Since the extension of the Festival to four days, in 2006, Thursday's card has tended to be perceived as clearly the weakest link. But that is certainly not the case this time round. For many, in fact, the Ladbrokes World Hurdle is the highlight of the whole week, with a new, insolent challenger standing between Big Buck's and his third consecutive success. Moreover the bewitching clash of styles between Grands Crus and the champion is liable to distract attention from one or two others who could yet intrude at bigger odds. All told, this looks the best staying hurdle in several seasons.
Big Buck's sets an epoch-making standard, having won all 10 of his starts over hurdles since entering the care of Paul Nicholls. He no longer seems to hit that flat spot before coming back on the bridle, and basically bolted up from Time For Rupert here last year. Even so, his tendency to indolence still makes it hard to know just how much he has in hand. Nobody has ever got to the bottom of him.
Tony McCoy, who won two races on Big Buck's during Ruby Walsh's absence this winter, observes that he shares this habit of racing "behind the bridle" with several outstanding performers in the same discipline over the years, such as Inglis Drever and Baracouda. Grands Crus, in contrast, goes about his work with high energy and McCoy wonders whether he will consume too much petrol through the race to see off Big Buck's up the hill.
Strictly in terms of his form, however, Grands Crus needs to be taken very seriously. After decimating a big field of handicappers at Cheltenham on his reappearance in November, and shrugging off a penalty the following week, the grey tested the water for today in the Cleeve Hurdle at the January meeting. And he dealt with the higher grade in breathtaking fashion, coasting through the field on the bridle before charging 10 lengths clear. It was so flamboyant that the aura of invincibility about Big Buck's almost seemed to evaporate overnight.
Admittedly, conditions will be a good deal faster today. Walsh certainly remains confident in his mount, and it will be fascinating to see how he and Tom Scudamore play their respective cards. Assuming he can get Grands Crus settled, you would imagine that Scudamore will want to stalk the favourite for as long as possible, before trying to make his acceleration count in a dash from the last. Walsh, equally, knows that a strong pace would help his rival settle, so may himself help set up something of a sprint finish.
The danger is that a game of cat and mouse could prevent both from reaching a high enough gear, soon enough, to open up on the rest. And there are a couple of others in this field – both trained by Willie Mullins – well competent to profit from any such opportunity. Mullins reckons Mourad can improve again on this better ground, but the each-way value is Fiveforthree (3.20) at 12-1.
Albeit you need to go back quite a long time now, in his youth Fiveforthree excelled in consecutive visits to the Festival, rather unlucky when fifth in the bumper and then gamely winning what was only his second start over hurdles. He has demanded plenty of patience since, but surfaced at the 2009 Punchestown Festival for an impressive success on his first attempt at three miles, before disappearing once again. A comeback spin last month suggested that his ability remains intact, in which case he can certainly get himself involved.
Ostensibly, the other highlight of the day is the Ryanair Chase. In truth, this field demonstrates the dilution of quality guaranteed by the creation of new, intermediate races to expand the Festival. Poquelin is a solid favourite but could not deal with Albertas Run (2.40) last year and that horse has been freshened up for the spring ground.
The same reservations apply to the Jewson Novices' Chase, run for the first time today. Indeed, it would have claimed Tuesday's Arkle winner but for an 11th-hour change of heart by trainer Philip Hobbs. Having been vindicated in switching Captain Chris, he could well complete the job with Wishfull Thinking but Loosen My Load (1.30 nap) is three times the price at 9-1 and has much in his favour. He will love the drying ground, jumps really well, has won over the course and returns to his optimum distance after twice getting stuck in the mud over shorter.
The rest of the card comprises three of those dazing Festival handicaps. Barafundle pulled miles clear of the rest when bumping into Grands Crus in the autumn, and has been kept back for the Pertemps Final. Rivage D'Or is the sort to relish the frantic pace, but Tarablaze (2.05) looks on a fair mark. Though he has been trying his luck in novice chases, he has only ever been beaten by one horse over hurdles and 25-1 is too big.
Beautiful Sound still has very few miles on the clock and is interesting in the Byrne Group Plate, but Aigle D'Or (4.00) has been aimed at this for several months and you know to expect a punters' special from Tony McCoy. Another one that looks to have been artfully primed is Galant Nuit (4.40 next best) in the Kim Muir. He is only 1lb higher than when a close third last year and is again ridden by Nina Carberry – an outstanding asset in any company, never mind against amateurs.
What's in a name?
Ashkazar (Ladbrokes World Hurdle)
In common with many Aga Khan horses, he bears an Islamic place name, in this case a town in Iran's Kerman province.
Crescent Island (Byrne Group Plate)
Kenyan wildlife sanctuary on the partially submerged rim of a volcano in Lake Naivasha.
Matuhi (Byrne Group Plate)
Maori word for the green bush wren of New Zealand, sometimes known as the bird of divinity.
Gauvain (Ryanair Chase)
Variant spelling of Gawain, a knight of the round table and nephew of King Arthur.
Voy Por Ustedes (Ryanair Chase)
The cry from a matador at the moment he strikes the bull (Spanish for "I'm going for you").