – and nobody would think any less of him.
Even so, he can only be opposed with a heavy heart. Punchestowns has proved a huge anticlimax over fences, while Nacarat has not really been seeing out his races of late. But you can set your clock by Carole's Legacy, who had good handicappers strung out behind when forcing Bensalem clear at the Festival, and receives a 7lb mares' allowance. Even she is entitled to recoil from that effort, however, whereas Deep Purple (3.05) has every appearance of having been trained for this meeting, being ideally suited by this kind of test.
Last year he was not himself here, after a big run at Cheltenham, but this time he sat out the Festival, having shaped as though returning to form in unsuitably testing ground at Ascot.
However they fare with Denman, Nicholls and Ruby Walsh will tolerate no doubts about Big Buck's (2.00) in the BGC Partners Liverpool Hurdle. Certainly, the champion raised his game as necessary when Grands Crus threw down the gauntlet at Cheltenham, idling after Walsh dropped his whip. It is true that Big Buck's made rather heavy weather of an easier task here last year, suggesting that he might be more vulnerable than usual after digging deep at the Festival. Perhaps this time Tom Scudamore will try to give the favourite the slip on Grands Crus, having shadowed him to the last at Cheltenham, but Carlito Brigante may yet prove the better value each-way. He proved a revelation in the Coral Cup, is totally unexposed at this kind of trip, and could well adore this track.
Nicholls saddles his Triumph Hurdle winner, Zarkandar, in the Matalan Anniversary Hurdle, but Grandouet (2.30) could be value after travelling strongly before fading into third at Cheltenham. He was the only one of the principals exposed to a hot pace that day, and this sharper track could prove ideally tailored to his strengths.
The amateurs get their crack at the big fences in the John Smith's Fox Hunters' Chase, where Baby Run and his young partner deserve compensation for their Festival misfortune. You want the odds in your favour for a stampede like this, however, and Herons Well (3.40) is preferred. Still going well when unseating at Cheltenham, he will relish this shorter trip.
Chris McGrath's Nap
Megastar (5.25 Aintree)
Leo's Lucky Star (4.15 Aintree)