The Irish dominated this traditional Festival opener at the start of the century but the home team have fought back in recent years, though Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh won it 12 months ago with Champagne Fever who goes in the next. The pair team up this year with Vautour and he's unbeaten since arriving at Muine Beag, though was made to fight all the way by Western Boy at Punchestown in January. Mullins also runs the prolific Wicklow Brave and Valseur Lido while Enda Bolger's Gilgamboa won a valuable handicap at Leopardstown in January. But the home defence looks strong this year and Irving is likely to make a bold bid to extend his unbeaten record, though will probably have to jump a little better than he did at Kempton last time. It's 22 years since Nicky Henderson last had a winner in this but My Tent Or Yours went very close last season and the Lambourn trainer has a strong hand again. Josses Hill will relish the likely fast pace but Barry Geraghty rides VANITEUX, for which little went right at Kempton in December when he finished behind Sgt Reckless. He'd impressed at Sandown earlier and again at Doncaster last time and the drying ground won't be a problem so he gets the vote. Splash of Ginge won the betfair at Newbury last month but had earlier proved no match for Irving at Ascot when receiving weight.
Fantasy King 4-1fav (11-6) Held up in rear, some headway on outer in 11th entering straight, smooth progress to go 3rd at last, every chance run-in, no extra under pressure closing stages, 2nd of 15, nk behind Top Spin (10-12) at Fairyhouse 2m hcp hdl 80-116 gf in Oct.
Garde La Victoire (FR) 7-1 (11-7) Tracked leading pair, mistake 2nd, went 2nd 4th, raced on inside in back straight, lost 2nd 3 out, chased leading pair, one pace and no impression when lost 3rd 2 out, faded, 4th of 6, 16l behind Royal Boy (11-7) at Kempton 2m nov hdl Grade 1 (1) sft in Jan.
Germany Calling (IRE) 28-1 (11-2) Raced keenly tracking leader, hit 4 out, lost 2nd before 3 out, weakened 2 out, 5th of 7, 14l behind Irving (11-9) at Kempton 2m nov hdl G2 (1) sft in Feb.
Gilgamboa (IRE) 10-1 (10-9) Chased leaders, 5th halfway, progress into 3rd before 2 out, travelled well to dispute before last, ridden approaching last, led run-in, kept on well, won at Leopardstown 2m Handicap Hurdle (0-150) (Grade B) (4yo+) sft in Jan beating Flaxen Flare (11-0) by 1 1/4l, 24 ran.
Irving 4-6fav (11-9) Tracked leading pair, went 2nd before 3 out, led on bit between last 2, clear when reached for last, kept on strongly flat, impressive, won at Kempton 2m nov hdl G2 (1) sft in Feb beating Amore Alato (11-9) by 5l, 7 ran.
Josses Hill (IRE) 5-1 (11-7) Took keen hold early and soon tracking leaders, raced wide on back straight, went 2nd before 2 out, challenged 2 out, slight lead last, hard driven run in, headed and no extra final 50 yards, 2nd of 6, 1/2l behind Royal Boy (11-7) at Kempton 2m nov hdl Grade 1 (1) sft in Jan.
Sgt Reckless 15-8fav (11-4) Held up in mid-division, headway over 3f out, ridden 2f out, led just over 1f out, ran on, won at Kempton 2m n h flat (3) std in Jan beating Ranjaan (11-4) by 1 1/2l, 13 ran.
Sky Khan 8-1 (11-8) Held up towards rear, headway before 3 out, weakened last, 5th of 9, 14l behind Clever Cookie (10-12) at Musselburgh 2m hcp hdl 0-130 (3) gs in Jan.
Splash of Ginge 33-1 (10-3) Led until approaching 4th, pressed leader, led again soon after 3 out, driven before last, stayed on strongly flat, won at Newbury 2m hcp hdl Grade 3 (1) hvy in Feb beating Dell' Arca (10-12) by 1 3/4l, 20 ran.
The Liquidator 11-8fav (11-7) Led, not fluent 3rd, raced on inside in back straight, ridden before 3 out, headed before 2 out, soon beaten, 5th of 6, 21l behind Royal Boy (11-7) at Kempton 2m nov hdl Grade 1 (1) sft in Jan.
Three Kingdoms (IRE) 7-2 (11-8) Chased leaders, left in 2nd place 4 out, led before 2 out, joined last, headed flat, rallied gamely to lead again final stride, won at Kempton 2m hcp hdl 0-135 (3) sft in Dec beating Vibrato Valtat (11-1) by shd, 10 ran.
Un Ace (FR) 7-1 (11-2) Held up towards rear, headway before 3 out, pecked 3 out, ridden before last, led run-in, kept on well towards finish, won at Doncaster 2m NH nov hdl (4-7yo) (4) gs in Feb beating Stellar Notion (11-8) by 8l, 11 ran.
Valseur Lido (FR) Evens2fav (11-7) Always prominent, jumped slightly right, disputed from 3rd, led after next, stayed on strongly from last, not extended, won at Navan 2m nh nov hdl sft in Dec beating King William (11-10) by 4 1/2l, 6 ran.
Vaniteux (FR) 8-11fav (11-12) Held up behind, headway before 3 out to challenge, led before last, drew clear run-in, easily, won at Doncaster 2m 3f NH nov hdl (4-7yo) (4) gs in Feb beating Portway Flyer (11-7) by 12l, 10 ran.
Vautour (FR) 7-4 (11-9) Made all, asserted in straight, pushed out and kept on well run-in, won at Leopardstown 2m 2f nov hdl G2 (1) in Feb beating The Tullow Tank (11-10) by 3l, 6 ran.
Western Boy (IRE) 7-1 (11-0) Held up towards rear, progress into 4th at 5th, ridden into 2nd before last, challenged last, strongly pressed winner run-in and disputed briefly, no extra close home, 2nd of 6, 3/4l behind Vautour (11-0) at Punchestown 2m nov hdl Grade 2 (1) in Jan.
Wicklow Brave 6-4 (11-8) Held up, mainly 4th, closer in 3rd entering straight, led before last where mistake, ridden and kept on well run-in, won at Punchestown 2m lst nov hdl (4yo+) (1) hvy in Feb beating Lieutenant Colonel (11-8) by 4 1/2l, 5 ran.
Wilde Blue Yonder (IRE) 5-2 (11-10) Held up, headway 6th, led 2 out, 4 lengths clear when fell last, unlucky, in a race won by Mountain King (11-7) at Ascot 2m nov hdl (2) sft in Feb, 5 ran.