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Raiders look on track to let fly

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16 March 2011; First Lieutenant, with Davy Russell up, left, leads Rock on Ruby, with Daryl Jacob up, on their way to winning the Neptune Investment Management Novices' Hurdle. Cheltenham Racing Festival 2011, Prestbury Park, Cheltenham, England. Picture credit: Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE

16 March 2011; First Lieutenant, with Davy Russell up, left, leads Rock on Ruby, with Daryl Jacob up, on their way to winning the Neptune Investment Management Novices' Hurdle. Cheltenham Racing Festival 2011, Prestbury Park, Cheltenham, England. Picture credit: Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE

SPORTSFILE

16 March 2011; First Lieutenant, with Davy Russell up, left, leads Rock on Ruby, with Daryl Jacob up, on their way to winning the Neptune Investment Management Novices' Hurdle. Cheltenham Racing Festival 2011, Prestbury Park, Cheltenham, England. Picture credit: Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE

NOW that all entries have been revealed and the handicap weights are disclosed, punters can finalise their options for ante-post betting on the Cheltenham Festival, with bookies offering 'non-runner, no bet' a big help.

The build up has been a shade more subdued on this island than last year when a record amount of Irish winners was predicted. It didn't happen and the same level of confidence just doesn't seem to be there this time around.

As always, though, there is a strong Irish brigade set to embark for the Cotswolds and punters at different levels will study the races in different ways but track form around Cheltenham is always a major positive. Tonight, we look at the main Irish contenders who have some course form from previous seasons and their targets for this year's Festival. Some are obvious, others are less so.

3Quevega - Four wins (at Cheltenham)

You will struggle to find a mare with better course and distance form. She is four from four at Cheltenham, all wins coming in the Mares' Hurdle over 2m4f and although still remaining among the entries for the Ladbrokes World Hurdle, it is the mares' race that she is likely to be contesting again. Long odds-on favourite for that and justifiably so.

3Hurricane Fly - One win and a third

Bidding to become just the second horse to win a Champion Hurdle, lose it, and win it back again, Hurricane Fly looks to put last year behind him and return to the scene of his finest triumph in 2011. Last year's winner Rock On Ruby will be back, but connections seem to accept that Hurricane Fly wasn't fully right last time. He seems at his very best this year. If that is the case, he'll be hard to beat.

3Champagne Fever - Won only run at Cheltenham

Last year's Champion Bumper winner has had a somewhat turbulent time of things since going novice hurdling this season. Champagne Fever was a good winner of what has turned out to be quite a strong renewal of the Champion Bumper and followed that up at Punchestown. He went down to Jezki and didn't run his race after that at Naas but bounced back to winning ways in front of yesterday's Thurles winner Bright New Dawn. Supreme Novices' Hurdle bound, but could be creeping under the radar at 14/1 with Boylesports.

3Carlito Brigante - Two wins, fourth twice, unplaced and pulled up once

Of this list, Carlito Brigante is the one who poses the most questions. It seems to be a case with Gordon Elliott's seven-year-old that when he's on a good day he's very good, but every other day is quite the opposite. Cheltenham has certainly brought out the best in him, winning at the Festival in 2011. He pulled up in last year's Coral Cup but decent ground is a key and on good to soft he won at the October meeting last year. Holds multiple entries and on his day is a threat.

3Aupcharlie - Third in only run at Cheltenham

Aupcharlie didn't make last year's Festival as a novice hurdler, but as a novice chaser he looks set to contest one of the races this year, most likely the Jewson. Before joining Willie Mullins he was third in the Champion Bumper at Cheltenham and although that isn't enough to suggest he'll win there this season, a liking for the track is no harm.

3Sizing Europe - Won three times, second once and unplaced once

His record speaks for itself. All three wins were over the minimum trip, though, in the Greatwood Hurdle, the Arkle and the Champion Chase. The Champion Chase is a possibility again if connections want to take on Sprinter Sacre. Alternatively, it will be the Ryanair where a step up in trip, albeit not a problem for the horse, will pose a different challenge around at track like Cheltenham. It could prove a braver move than taking on Sprinter Sacre.

3Sir Des Champs - Won twice

Sir Des Champs seems to be a horse who continues to divide opinion. On just his second start for Willie Mullins, he won at Cheltenham in 2011 proving he was above ordinary. After three more wins and some unconvincing form he won last year's Jewson and although the unbeaten record is quashed, Sir Des Champs goes into this year's Gold Cup prominent in the betting, on the back of a win in the Irish Hennessy. Match fit and raring to go, it will be a fair one to beat him over the Gold Cup trip which he will relish.

3First Lieutenant - Won once and second once

If this horse runs in the Ryanair Chase, he is one of the bets of the meeting in my opinion. He is trained by Mouse Morris who is a master at getting a horse ready for Cheltenham. In typical Morris fashion, First Lieutenant has been hidden away since Christmas. A winner of the Neptune of 2011, he was second only to Bobs Worth (now Gold Cup favourite) in last year's RSA. In a Ryanair without a stand-out horse, First Lieutenant looks tailor-made for the race. If connections opt for Gold Cup, he is a live player and may even finish in front of Sir Des Champs.

3Monksland - Third in only run at Cheltenham

Lost an unbeaten record in last year's Neptune when beaten by Simonsig but has bounced back to win two from three since. Was a long way behind Simonsig when third last season so will have to improve on that immensely to win a World Hurdle, but not only is this a World Hurdle without Big Buck's, but Monksland appears to have improved. Noel Meade has opted to take the lightly raced approach also and seems quietly bullish about his chances, and why not in a wide-open renewal.

3Salsify - Won only run at Cheltenham

Last year's Foxhunter Chase winner returns to try and give the Sweeney family from Cork another memorable win in the race. If he turns up in the same form, it should be the same result.

3Alderwood - Won only run at Cheltenham

Continued to progress through the ranks over hurdles last season and the same again this time around will be hoped for over the larger obstacles. Not as experienced over fences but back at Cheltenham on better ground should bring out the best and looks well enough handicapped to run a big race in the likes of the Grand Annual.


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