It would be brave man who D'Airs back against Buveur
IT'S fair to say that, from a personal point of view, I have never been so excited in the build-up to a Cheltenham Festival as I have for this one.
I'm still finalising my riding plans for the week, but the book I have built up is the best I have ever had and I would be very disappointed if I couldn't add to my three Festival winners.
If I can even manage two this week, it would take me past the 100 mark for the season for the third time in my career.
Later in the week, I will be talking about the outstanding chances of the classy Neon Wolf in the Neptune Novices' Hurdle and Unowhatimeanharry in Thursday's World Hurdle, but today my main focus is fixed on the Champion Hurdle, in which Buveur D'Air gives me a great chance of winning the race for the second time, after Rock On Ruby in 2012.
A lot has been made of the horses and jockeys who won't be at Cheltenham this week.
Barry Geraghty is the most high-profile jockey on the inured list and it's very unfortunate for him to miss out on so many great chances. I really feel for him and I know it will be a very tough week for him to watch from the sidelines.
Barry would be the first to acknowledge that's the nature of the game, though, and the likes of myself, Mark Walsh and Aidan Coleman have been the ones to gain from his misfortune.
I guess we will never know which of JP McManus's pair of Champion Hurdle contenders – Yanworth and Buveur D'Air – Barry would have ridden today, but it suits me and Buveur D'Air perfectly as we have a bit of history together from last year.
I rode him six times in total over the course of last season and he just got better and better as it went on.
His last two runs – third in the Supreme Novices' at the Festival and winning the Grade One novices' at Aintree – were top class pieces of form and obviously from a personal point of view it was disappointing when JP McManus bought him at the end of the season as it meant I was going to miss out on riding him.
As destiny would have it, we are back together again today, and he has an obvious chance in such a competitive race.
With the last two winners – Faugheen and Annie Power – also on the absentee list, the race is definitely there for the winning, and Buveur D'Air is just one of four or five closely-matched hurdlers you would expect to see involved coming down the hill.
The ground looks like being on the slow side of good for day one and that should suit him fine.
In fact, if reports are to be believed, it should be something similar to what it was when he beat one of today's rivals, Petit Mouchoir at Aintree last April.
I don't think it's fair that people are saying it's a weak renewal of the race. I think that's more of a reaction to the ‘superstars' not being in the line-up, and I think the one thing guaranteed is that it will be an exciting finish, and that is what everybody wants.
I just hope that I will be involved in it.
I have also picked up a good ride in today's opening race – the Supreme Novices' Hurdle – on Beyond Conceit for Buveur D'Air's trainer Nicky Henderson.
Connections of Neon Wolf had been waiting to confirm whether he would go for this race or the Neptune tomorrow and, as expected, it is going to be the latter.
That frees me up to ride Beyond Conceit and I think he has great each-way shout, though I think his stablemate River Wylde could be a big threat.
I've never ridden Beyond Conceit before but I have schooled him. He was a high class stayer on the Flat for Andrew Balding and Tom Tate and I was very impressed with him on both of his wins over hurdles at Newbury and Ascot, where he was very keen and still won.
As is the case for a lot of my rides this week, I'm hoping the ground will be on the slow side. The slower the ground the better it will suit Beyond Conceit.
Melon is the big talking horse for Willie Mullins, who usually has a good one for this race, but he could be anything and the form of his one and only win – at Leopardstown – hasn't worked out.
At the prices, I would rather go for Nicky's ‘first string' River Wylde. He won the Dovecote at Kempton and improved from his win at Ludlow the time before that. He is high class and improving.
I don't have a ride in the Arkle but will watch with interest to see who comes second to Altior, who only has to jump round to win this and, hopefully, give Nicky Henderson the first two races of the day.
This boy is really special and I'm lucky enough to have ridden him before. I was on him for his first three wins over fences – after he ran away with the Supreme Novices' last year – because Nico de Boinville was injured.
Unfortunately for me, Nico is fit again, and I don'think he will have to do too much to win today. Altior (below) is by far the best horse in the race.
There had been plenty of talk that Altior might have taken on Douvan in the Champion Chase tomorrow, but connections have taken the sensible approach and gone for the Arkle instead.
The clash with Douvan will be for another day, but I can honestly say that if Altior had taken him on this week, he could have beaten him. He's that good.
Charbel has given Altior most to think about on his three runs over fences to date when they met at Sandown and he's the one to chase him home again today.
Neil Mulholland will have plenty of followers in these parts over the course of the week and he's a trainer I hold in very high regard – not surprising when you consider he's provided me with 40 of my 98 winners so far this season.
I ride The Druid's Nephew for Neil in the Ultima Handicap Chase today and he is one of the leading fancies in a typically competitive handicap.
The Druid's Nephew won this race two years ago off today's mark and is still fresh enough with few enough miles on the clock to repeat the feat today. I've never ridden him before but I have schooled him and he's in great form for today's mission.
I also wouldn't be putting anybody off an each-way nibble at a huge price on Indian Stream, who I ride for Neil in the mares' hurdle.
She's a good, tough mare who has been running over fences all year. It's hard to see her winning with the fancied Willie Mullins pair in the field, but you never know in racing, and she might be capable of sneaking into the frame.