The default position of most punters, regarding bookmakers, is to beware Greeks bearing gifts. On the other hand, another familiar axiom urges them not to look a gift horse in the mouth, and it is hard to see what not to like about Paddy Power's offer to refund bets on the first race of the Festival if it is won by Cue Card. That gives you every incentive to take on the favourite, as you will only pay if you do so with the wrong one.
Cue Card arguably sets a fair standard in the Stan James Supreme Novices' Hurdle, even if you take his defeat by Menorah here in December at face value. But connections seem confident that he was not at his best that day, and he certainly produced a rather tame finish after travelling strongly as usual. That remains the only defeat of his career, and he was devastating in the bumper here last year. Conceivably he will prove better over longer distances, like so many graduates of that race, but speed does seem to be his forte.
At the relative odds, however, it is difficult to resist persevering with Zaidpour (1.30). He exuded authentic champion quality in his first two starts, and had evidently been doing the same at home for Willie Mullins, but has since been turned over twice at Leopardstown. While it was easy to pardon his defeat at the Christmas meeting, just a fortnight after a runaway win at Fairyhouse, there was no obvious excuse last time. He did just leave the impression, however, that he managed second only by hanging tough in horrible ground, and it may well be that the class he showed on the Flat will only really shine through now that he gets spring ground. A strong gallop in these conditions could set things up for his finishing kick ideally.
Mullins, incidentally, looks a good bet at 4-1 with William Hill to be the week's top trainer. After Zaidpour, he saddles Hurricane Fly (3.20) with outstanding prospects in the big one, and the unprecedented depth of his team ensures an interest in many races to come. Later today, for instance, he saddles the meeting's hottest favourite as Quevega seeks to win the David Nicholson Mares' Hurdle for the third time running.
Even the astonishing improvement of Sparky May leaves her plenty to find with Quevega, who confirmed her calibre after each of her previous wins here by excelling against males at the Punchestown Festival. Once again, Mullins has audaciously kept her fresh for this, and if you have similar nerves you will settle even for a shade of odds-on about Quevega (4.40).
The Irish return with another tried-and-trusted Festival operator in the Glenfarclas Cross-Country Chase. This is much the most frivolous event of the week but yields a pretty serious bet in Garde Champetre (4.0 next best) at 5-1 in places. This horse would know his way round here blindfold, never mind with the privilege of having the magnificent Nina Carberry to steer him instead. Yes, he is now 12, but the way this course tends to be negotiated notoriously allows the veterans to conserve their energies for the final sprint. So far as it is relevant, he is on a very fair mark, 4lb lower than when arguably unlucky not to win again last year. The only note of caution is prompted by the sudden appearance of a tongue-tie.
The Irish Independent Arkle Trophy does not seem to have gathered a vintage crop of novices, and it is devilishly difficult choosing between them. The reputation of Captain Chris, who made an 11th-hour switch to risk this drop in distance, has seemed to grow with each defeat but he is at least entitled to improve on this ground. He needs to do so, of course, to reverse midwinter form with Ghizao and Medermit, but preference is for Finian's Rainbow (2.05). He has had this race written all over him since just being caught out by the extra distance over hurdles here last year, having travelled superbly through the race.
The remaining races on the card are both handicaps, and as such predictably competitive. Tullamore Dew has solid prospects in the last, but Paul Nicholls has a formidable hand here with Definity and American Trilogy (5.15). The latter is preferred at the prices, now that he finally returns to a left-handed track.
But the best value of the day is perhaps Wolf Moon (2.40 nap) in the Stewart Family Spinal Research Chase. Though out of the handicap, he remains well treated on his hurdles form and shared his stable's overall revival when winning his first chase at Catterick last time. Wolf Moon's earlier experiments over fences can be forgotten, unlike his love affair with this course last season, when he briefly threatened to beat Time For Rupert himself on one occasion.
During the Festival, top Flat trainers will give their views from the other side of the fence on jump racing's showcase occasion. Totesport is providing a free £100 stake for them, with any winnings going to their chosen charity.
Menorah in the Champion Hurdle. He travels well, jumps for fun and likes the track – his last three wins have been there – and I feel the ground will be in his favour.
In the Cross Country Chase, L'Ami has experience over the course and has the class to win if he copes with the idiosyncrasies of the race – and the jockey goes the right way!
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