Tent can make a pitch to be second to Buveur D'Air again
The tape goes up on the Cheltenham Festival just six days from now, and the first afternoon of the four-day Festival has the potential to make or break the bookies and favourite-backers alike.
Enthusiasm for the best week of racing on the calendar is as high as ever, with the Europa Hotel's Grand Ballroom packed to capacity on Monday night for the annual Sean Graham and The Irish News Preview Night.
As always tips were varied about the big races, but the main events on Tuesday brought general agreement from the top table.
The Festival opener, the Supreme Novices' Hurdle, has a strong favourite in 11/8 chance Getabird, although that picture is muddied a little by the possibility of Gordon Elliott's Samcro going in this if the ground comes up very soft.
Likewise, the Arkle betting is dominated by Footpad (11/8), while the Mares' Hurdle is likely to be a procession for last year's victor Apple's Jade, who is no bigger than 4/6 at this stage.
Folllowing the trend, the feature race on the first day, the Champion Hurdle, also appears to be all about one horse – Nicky Henderson's reigning champion Buveur D'Air.
This one gave his trainer a sixth success in the race when flying up the hill in the hands of Noel Fehily a year ago at odds of 5/1, and he will return as an odds-on shot this time around.
Barry Geraghty will be the pilot come Tuesday but the outcome is highly likely to be the same.
If anything, Buveur D'Air would appear to be improving, and doesn't have many miles on the clock as a seven-year-old.
He went on from Cheltenham to win at Aintree, and is unbeaten in three outings this season, taking the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle, the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton, and the Contenders' Hurdle at Sandown with the minimum of fuss.
The Champion Hurdle is clearly a step up from those races, yet there is no reason to think Buveur D'Air won't improve again and it really does appear to be a question of how far he wins by.
That said, at 8/15 (Paddy Power) normal punters will have to look elsewhere for a bit of each-way value, or indeed might try and pick the winner in the ‘without the favourite' market.
I certainly won't be going after him at that price, although he does look a rock-solid foundation for the various multiples that will be on offer before the off on Tuesday.
Buveur D'Air should coast home with the minimum of fuss, which leaves us with the task of identifying what may follow him in.
Faugheen, the last odds-on winner of the Champion Hurdle in 2015, would be the obvious runner-up, and at his best he might even be capable of turning over the jolly.
However, ‘The Machine' does seem to have his best days behind him, having run a stinker at Leopardstown at Christmas before performing better at the same track in the Irish Champion Hurdle a month ago, when he was second to Supasundae.
That run won't be good enough here, and it was interesting to hear David Casey, assistant trainer to Willie Mullins, say confidence levels would only be at ‘three out of 10' that Faugheen can run near his best.
He could place, and the 13/2 on offer gives an each-way angle, but I want something more reliable, and that comes in the shape of My Tent Or Yours, the Henderson second-string.
My Tent was runner-up to Buveur D'Air a year ago, the third time in four years he has been second in this, and he rarely runs a bad race.
He is getting on in years at 11, but he flew up the hill to beat The New One and Melon in the International Hurdle at Cheltenham before Christmas and his appetite for a battle is hardly waning.
A proven performer on the undulations of Prestbury Park, My Tent Or Yours should be in the first three again and at a general 10/1 he's a great each-way bet to make it another brilliant afternoon for the Henderson team.
My Tent was second at all of the big Festivals last spring, also chasing home Buveur D'Air at Aintree before losing to Wicklow Brave at Punchestown, and the victor there might just have been overlooked here as well.
After that win he was campaigned on the Flat and hasn't been seen since finishing 10th in the Melbourne Cup.
Yet the fact he was capable of winning a Punchestown Champion Hurdle makes him a player at his best, while it's worth noting that he won the County Hurdle at Cheltenham three years ago on the soft ground we are likely to get at the start of next week.
Largely forgotten because the Mullins team will have Faugheen, Melon and possibly Yorkhill in this, Wicklow Brave could just pick up a place and at 14/1 with William Hill there are worse each-way punts.
While Buveur D'Air looks rock-solid, history suggests at least one of the opening day hotpots will be turned over, and the Supreme Novices' is a dodgy race for the favourites.
There has been serious cash for Samcro in recent days, but nothing Gordon Elliott said on Monday night suggested this race is anything other than a back-up and he will surely go in the two-mile-five Ballymore Novices' Hurdle, which opens Wednesday's card, as long as the ground isn't heavy.
