Monday 27 February 2017

Big chill has consolations for National Hunt fans

RONAN GROOME

After a week in the wilderness, Irish jumps racing will -- hopefully -- return with a bang with four Grade Ones in two days, starting with Fairyhouse's rescheduled winter festival meeting on Wednesday, followed by a Punchestown card featuring the Grade One John Durkan Chase on Thursday.

Free admission to Fairyhouse on Wednesday is a more than generous touch as the card features three Grade Ones sponsored by Bar One Racing, and also sees the reappearances of Willie Mullins duo, Hurricane Fly and Mikael D'Haguenet.

The feature on the day is the Hatton's Grace Hurdle and unlike last season's renewal, this year's race should provide us with an informative guide to how the top Irish hurdlers may fare this season. The ever-exciting Hurricane Fly, which was last seen winning the Rabobank Champion Hurdle at Punchestown, makes his seasonal debut and connections will be hoping for an injury-free campaign.

However, the trip of two and a half miles may be a worry for the Willie Mullins-trained son of Montjeu. He was successful over that distance in France, but he is a horse which has a lightning turn of foot off a fast pace, and it may not suit him at Fairyhouse. A class act, he has the potential to be one of the best, but he may be best watched here.

Solwhit renews rivalry with Hurricane Fly, with the score currently at one each from their two previous meetings, but bookmakers make Charles Byrnes' horse favourite to edge ahead in that regard and he should be well-supported. Anything around 5/4 is a short price, but he will love the ground and, with fitness on his side, will take all the beating.

The Royal Bond Novice Hurdle revolves around Zaidpour, which looks like another potentially top-class French import for the Willie Mullins team. This half-brother to Triumph Hurdle winner Zaynar began his Irish career with an effortless win at Punchestown last month.

Noel Meade has won the Royal Bond three times in the last six years, and he is represented by both Perfect Smile and Prima Vista this year, but perhaps a bigger threat to the favourite may come in the form of Paul Nolan's Carloswayback, which was a facile winner of his maiden hurdle at Limerick.

Like Hurricane Fly, all eyes will be on Mikael D'Haguenet, should he take his chance in the two-and-a-half-mile Drinmore Novice Chase. The triple-Grade One winner over hurdles looks set to go off at a short price on his chase debut and his first run in 18 months. He was always thought of as a possible Gold Cup horse, and it will be really interesting to see how he takes to fences.

He faces tough opposition, headed by Gordon Elliot's Jessies Dream, which was an impressive winner on his first start over fences, and Noel Meade's Realt Dubh.

The entries for the John Durkan Chase will be finalised tomorrow, but should the horses that would have raced today hold their ground for Thursday, it should be a cracking renewal. The Nightingale, trained by Paul Nicholls, was made favourite by most firms.

The home challenge is strong with last season's Paddy Power Gold Cup winner Tranquil Sea lining up for Edward O'Grady. The eight-year-old gelding looked good on his seasonal reappearance at Clonmel and he could make a top chaser. That is the case with a lot of this field, the Willie Mullins' pair Cooldine and Glencove Marina are both potentially top-class as well.

Pandorama will be bidding to make amends after he never got going in the Hennessy, while Captain Cee Bee would be another fascinating runner in this wide-open event.

Sunday Independent

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