The days don’t come often, but when they do, punting’s an easy game. If you were to have looked skyward, you’d see that every star in the sky had aligned. The first day of Cheltenham Festival 2016, Champion Day, had been well and truly solved. Min would get us off to a flier, with Douvan, Faugheen and Annie Power all hacking-up in grand style. The Racing Post would be unabashed in their praise for the triple threat of Mullins, Ricci and Walsh, with punters tapping the mother lode of Cheltenham payouts. With that sentiment in mind, the afternoon of Wednesday, 17th February changed the entire complexion of the Festival. What was supposed to be a facile tune-up for ‘The Mare’, instead became the day of the highest profile Cheltenham defection since Big Bucks. In the aftermath of ruined ante-post portfolios, jubilant bookmakers and boastful layers, the only thing that’s for sure is how badly Faugheen will be missed. A suspensory ligament problem has robbed us of his presence, potentially damaged in his career-best performance in the Irish Champion Hurdle – a race that owner, not trainer, was keen to secure. Where does that leave us? As the front page of the Racing Post exclaimed the next day, it’s Faugheen out – Annie Power in. Our new Champion Hurdle favourite is likely to be supplemented for a £20,000 fee, and despite some serious form questions, is certain to be heavily backed. It was recently suggested to me that Oscar Whisky was the worst campaigned horse in recent memory, a point I countered with Rich Ricci’s mare. Lightly raced over the past two seasons, partly due to a combination of minor setbacks, what’s certain is that Annie Power hasn’t been trained for the rigours of a Champion Hurdle this season. After finding More Of That much too good in the World Hurdle, the horse has handed out facile beatings to inferior mares. Last year’s fall in the Mares’ Hurdle will have worried some about her jumping, all of which suggests that the 2/1 available today is awfully short. The 7lb mares allowance is huge and could make the difference, but it’s my view that we’ll find the winner elsewhere. Willie Mullins holds a number of entries, with both Arctic Fire and Nichols Canyon prominent in the betting. Arguably the most progressive horse in the division last year, Arctic Fire went from staring at Irving’s backside to finishing runner-up to the imperious Faugheen. Many judges noted how strongly the horse finished his race with a view to being the main threat to the champion’s crown this time around. However a crushing fall at Aintree and an abysmal performance at Christmas, over three miles in bottomless ground, raises serious questions about the horses’ condition. My main concern is Mullins had a tilt at the World Hurdle in mind, leaving his re-emergence in the two-mile division as an afterthought. Compound that with a completely different tactical scenario minus Faugheen and the case for Arctic Fire becomes harder to make. Nichols Canyon is a far better horse than we seen in last year’s Neptune, with Ruby Walsh quick to accept the blame for the tactics he employed. This season started by lowering the colours of Faugheen, form that’s since been definitively reversed, either side of a workmanlike two length defeat of Identity Thief at Christmas. Best used at the head of affairs, the opportunity is there to pick up the pieces, however the horse completely emptied at Leopardstown, paying the price for taking on the champion. As a result, what state will he be in for the Festival? It’s due to this that the horse should be dismissed. The horse who I feel is best placed to take the spoils is Henry de Bromhead’s progressive IDENTITY THIEF. A good, if unspectacular, novice, the horse has improved with every outing this season. Defeating the disappointing Top Notch by a neck in the Fighting Fifth isn’t exactly Champion Hurdle form, but finishing a game two lengths behind Nichols Canyon puts him squarely in the mix. As the front three in the market have a combination of issues, two lengths isn’t a lot to find for a young, unexposed hurdler, giving him every chance to get his head in front. As for the rest of the market, it’s doubtful that the winner has yet to be mentioned. It will be great to see My Tent Or Yours back to his best, but with no prep run and a long lay-off, it’s hard to see that happening at Cheltenham. The 8/1 available is among the worst prices for the whole meeting, for a horse who couldn’t win the race, nor the Supreme, before his injuries. Nicky Henderson also has Peace And Co for the race, a horse whose Triumph victory was thought to put him amongst the contenders. The form of that race hasn’t held up with Top Notch, Hargam and Peace And Co all disappointing in open company. The Triumph winner has embarrassed both himself and his connections with his performances this season, and hasn’t done enough to warrant lining-up for the race. One horse who will have his backers is The New One. Still available at a bigger price than My Tent Or Yours, surely that says it all about the Twiston-Davies charge. The horse’s best chance came in Jezki’s Champion Hurdle, hampered by the late Our Conor, but badly outpaced later in the race. A year later he paid the price, alongside Jezki, when both attempted to take on Faugheen around the final bend, with both finishing outside the places. Faugheen’s defection potentially opens the door for an each-way squeak, but he should find a few too good for him on the day. Consigned to the status of lively outsiders, the likes of Sempre Medici, Old Guard and Camping Ground may take their chances on the day. Of the three, Ricci’s Sempre Medici has improved, albeit not at the rate of Identity Thief. A seven length beating of Bentelimar shouldn’t be good enough. Old Guard was exposed in his last outing, leaving him with a fair bit to find. Camping Ground is interesting, especially if the ground is soft. His Relkeel win was eye-catching and he may well have this target in mind. Of the three, Camping Ground is by far the most interesting each-way proposition. Henry de Bromhead will send some fine horses to the Festival this year, with Identity Thief backed to pick up the Champion Hurdle in Faugheen’s absence. Tips: Winner – Identity Thief @ 6/1 Each-way – Camping Ground @ 25/1