PAT KEANE: Punters should proceed Cheltenham with extreme caution!

Tin Soldier: Rapidly on the upgrade and looks the part in the Coral Cup Handicap.

Cheltenham this afternoon is an absolute minefield and punters would do well to proceed with extreme caution.

Today is essentially all about Douvan and whether the long odds-on seven-year-old can give Willie Mullins a first ever success in the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase.

He is unbeaten in 13 races for Mullins and, beaten into second on his debut in France, his overall score is 14 wins from 15.

The Closutton handler, of course, has never asked Douvan to move out of his comfort zone and the horse has yet to race beyond two miles and a furlong.

Arguably, the most exciting talent in the National Hunt game, it will be a major shock should he fail to retain his unbeaten record for the champion trainer.

If all goes to plan the hope is that Douvan will then be requested to move up in trip, with a view to discovering how good he really is!

On a programme that offers little or no cause for optimism, perhaps a little on Mullins’ Tin Soldier might reap a dividend in the Coral Cup Handicap Hurdle.

He was no great shakes in his native France, but has done really since coming to Ireland and competing off 10-10 could be more than manageable.

Tin Soldier made his debut in this country when landing a maiden hurdle at Fairyhouse in January, beating Gordon Elliott’s Champagne Classic by a length and a quarter.

The pair then clashed again subsequently in a Grade 3 at Thurles and logic dictated that Champagne Classic had to reverse placings on 8lbs better terms.

But nothing could have been further from the truth. Tin Soldier battled on doggedly to win the race, by a length from market leader, Moulin A Vent, with Champagne Classic a further seven lengths away in third.

What it told us is that here is a horse who may be rapidly on the upgrade and, with Mullins believing he will continue to improve with racing, a modest wager might be worth risking.

Mullins runs four in the opening Neptune Investment Management Novices’ Hurdle, with Bacardys looking to be the clear number one from this quarter.

He has solid course form, having stayed on nicely when third to Ballyandy and Battleford in the Bumper here a year ago.

Bacardys is going forward over flights, getting off the mark when beating stable companion, Kolumbus, at Leopardstown at Christmas.

That was an ordinary contest, but he left that effort well behind next time when taking the Grade 1 Deloitte Novice Hurdle at Leopardstown last month.

The other Irish horse worthy of consideration is Gordon Elliott’s Shattered Love, who will be getting the valuable 7lbs mares’ allowance. It is difficult enough, however, to get a real handle on just how good she is.

Shattered Love was left clear at Thurles in December, when Asthuria fell three out, and it was a similar story last time at Fairyhouse when Asthuria, upsides at the time, departed at the last.

The drying ground should work in Shattered Love’s favour and this, hopefully, will reveal all about her.

The final nod, though, falls on Harry Fry’s Neon Wolf. He has come a long way since winning a point-to-point, in the hands of Patrick Mullins, at Ballyragget last March.

Neon Wolf is unbeaten in three races over hurdles, scoring at Uttoxeter, Exeter and Haydock. The son of Vinnie Roe arrives to the festival with a big reputation and there was a lot to like about the manner in which he dismissed Elgin to the tune of nine lengths at Haydock on his latest appearance.

Cross country races, like handicaps, would not be the betting mediums of choice from this quarter, but needs must and Enda Bolger’s Cantlow is the fancy for the Glenfarclas Chase.

When in doubt in this type of contest having Bolger on your side is a solid starting point and all the evidence is that the venerable 12-year-old has lost little of his enthusiasm.

Cantlow showed his liking for this course and distance in early December, when Mark Walsh powered him to a nine-lengths defeat of Bless The Wings.

The selection then returned to Cheltenham in late January, again over course and distance, and went off the 11-8 favourite to beat nine rivals.

He suffered a shock defeat, however, going under by three lengths to the 50-1 shot, French challenger, Urgent De Gregaine.

It is worth noting, though, that race was a handicap, unlike today, and Cantlow was conceding the winner 15lbs.

As well as that it is also encouraging to note the third home, Any Currency, was a further 21 lengths adrift.

The Bumper is virtually impossible to solve, but I will be watching with interest the performance of the Joseph O’Brien-trained West Coast Time.

He cannot possibly score, on all known form, but has reportedly been working especially nicely of late.

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