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Cheltenham: Irish Raiders are set to strike in the Arkle

| 11.03.2014

Any assessment of this race has to begin with Willie Mullins’ Champagne Fever who is bidding to maintain his unbeaten record at the Festival and notch a third consecutive win at the sport’s biggest meeting.

The Susanna and Rich Ricci-owned star was soundly beaten on his final start on Boxing Day despite jumping well with connections hoping a return to his most fertile hunting ground will help pick up the winning thread.

Supporters should not be too concerned as the seven-year-old didn’t show his best form before nailing the Supreme Novices’ last year and the sounds coming out of Closutton have been nothing but positive since the target was finally confirmed.

However, there is no shortage of creditable opposition to overcome, none moreso than a fellow Irish raider in the shape of impressive Leopardstown winner Trifolium.

Charles Byrnes’ charge was only one-and-a-half lengths away when third in the Triumph Hurdle two years ago and despite missing almost all of last season due to injury the Gigginstown Stud representative has only been improving this term.

Runner-up finishes to Champagne Fever’s Christmas conquerors Felix Younger and Defy Logic followed a facile win on reappearance before the seven-year-old became a permanent fixture in the Arkle conversation with a spectacular reversal of form with the aforementioned runners when slamming a useful field at the end of January.

Coupled with his Festival form from 2012 everything reads very well for Michael O’Leary’s hope and with Bryan Cooper passed fit in the saddle it’s no surprise to see the money come for the son of Goldneyev.

Spearheading the domestic tilt is the Champion Hurdle winner of two years ago, Rock On Ruby. The nine-year-old showed it was no fluke when runner-up to Hurricane Fly last year, however, he was switched to chasing after being soundly beaten by main protagonist for this year’s timber speedfest The New One on his reappearance at Kempton.

Handled by one of the training stars of the future, 27-year-old Harry Fry it has been difficult to judge how much ability remains over the bigger obstacles having only had to beat two and then only one runner in his only assignments since the career change.

Fry is in no doubt whatsoever though that he will be arriving in the Cotswolds with a leading chance and already the trainer has shown this year that he knows exactly what it takes, with a phenomenal 50 per cent strike rate achieved in chases this campaign.

Of the remainder, Paul Nicholls’ Dodging Bullets demands attention after racking up an impressive hat-trick of wins this term and although there is a danger of overreacting to his defeat to Module last time the reality remains that there should be at least one that will be too strong on the day with marked improvement still required.

Grandouet and Valdez from the Nicky Henderson and Alan King stables respectively would also need things to go their way and although the latter has shown a great aptitude for success hunting a four-timer here the standard of competition is significantly stronger.

It’s one of the most eagerly anticipated contests of the week and understandably so with rich veins of storylines all leading to different conclusions depending on one’s interpretation.

However, the more the journeys are walked in the mind the more difficult it is to look past the Irish pair.

It’s no secret that Festival form counts for a lot these four days but if anything is to break Champagne Fever’s love affair with the place it will probably be the ultra-talented Trifolium who finally gets the chance again to show the racing world is true ability on the big stage.

All Odds and Markets are correct as of the date of publishing.

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Sam Foster