The Supreme is a two-mile cavalry charge, usually run at breakneck pace, and while Getabird could easily win, I'm not in the business of backing 11/8 shots in this and it is unlikely he's in the class of former winners Champagne Fever, Vautour or Douvan, all of whom ran in the Ricci colours for Willie Mullins.
Labaik took this at 25/1 last year and it wouldn't shock me if something came in at a decent price again.
The one to follow could be Summerville Boy, a 12/1 chance with Boylesports.
He beat second-favourite Kalashnikov at Sandown at the start of January in heavy ground, and shouldn't have a problem dealing with a soft surface here.
He could be a good each-way alternative to the market leader.
My Tent Or Yours, e/w, 10/1 (General)
Wicklow Brave, e/w, 14/1 (William Hill)
SCOTLAND put the kibosh on England's Grand Slam hopes last time out in the Six Nations, and will hope to do likewise to Ireland this weekend and in the process play their way back into the championship picture.
The Scots were brilliant at Murrayfield in defeating Eddie Jones's side, but the challenge facing them now is to put in a big performance away from home.
They put in a terrible performance in Cardiff on their only away trip thus far, continuing an overall trend whereby they haven't won a Six Nations game anywhere other than Edinburgh or Rome since 2010.
That victory eight years ago came in Dublin, but the overwhelming feeling is it won't be repeated on Saturday.
Joe Schmidt's men, 3/10 favourites, have won their last 10 games on the bounce and while some defensive flaws were exposed by Wales, the attacking flair on display at times was impressive, with Jacob Stockdale (pictured) running in his second successive double.
If Ireland can make a fast start I expect them to put the Scots to the sword and will take them at 10/11 (Bet365) with a nine-point handicap.
Stockdale, meanwhile, is in superb scoring form and looks a steal at 6/5 with Boylesports to score a try.
An Irish win in Dublin would set them up for an almighty Grand Slam push at Twickenham on St Patrick's Day, but there is a fair chance the Six Nations title itself could be wrapped up this weekend.
If Ireland secure a bonus point win in Saturday's opening game, anything less than the same for England in France will hand the championship to Ireland.
And England will not get things all their own way in Paris, where only Johnny Sexton's drop goal prevented Ireland's Grand Slam bid going off the rails on the first weekend.
England may just get over the line in a close encounter but they won't have much to spare and France are good value with a seven-point start at 10/11.
Double that up with Ireland (-9) and you shouldn't go too far wrong.
Ireland (-9) v Scotland, 10/11 (Bet365)
France (+7) v England, 10/11 (Bet365)
AMIDST a flurry of big events in the run-up to the Masters next month, the Valspar Championship could easily get lost.
However, its location, both on the calendar and in Florida, has attracted more and more big names in recent seasons, with Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods making their debuts on the Copperhead course near Tampa this week.
Jordan Spieth is the favourite at 9/1 for an event he won in 2015, and at his best this one is right up his street.
The course is short and puts an emphasis on strategy over power.
However, Spieth isn't quite right and he again failed to get in the mix in Mexico on Sunday, when Odds and Ends had a 25/1 winner thanks to Phil Mickelson.
Others make more appeal here and of the leading lights Justin Rose is worth a look at 20/1.
Former US Open champions have popped up here on numerous occasions, and while Rose (right) didn't bloom in Mexico, he did save his best to last with a closing 67, and it was his first event in a month.
He might still be finding his game after a stunning end to 2017, but with two top 10s to his name in this one I definitely think Rose can feature prominently and should be backed at 20/1 with Paddy Power.
Unheralded Canadian Adam Hadwin won here last term and a repeat is certainly not out of the question,
Hadwin stormed through the field with a great weekend in Mexico, finishing ninth to add to his sixth in his previous outing at the Genesis Open.
Hadwin is hitting form again and has a real chance at 33/1 with Bet365.
Finally, I'll take 2012 US Open winner Webb Simpson at 45/1.
He was second here way back in 2011, and has been showing signs of hitting his best form recently, tying for fifth at the Honda Classic in Florida two weeks ago.
The price is definitely too big for a player of his calibre, although that is down to the fact the Valspar has appeared on the radar of more big guns.
Justin Rose, e/w, 20/1 (Paddy Power)
Adam Hadwin, e/w, 33/1 (Bet365)
Webb Simpson, e/w, 45/1 (General)