By Barry McEneaney

2.40 Ryanair Chase 

Benefficient was one of three winners booted home by Bryan Cooper at last year’s Cheltenham Festival. The burgeoning talent obviously caught the attention of Ryanair supremo Michael O’Leary as he’s subsequently been retained as the Westmeath man’s leading jockey, with Davy Russell losing that lucrative post. 

Even before Wednesday’s leg break, Cooper’s association with the Gigginstown House meant he wouldn’t have been free to partner last season’s Jewson Novices’ Chase winner as he had been booked to ride the operation’s Rathlin. 

Benefficient received a canny front-running ride from Cooper 12 months ago, who took advantage of a moderate early pace. The duo were headed by Dynaste and Tom Scudamore before the third last fence, but regained the lead at the last and forged clear.

Tony Martin’s charge was also sent into an early lead in his first start over fences this season in the Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby, but that ride was much harder to fathom. His stamina was far from assured for a race over more than three miles – his longest trip to date – and the outcome was a predictable one as he faded from before the second last to trail home 36 lengths behind the winner in fourth. 

Benefficient was then dropped a full mile in trip for his last start at Leopardstown, where he won the second Grade One race of his career. A run in the Champion Chase had been under consideration if the ground had come up soft, but on a faster surface this target looks ideal. He’s poised for a big run.

Al Ferof has been beaten by an aggregate of almost 40 lengths on his last two outings, but can be forgiven those efforts as they came on slow surfaces over three miles. 

His connections had also toyed with the idea of cutting him back to the minimum trip for the Champion Chase had the ground been testing, but again this would seem the logical target given the prevailing ground conditions. 

The race distance also looks optimal in light of his winning comeback in the Amlin Chase over two mile three furlongs at Ascot in November. A former Festival winner, his affinity for the course makes him a major player.

Dynaste’s best form has come on flat tracks which befits a horse who has a history of breathing problems. The wind operation he underwent may remedy those issues, but the taxing nature of the course could well find him out. He also appears to have a preference for a softer surface. He ran well behind Cue Card in the Betfair Chase this season before disappointing in the King George at Kempton, meaning he lines up at the Festival in inferior form to this time last season. Reversing form from last season with Benefficent could prove beyond him. 

Menorah is a talented horse on his day, but jumping fences isn’t his forte. He’ll have to ping all 17 if he’s to score. His only start this season was a lacklustre effort in the King George. Not totally discounted, but a spectacular return to form is required. 

Boston Bob and Hidden Cyclone may be best of the rest, while Medermit and Rajdhani Express could figure if undergoing something of a renaissance.

and Al Ferof look the strongest contenders in this renewal. Davy Russell may have already lined up a few choice quips for his former boss should he be the rider entering the winners’ enclosure for the Ryanair Chase, and Benefficent can afford him that opportunity. 

Selection: Benefficent
Alternative: Al Ferof

Advised staking policy
Benefficent, 2pts each-way @ 4-1 (Unibet)
Al Ferof, 1pt win @ 5-1 (Paddy Power) 

3.20 Ladbrokes World Hurdle

Annie Power’s record is a perfect ten since making her racecourse debut in a bumper race at Galway in the summer of 2012. 

There hasn’t been the hint that Willie Mullins’ blossoming star might lose her blemish-free record in her subsequent outings and she might be able to lay claim to being the most exciting National Hunt prospect in training. Much like Frankel on the Flat, she’s looked the rare type that could score at the top level over almost any trip. That quality sets her apart from all of the other rising stars in the game.

Her versatility with regard to trip meant that the ever-reticent Mullins refused to commit her to a concrete Festival target at an early juncture.

Entries were submitted for the Champion Hurdle over two miles, the three-mile World Hurdle and the Mares’ Hurdle over the intermediate trip.

At this early point of her career you could argue that this is the less desirable option of the three, but such is her innate talent that she has outstanding claims of justifying favouritism.

The motivation for aiming her at this gruelling assignment may also be slightly questionable.

Mullins and Ruby Walsh came into the meeting bidding for a record-equalling hat-trick of wins in the Champion Hurdle with Hurricane Fly (which didn’t pan out) and in search of an unprecedented Festival six-timer in the race restricted to the fairer sex for Quevega (which did). Walsh could obviously only throw his leg over one of the Mullins’ team in each race, while the burden of history may have played a factor in Mullins’ ultimate decision.

Owner Rich Ricci has enjoyed extraordinary success with the master of Closutton, but whether the final call was in the best interests of the owner or the horse is open for debate. 

Having scored convincing victories against Zarkandar over just under two-and-a-half miles at Ascot, and just a shade over that trip at Cheltenham, she indicated that she was in no way devoid of pace when cut back to just over two miles at Doncaster on her most recent start.

In a slowly run race on a flat track she cruised clear of her rivals by 15 lengths, having raced keenly. That didn’t suggest a horse crying out for a step up to three miles.

