ANNIE POWER, unbeaten in seven races, can claim her most prestigious success at Cheltenham today by taking the scalp of the mighty Big Buck's in the £275,000 Ladbrokes World Hurdle.
Trained by Willie Mullins, whose stable is packed with star performers, Annie Power completed a hat-trick of wins in bumpers and since then has rattled-up a further four successes over hurdles, including at Doncaster on her latest start in January.
Mullins also had her entered in the Champion Hurdle and the OLGB Mares' Hurdle at this meeting, but with Hurricane Fly and Quevega representing him in those races, it was always on the cards that Annie Power would go for this Group 1 contest.
There is one notable obstacle in her path and that's Big Buck's, winner of this contest four times and the outstanding staying hurdler of recent years. The jury, though, is now out on whether Big Buck's is the horse he once was.
Off the track since April 2012, the Paul Nicholls-trained gelding reappeared in the Cleeve Hurdle on this course at the end of January and finished third to Knockara Beau and At Fishers Cross. Although there were some positives to be taken from that display, Big Buck's probably ran 20lb below his peak on the day.
Whether he can now return to something like his best and win another World Hurdle is something many would love to see, but Annie Power, in receipt of 7lb, is fancied to have the edge over Big Buck's and extend her winning run to eight.
In the Ryanair Chase, Benefficient is taken to gain another Irish victory. Trained by Tony Martin, the eight-year-old was triumphant at this meeting last year in the Jewson Novices' Chase.
He has been lightly-raced this season, but he won in Grade 1 company at Leopardstown over Christmas and comes into this top-notch event fresh and well.
Richard Johnson has made no secret of the fact that he thinks Fingal Bay is his best chance of a winner at Cheltenham all week.
The Philip Hobbs-trained gelding goes for the Pertemps Network Final Handicap Hurdle and is capable of defying top weight.
Fingal Bay was a Grade 1 winner in his younger days and before being sidelined with injury. He returned from a lengthy absence to win at Exeter last month and has the class to oblige again.
In the JLT Novices' Chase, which opens the card, Vukovar should not be overlooked.
Harry Fry's French recruit has won both his races since crossing the Channel and was hugely impressive when scoring by 21 lengths at Newbury in late December. There is more to come from him and he is awarded the nap vote,
Colour Squadron, another Hobbs runners, may prove the answer to the Byrne Group Plate under Tony McCoy, while Cause Of Causes, beaten a whisker in his last two races at Leopardstown and Fairyhouse, has leading claims in the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Challenge Cup for Gordon Elliott and with top amateur Nina Carberry in the saddle.
1.30 Vukovar (NAP), 2.05 Fingal Bay, 2.40 Benefficient, 3.20 Annie Power, 4.00 Colour Squadron, 4.40 Cause Of Causes.
1.45 Sparkling Hand, 2.20 Lady Of Verona, 2.55 Safe Home, 3.35 Outlaw Tom, 4.15 Millers Reef, 4.55 Esme Rides A Gaine, 5.25 Greensalt.
Today’s other meetings: Towcester and Wolverhampton.
Tomorrow’s meetings: Cheltenham, Fakenham, Lingfield and Wolverhampton.