Our Duke can provide Jessica Harrington and Robbie Power with their second successive victory in the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup.
The Irish trainer struck gold with her very first runner in the blue riband when Sizing John claimed top honours last season and while he is unfortunately not back to defend his crown, Our Duke is a more-than-capable understudy.
The eight-year-old would have been fully entitled to run at last year’s Festival after winning a Grade One novice chase at Leopardstown, but connections elected to take a cautious approach and he instead remained on home soil.
The decision paid off handsomely as Our Duke ran out a brilliant winner of the Irish Grand National, looking every inch a Gold Cup contender as he jumped and galloped his rivals silly under a big weight.
This season has not been so straightforward, with a back problem discovered after a listless comeback at Down Royal, but that was rectified swiftly.
And after a promising enough effort in the Irish Gold Cup, he gave weight and a beating to star novice Presenting Percy in the Red Mills Chase at Gowran Park.
Because of his interrupted campaign he heads into the spring relatively fresh and providing he takes to the track, he should be coming home strongly when some of his rivals may have cried enough.
Apple’s Shakira will not be much of a price in the opening JCB Triumph Hurdle but it is hard to side against her.
Nicky Henderson’s runner is unbeaten in three starts since transferring to Britain, with each of those victories achieved in testing conditions at Cheltenham.
She beat the reopposing Gumball by 17 lengths on her British bow before finding it slightly harder work when finishing three lengths ahead of Nuba Negra in December.
Apple’s Shakira also found it tough to get by Look My Way in the trial event for this back in January, but once in front she pulled away well and with the ground in her favour added to her fillies’ allowance, it is hard to envisage defeat.
The Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle is always an attritional affair and that should bring out the best in the battle-hardened Poetic Rhythm.
The seven-year-old contested some major novice hurdles last season, including the Neptune at last year’s Festival, but as he failed to the hit the bullseye, his novice status crucially remained intact for the duration of the current campaign.
He is a bumper winner at the track and has also been placed here on three occasions, most recently finishing third behind the high-class On The Blind Side in November.
Fergal O’Brien has sensibly given his charge time to recover from his battling top-level victory in the Challow Hurdle at Newbury the following month and with the step up to three miles expect to suit, he should give a very good account for his popular locally-based trainer.
Flying Tiger struck gold at last year’s Festival and he can be in the money again in the Randox Health County Hurdle.
Winner of the 2017 Fred Winter, Flying Tiger has been out of luck in five starts so far this season but ran an excellent race to finish fourth in the Kingwell last time and a repeat effort off an unchanged rating might be good enough here.
Burning Ambition is the young, improving horse in the St James’s Place Foxhunter Chase and looks sure to go close in the hands of Jamie Codd.
Deal D’Estruval can provide Willie Mullins with a fourth success in the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Hurdle, while last year’s winner Rock The World should put up a staunch defence of his crown in the final race of the Festival, the Johnny Henderson Grand Annual.
TURF TALK TIPS
CHELTENHAM: 1.30 Apple’s Shakira (treble), 2.10 Flying Tiger, 2.50 Poetic Rhythm, 3.30 Our Duke (NAP), 4.10 Burning Ambition (next best), 4.50 Deal D’Estruval, 5.30 Rock The World.
FAKENHAM: 2.00 Saucysioux, 2.40 Remind Me Later, 3.20 Granard, 3.55 Eskendash, 4.35 Minella On Line, 5.10 Champion Chase.
LINGFIELD: 1.00 Sonnet Rose, 1.40 Al Khan, 2.20 Night Story, 3.00 Regicide, 3.40 Crown Walk, 4.20 Regina Nostra, 5.00 Dolly Mixture.
MUSSELBURGH: 11.30 Drums Of War, 12.05 Silver Concorde, 12.40 Middlebrow, 1.10 Nefyn Bay, 1.50 Uptown Funk, 2.30 Misfits, 3.10 Leostar.
WOLVERHAMPTON: 5.45 Cat Royale, 6.15 Dream For Life, 6.45 Highly Focussed, 7.15 Ad Vitam, 7.45 Rock On Baileys, 8.15 Met By Moonlight, 8.45 La Sioux.