The programme for the Cheltenham Festival is such, the first two days are those which will seal the fate of almost every punter, dictating whether or not it will be a profitable week.
Although the action is almost nine weeks away, it’s quite clear this year is going to be no different, with the three odds-on favourites in the ante-post lists all in action on the opening day.
How the Willie Mullins-trained triumvirate, Douvan (best price 8-11), Faugheen (8-13), and Annie Power (10-11) fare in the Arkle, Champion Hurdle and Mares’ Hurdle respectively, will prove pivotal to punters’ fortunes.
And yet it is another stable companion, Min, currently favourite for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, who seems to have commanded most interested over the past couple of months.
From the moment his owner, Rich Ricci, gave favourable mention in an interview, the Walk In The Park gelding has been under the spotlight and, in two runs for current connections, has delivered in spades.
His maiden hurdle victory was given a boost when the runner-up landed a gamble in a bumper at the Christmas meeting at Leopardstown, and he then made light of Grade 2 company in last weekend’s Grade 2 Moscow Flyer Novice Hurdle at Punchestown.
He didn’t please everyone on that most recent outing, racing freely for most of the journey, but proved in a different league to his rivals, headed by the 132-rated Attribution.
Will he get away with such a free-going style at Cheltenham, or could his eagerness to get on with matters tee-up the race for some of his rivals?
His potential is undeniable and it’s impossible to say he won’t give Mullins a fourth consecutive victory in the race, but current odds of 13-8 are surely on the skinny side if we consider Vautour returned 7-2 in 2014 and Douvan 2-1 in 2015.
Is he a better prospect than both of those or will his task be any easier than theirs?
Perhaps the most comforting fact for ante-post backers is the virtual certainty that the Supreme is his target. Mullins likes to keep his options open but Min has, thus far, treaded the well-worn path of Douvan and Vautour — the last two winners of the Supreme.
While his claims are compelling his price is less so, and it has to be worth looking elsewhere for ante-post interest.
Unlike Min, stable companion Yorkhill’s Festival target is unclear, but he, Bellshill and Up For Review are all owned by Graham and Andrea Wylie and that, when factored into their campaigning thus far this season, gives confidence to the notion they will go to the Supreme, Neptune and Albert Bartlett respectively.
With that in mind, it could be a stable-companion which gives Min most to think about.
Yorkhill didn’t appear on the track until March of last year, where he won readily, and then followed up when easily accounting for the highly regarded Ok Corral at the Punchestown Festival.
The latter effort came on yielding ground — the fastest he has yet encountered — and connections have long been adamant even quicker conditions will bring out the best in him.
An easy winner of his hurdling debut, at Punchestown, he jumped straight into Grade 1 company for the Tolworth Hurdle at Sandown and won every bit as easily.
Unbeaten in completed starts in all spheres, he appears to idle a little in front, and may be best suited to being delivered late off a fast pace — something almost assured at Cheltenham.
Tolworth runner-up O O Seven may not be the best of Nicky Henderson’s novices, but a rating of 145 has been earned — and Yorkhill brushed him aside.
That level of form is good enough to make the Wylie-owned Presenting gelding a real contender in any renewal of the Supreme.
Henderson’s Altior was most impressive at Kempton on St Stephen’s Day and has to be respected, though he looks a smashing chasing prospect and may find the test too sharp.
Another worth serious consideration is the Gordon Elliott-trained Tombstone.
His maiden hurdle success filled the eye, and he may have been unlucky in a Grade 1 at Leopardstown’s Christmas meeting.
The bare form of the latter races may not be as good as it reads, with winner Long Dog almost certainly better over further.
But, it was just his third outing over hurdles, and he will improve. Double-figure odds provided a degree of temptation, but it’s Yorkhill who makes most appeal.
The six-year-old has winning form at the top level, should improve further for better ground, and the race should bring out the best in him.
Odds of 8-1 are on the generous side given what he has already achieved.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved