Cross-country showdown helps International meeting live up to its name
Mark Scully before the start of a two-day Cheltenham fixture with a stellar cast
It's the International meeting by name and Friday's Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase has more than lived up to the billing, with the home team firmly in the minority.
All being well, nine runners will make their way out on to the centre of the course for a spin around the unusual obstacles and, remarkably, only two are trained in Britain, with six Irish raiders and a French challenger joining them.
It comes as no surprise that Enda Bolger is leading the charge from across the Irish Sea, with three runners, including the two most recent winners of this race.
Cantlow did the business 12 months ago, Josies Orders landed the spoils in 2015. My Hometown, which could well be Bolger's nickname for Cheltenham's cross-country course, completes his team and it would take a brave punter to go against the trainer.
Gordon Elliott's two runners, however, merit more than a cursory glance. Old boy Bless The Wings could probably make his way around with a blindfold on and found only Cause Of Causes too good in the festival's version of this in March.
Tiger Roll, meanwhile, is no stranger to Cheltenham himself, being a winner of both the Triumph Hurdle and four-miler at the festival. With two such distinct contests on his CV, who could put this past him?
The Irish and French lined up for a shot at the previous race over these fences last month but Britain's Kingswell Theatre and the Scudamore brothers repelled them.
They are back for another go, along with Jonjo O'Neill's classy More Of That, the only horse to beat Annie Power when she completed, landing the Stayers' Hurdle before finishing sixth in a Gold Cup.
A classier recruit to these ranks there may never have been.
But this meeting is about far more than a cross-country chase, and it is not just Saturday's card stacked full of potentially valuable pointers.
The opening day of the meeting has had its fair share of talented individuals. The likes of Pingshou and Darlan have won the opener in recent years, while Al Ferof certainly should have but for falling in 2010.
Time For Rupert, Sam Winner and Blaklion have all won the novice chase, while names like Mon Mome and The Package feature on the honour roll of the £45,000 Grade 3 Unicoin Group Handicap Chase.
Only six have been declared for that contest this time, but informative it will almost certainly be with a view to some of the big staying handicaps to come such as the Welsh Grand National.
With so much intrigue on the card, it is great the fixture is being broadcast live on ITV4, a boon not only for punters at home but bookmakers and the sport's finances in general.
It is laudable, too, that ITV Racing plans to cover The Horse Comes First's annual national raceday. The Horse Comes First, British racing's vehicle for promoting the sport's high standards of equine welfare, will be aiming to raise awareness among racegoers of the first-class care given to racehorses during and after their racing careers, efforts set to feature in the day's live broadcast.
Whatever happens during Friday afternoon's seven races, all concerned ought to raise a glass of something hopefully warming to Cheltenham's hard-working groundstaff.
Clerk of the course Simon Claisse took a little bit of stick, rightly or wrongly, over the state of the ground last month but he and his staff deserve tremendous credit following what can only have been a challenging week.
The brutally cold weather of recent days left the course under a covering of snow earlier in the week. As picturesque as the Racing Post's award-winning photographer Edward Whitaker made it look, Claisse and co would have settled for a less striking vision.
Ben Hastie, head of groundstaff, tweeted contrasting pictures of the course under snow and afterwards with the caption 'What a difference 24 hours make'.
What a difference these two days could make as we make our way ever closer to that big meeting back here in March.
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