Her optimum trip at this stage could well be the two-and-a-half miles of the mares’ contest, but her participation in the Champion Hurdle would have added even more intrigue to what was likely the most fascinating race of the Festival. 

Her owner has already intimated that she was kept over hurdles with more than one eye on a tilt at the most prestigious hurdle race of the Festival, and while the World Hurdle is obviously worth winning, it lags some way behind the Champion Hurdle in terms of history and prestige. The decision to run here has also denied her the opportunity to emulate another mare, Dawn Run (trained by Mullins father Paddy), and attempt to become the second horse in history to complete the Champion Hurdle-Gold Cup double.

But back to her task in hand, and it appears an eminently achievable one. She certainly has the pedigree and the physique to suggest this stayers’ trip is within her compass. 

The betting suggests four-time winner Big Buck’s will pose the greatest threat to the daughter of Shirocco. He returned to action in the Cleeve Hurdle In January after a long absence with a tendon injury.

Unbeaten in his previous 18 races, he saw his colours lowered by massive outsider Knockara Beau, who was winning in Grade Two company for just the second time at the age of 11. He’ll be expected to improve significantly for his first race after such a lengthy spell on the sidelines, but winning this will demand a major progression. There’s a possibility he’ll regress off what looked a tiring run, and whether he’ll be sufficiently fit for this rest after just one race in over 15 months is a matter of conjecture.

Crimson Embers was an 11-year-old, just as Big Buck’s is, when scoring in this race way back in 1986, but that one remains the only horse older than nine to have prevailed, giving you an  idea of the magnitude of the challenge he faces. One of the things that separate the immortals from those with hoofs of clay is an ability to rewrite record books and overcome major challenges. But victory here would have to rank as his greatest ever win and one of Paul Nicholls’ finest training feats.

At Fishers Cross has not progressed this term as he might have been expected to after last season’s unbeaten campaign.

His first two runs were blighted by jumping errors which scuppered any chance of winning. Having been beaten out of sight as an odds-one favourite at Newbury, he followed up by unshipping Tony McCoy in the Long Walk Hurdle after another calamitous round of jumping. Both defeats came as an odd-on favourite. He posted a much better effort when second behind Knockara Beau in the Cleeve, but it was still disappointing that he couldn’t capitalise on Big Bucks lack of race fitness. Trainer Rebecca Curtis opined afterwards that she was relishing the prospect of better going for her charge, having previously expressed a desire for cut in the ground.

At Fishers Cross apparently suffers from arthritis in his hocks, which in turn has led to back problems. Perhaps spring ground and a firmer footing will allow him to jump in a less laboured way. However, it’s more probable that a sound surface could flare up any physical frailties. A quicker surface will also result in him having to jump with greater alacrity, which could easily find out any flaws in his hurdling technique.

It’s hard to recall two full-brothers scoring on the same racecard on the very same day, but that’s exactly what happened when Eastlake and More Of That won their respective races at Cheltenham in December. Their mum (Guigone) was so proud. More Of That is now unbeaten in four starts over hurdles, with each victory more impressive than the last. However, he’s very inexperienced to be taking in a race like this at such an embryonic stage of his career. His ability to stay the trip has yet to be proven as the Relkeel Hurdle distance of two miles four-and-a-half furlongs is the longest he’s been asked to go to date. His full-brother is very much a two-miler, while there’s mixed messages from the race records of his half-siblings.

Rule The World ran second in last year’s Neptune Novice’s Hurdle and has understandably taken time to return to form after sustaining a pelvic injury at least season’s Punchestown Festival. His first win of the season in the Limestone Lad Hurdle on his most recent start was hugely encouraging and he could be poised to run a big race.

Zarkandar has been suffering from a chronic case of seconditis this term, filling the runner-up spot on all four of his starts. He’s run gallant races in defeat over a variety of trips behind Annie Power (twice), The New One and Melodic Rendezvous. It’s tough to see him reversing form with the wondermare, but connections will be hoping he can find improvement on this faster ground.

With the shift in power from Paul Nicholls to Willie Mullins, and Ruby Walsh now totally committed to the latter, Big Buck’s finds himself without the pilot who roused him to all four of his World Hurdle wins. It’s impossible to write off a horse as talented and resilient as he is and much will depend on how he has emerged from his last start. It’s entirely possible that he’ll run one of two kinds of races – a terrific one or a terrible one. Meanwhile, Walsh looks set to continue his dominance of the race on the unexposed Annie Power. If Father Time has caught up with the former champ, Rule The World could also profit from the changing of the guard. Reve De Sivola and Mala Beach (non-runner) like testing going, but are massive-priced outsiders worthy of consideration in the unlikely event of an overnight deluge.

Selection: Annie Power
Alternative: Rule The World

Advised staking policy
Annie Power, 2pts @ 13-8 (William Hill)
Rule The World, 0.5pt each-way @10-1 (William Hill)