Fly tops Punchestown menu
On the day that Hurricane Fly was installed 1/16 favourite to be crowned Horse of the Year at Horse Racing Ireland's annual awards next month, the reigning champion hurdler was as low as 2/5 with sponsors Ladbrokes ahead of his seasonal return in Sunday's Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown.
The declarations for the Grade One -- a race in which Willie Mullins' star suffered his most recent defeat when third to Solwhit in 2009 -- saw six of the original nine entries stand their ground.
Among Hurricane Fly's potential opposition are his stable-mates So Young and Thousand Stars, the brilliantly consistent grey that secured its own piece of glory by landing the French Champion Hurdle in June.
Charles Byrnes' fast-improving Pittoni, impressive at Naas in October, is clear second favourite for this two-miler at 9/2, with Oscars Wells at 7/1. A dual Grade One-winning novice last term, the Jessica Harrington-trained six-year-old finished third behind race-fit rivals The Real Article and Kalann at Down Royal first time up.
Still, for all that Hurricane Fly's bid to stretch his unbeaten run to seven should be straightforward, the size of the task facing him is seemingly mammoth compared to his prospects of receiving the HRI gong. Paddy Power go 14/1 bar, with Fame And Glory, Quevega, Sizing Europe, So You Think and Big Zeb all apparent no-hopers.
The two remaining graded races at Punchestown on Sunday are novice chases. First Lieutenant, another Cheltenham Festival winner in March, is one of four Gigginstown Stud-owned horses which make up half the entries for the race named after Florida Pearl.
His handler Mouse Morris, who is also responsible for the same owner's facile Down Royal scorer Four Commanders, has said that a decision is yet to be made about the classy six-year-old's participation in the Grade Two.
"I've given him an entry on Sunday," he stated of the horse that atoned for a surprise defeat at Cork on returning to the Mallow venue for his third chasing start earlier month.
"I'll have to speak to Michael (O'Leary, owner) and we'll see what we want to do. We also have the Drinmore (at Fairyhouse) to consider. I'd like to get five runs into him before taking on the big guns. Four Commanders will probably run."
Noel Meade's Donnas Palm, an easy winner on its fencing bow at Wexford, is also engaged in the two-mile-six-furlong event, while his Naas victor Monastrell is one of eight in the two-mile equivalent, a race that went the way of Meade's subsequent three-time Grade One winner Realt Dubh in 2010.
Henry de Bromhead, who sent out Sizing Europe to land the Grade Two 12 months earlier, could be represented by Days Hotel, a smooth winner over course and distance last time. Lucky William, successful in a Grade Three for the father and son partnership of Tom and Bryan Cooper at the track previously, is another possible.
"He runs on Sunday in the Craddockstown," his Tralee-based trainer confirmed. "I thought he'd make a really nice novice last season but he lost his confidence a bit after a couple of falls. He's really got it together this year."
Cooper also stated that his 2009 Irish Independent Arkle Trophy hero Forpadydeplasterer, third to Big Zeb at Navan on Sunday, would now stick to two miles, with Leopardstown's Dial-A-Bet Chase his next target over Christmas.
Across the Irish Sea, Paul Nicholls has revealed that Ruby Walsh will take the reins on Kauto Star in the Betfair Chase on Saturday, a race that Robbie Hennessy's Rubi Light will miss in favour of next month's John Durkan Chase at Punchestown.
With Walsh lined up for the former dual Gold Cup scorer, the prized Amlin Chase mount on former dual Champion Chase victor Master Minded was up for grabs. And rather than call on Noel Fehily, who steered Master Minded to a bloodless rout in the Ascot race a year ago, Nicholls has opted to stay loyal to his current number two Daryl Jacob.
The decision represents a considerable vote of confidence in the Wexford native, who has made the most of his opportunities for Nicholls lately. "Clearly, it makes sense for Ruby to partner Kauto Star," explained the trainer.
"But while Noel (Fehily) was in the frame for Master Minded, having won the Ascot race on him last year and next time at Cheltenham, Daryl is now our second jockey and he gets the ride."
In Flat news, Henry Cecil yesterday paid tribute to Midday after he confirmed the brilliant mare has run her last race. The daughter of Oasis Dream ran 23 times, winning nine races, of which six were Group Ones, including at the Breeders' Cup in 2009. She won £2,239,007 in win and place prize-money, and played a huge part in catapulting Cecil back towards the top of the sport.
The trainer also revealed that Frankel -- last night named named Cartier Horse Of The Year -- is likely to tackle 10 furlongs for the first time in the Coral Eclipse Stakes at Sandown next July.
Frankel saw off competition from Champion Stakes winner Cirrus Des Aigles, Aidan O'Brien's Aussie star So You Think, Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe heroine Danedream and Goldikova to claim European racing's top award.
However, O'Brien scooped two awards, with the unbeaten Maybe named top Two-Year-Old Filly and her stablemate, Fame And Glory, taking the Stayer category. Cirrus Des Aigles landed the Older Horse prize, while Dream Ahead was named top Sprinter.
The German-trained Danedream, winner of the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe in record time, came out on top in the Three-Year-Old Filly category. Dabirsim, unbeaten in five starts for trainer Christophe Ferland, won the Two-Year-Old Colt award.