The Ryanair Chase (2.40) is similar to the Champion Hurdle in the sense there is no outstanding candidate, but plenty of strength in depth.
One of the major trends of this race is that all five previous winners had either won or been placed in the Paddy Power Gold Cup or the Boylesports Gold Cup (both run here over this trip), which makes the current favourite Poquelin a strong qualifier, having finished second to Tranquil Sea (received 2lb) in the former, when unsuited by the soft ground, and won the latter in good style this term. Officially, he's improved 22lb since the start of the season and his jumping, which used to be suspect, is looking much more confident. He's been put away since December as he's best fresh and his trainer Paul Nicholls is sounding bullish about his chances, which will improve the more the ground dries out. A worthy market leader at 7/2 (bet365).
The Edward O'Grady-trained Tranquil Sea (4/1 general) is also very strong on the trends having won the Paddy Power in good style, landing a hefty gamble in the process. He was no match for Golden Silver on his next start over 2m1f in December, but the slow pace was against him that day, and he looked to be still improving when winning his recent warm-up in Ireland. The general consensus us that he needs the mud to be flying to be at his best but he ran respectably in last year's Jewson on good ground and, besides, some rain is forecast for Thursday.
The Queen's representative Barbers Shop (6/1 Paddy Power) clearly did not stay in the Gold Cup last term and didn't seem to get home either in this season's Hennessy and King George. He will be suited by dropping back to 2m5f and does not have Denman or Kauto Star to contend with here, so there is a good chance for a royal winner.
Schindlers Hunt (12/1 Sportingbet), a fine third to Imperial Commander in this race last year, also found a longer trip just beyond him when behind Joncol in the Irish Hennessy, and must come into the reckoning if the ground stays decent. He's a real spring horse.
Planet Of Sound (14/1 Coral) is talented on his day but lacks winning / big handicap form at Cheltenham and is prone to mistakes - he fell early on in the Ascot Chase last time. Petit Robin (14/1 (Sportingbet) was comprehensively beaten by Twist Magic on his last start over 2m at Ascot in January, giving the impression this longer trip and a return to racing left-handed will suit.
Last year's Ryanair runner-up Voy Por Ustedes (16/1 Victor Chandler) has looked out of sorts on his last two starts, but his trainer Alan King hasn't lost faith and he does to seem to come alive at Cheltenham.
All five winners had won or been placed in the Paddy Power Gold Cup or Bolesports Gold Cup, and every one was in the first three in the market.
Punters seem to have latched on to the handicappers Poquelin and Tranquil Sea in the belief that they are better than the graded performers and they may well be right. The vibes coming from the Nicholls and O'Grady camps are positive and it would be no surprise to see them fight out the finish, with slight preference for the former. However, neither can be considered value now and I'm inclined to take them on with last year's Champion Chase third PETIT ROBIN who, according to his trainer Nicky Henderson, is a "very interesting runner" over this trip. It might be a shade too far for him but at 14/1 with Sportingbet, I reckon it's worth paying to find out.