Cheltenham 2015: Saphir Du Rheu will be aiming to do a 'Big Buck's' for Nicholls in the World Hurdle
The Ladbrokes World Hurdle is the centrepiece on the third and penultimate day of the Cheltenham Festival and this year’s participants have plenty to live up to.
Last year’s renewal was billed as a match between the returning Big Buck’s, winner of the race four times in a row with Ruby Walsh, and unbeaten mare Annie Power, but Jonjo O’Neill’s More Of That, who had also never tasted defeat, caused a minor upset by fighting off the Irish runner in a thrilling finish.
With Big Buck’s immediately retired after finishing an honourable fifth and Annie Power racing against her own sex this time around, shockingly coming unstuck at the last yesterday in the Mares’ Hurdle, More Of That seemed an obvious candidate to become another multiple winner.
However, nothing has gone to plan for More Of That this term, with an initial defeat prompting a breathing operation before a training setback ruled him out two weeks before the Festival.
That slightly clears the way for Paul Nicholls, the master of Ditcheat, to ‘do a Big Buck’s’ with another Andy Stewart-owned inmate in Saphir Du Rheu.
The grey failed to complete the course on two of his first three starts over fences, so he reverted to timber, just like Big Buck’s, in the Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham last month and got the job done in determined fashion to book his World Hurdle ticket.
Nicholls also saddles last year’s fourth Zarkandar, whose campaign has been built around a return to Prestbury Park.
Rock On Ruby, a former winner of the Champion Hurdle for Nicholls and now with Harry Fry, adds another fascinating dimension as he steps into the unknown over three miles for the first time.
The main supporting race of the afternoon is the Ryanair Chase, a relatively new addition to the Festival after being added just a decade ago.
Last year’s winner Dynaste will have to watch on from the sidelines, as will 2013 victor Cue Card, but Irish hope Don Cossack adds a dash of star quality.
The latter is four from four so far this season fo r Gordon Elliott and carries the colours of Ryanair supremo Michael O’Leary’s Gigginstown House Stud.
The six-race card gets under way with the JLT Novices’ Chase over two and a half miles, with Vautour and Ptit Zig the two at the head of the market.
Vautour was a stunning winner of last season’s Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and following a Christmas blip, he got his career over fences back on track at Leopardstown in January.
This appears the best opportunity for Willie Mullins’ Vautour to gain another Cheltenham success. The Nicholls-trained Ptit Zig is a formidable challenger, although he has a slight question mark against him having fallen at Ascot, losing his unbeaten record over fences in the process.
Apache Stronghold is another worth a mention in what could turn into a seriously competitive heat for novice chasers.
The remainder of the afternoon is made up of devilishly difficult handicaps.