Vintage Clouds will again fly the flag for northern jump racing at the Cheltenham Festival, hoping to repeat his success in the Ultima Handicap Chase for Sue and Harvey Smith.
This will be the sixth time the gallant grey has contested the three-mile-one-furlong contest, where 24 runners are scheduled to line up.
Having been placed in 2018 and 2019, he was written off last year following his eighth in 2020.
Yet Ryan Mania’s mount caused a 28-1 surprise, giving the north its first Cheltenham winner since Hawk High took the Fred Winter in the same Trevor Hemmings colours in 2014 for Tim Easterby.
The first-time cheekpieces helped sharpen Vintage Clouds as he went on to record a five-and-a-half-length success in the Grade Three contest, giving the yard its first success at the meeting since Mister McGoldrick won the 2008 Plate.
Sean Quinlan will ride the 12-year-old in Tuesday’s renewal, having partnered him to a three-quarter-length defeat in a veterans’ handicap chase at Doncaster last month.
Given he won off a rating of 143 last season and is set to defend his crown off 144, bookmakers are not as generous this time, with Coral offering odds of 16-1.
Showjumping legend Harvey Smith hopes he can reproduce his recent fine effort and carve his name into Cheltenham history as a dual winner of the race alongside Sentina (1957, 1958), Scot Lane (1982, 1983) and Un Temps Pour Tout (2016 and 2017).
Harvey said: “He goes to the Ultima and it was nice to see him bounce back last time.
“He went to Doncaster and was just short-headed.
“He is in really good form and he still has the will to do it, that’s the main thing.
“He has 10st 6lb, a bit less than last year when he carried 10st 11lb, so we have fingers, toes, everything crossed and are looking forward to it.
“He has been so consistent and is a good jumper. He loves it round there.”
The Kim Bailey-trained Does He Know, who seeks a fourth win in five over fences, having landed the Grade Two Reynoldstown Novices’ Chase at Ascot by 14 lengths last time, tops the market.
Bailey said: “He ran well at Ascot and he is in great form. We couldn’t be happier with him.
“No one is really going to know how much the race at Ascot took out of him, but he seems in a good place at home. It is a tough race, but we can expect nothing less.”
Corach Rambler was favourite for the Reynoldstown, but unseated Derek Fox when going well five fences from home.
His last success came at Cheltenham in December and his trainer, Lucinda Russell, is confident Ascot has not left its mark.
She said: “It’s a warm race and he’s just an improving novice. He looked like he was going to run a big race at Ascot last time and he’s got winning form at the track.
“He’s been a fantastic horse and we didn’t waste any time over hurdles with him. He won his two races and off we went over fences and he’s improved since then.
“He’s a novice but he’s eight and he’s got plenty of experience from pointing, so we’re just hoping that he hasn’t reached the top of his handicap mark.
“He’s an amazing horse. He’s a little bit reserved at home but at the track he’s just so savvy.
“I was a bit nervous after Ascot that we may be pushing it quite close, but he didn’t have a hard race and he’s been great.”
The Close Brothers Mares’ Hurdle has a attracted a field of 12, with last year’s mares’ novices’ hurdle winner Telmesomethinggirl the ante-post favourite for Henry de Bromhead.
“She seems in really good form and we’re happy with her. She worked really well the other day and all is good,” said the trainer.
“I haven’t really spoken to Kenny (Alexander, owner) recently but I’m sure he’s getting excited for it all, it’s a big day for all of us and we’re really looking forward to it.”
The opposition includes Stormy Ireland, who won the Grade One Irish Mares’ Champion Hurdle last season and showed her ability to handle Cheltenham when landing the Relkeel Hurdle on New Year’s Day.
Stormy Ireland’s trainer Willie Mullins, who also saddles Burning Victory and Echoes In Rain, said: “Stormy Ireland is in good form and likes the track. She’s in great order and we think she goes there with a big chance. She should run a big race.”
The strength of the Irish challenge is also evident in the Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle.
The raiding party is headed by the highly-touted Gaelic Warrior, who makes his debut for Mullins, having arrived from France in January. He has not run since June.
Gordon Elliott saddles five in the extended two-mile event. They include The Tide Turns, who ran well behind Teahupoo in the Red Mills Hurdle at Gowran Park last month, and Britzka who scored with ease on his hurdles debut at Fairyhouse.
The Ukraine Appeal National Hunt Challenge Cup Amateur Jockeys’ Novices’ concludes a cracking first day at the Festival.
Rebecca Curtis flies the flag for Britain, running both dual Chepstow winner Pats Fancy and rank outsider Beatthebullet, while Mullins’ hat-trick-seeing Stattler and the Elliott-trained Run Wild Fred vie for favouritism in the three-and-three-quarter mile contest.