Hanlon's Luska Lad can give rivals a mountain to climb
Willie Mullins believes Blackstairmountain has a tough job on his hands when he makes his seasonal reappearance in today's featured WKD Core Hurdle at Down Royal. The five-year-old signed off the last campaign with a brilliant display in the Champion Novice Hurdle at the Punchestown Festival but, as a result, he concedes weight all round on his comeback.
With recent winners Luska Lad and Gimli's Rock in the line-up, the champion trainer admits a winning return will be hard to achieve.
"It's his first start back and it's a hot looking race, with Luska Lad and Jessica Harrington's horse (Gimli's Rock) both in there," said Mullins. "They both have runs under their belts and our horse has his Grade One penalty as well, so we're just giving him a run and we'll see where we're going with him.
"They're giving the ground as yielding, which is a bit surprising considering the rain we've had, but at least the race is early on the card, so we'll be getting the best of the ground."
Harrington also saddles the talented Summit Meeting -- last seen finishing fourth behind Peddlers Cross at the Cheltenham Festival -- but with ground conditions likely to prove testing, it is hard to look beyond Luska Lad.
John 'Shark' Hanlon's stable star was a top novice hurdler last season and arguably his best run came when he beat Blackstairmountain in a Grade Two at Fairyhouse on heavy ground. The six-year-old also has the benefit of a run under his belt, having easily beaten another of today's rivals, Der Spieler, in a conditions hurdle at Punchestown last month. All the indicators point to a second success for the season.
The EBF Lough Construction Ltd Mares Novice Hurdle is the other Graded contest on the card and it sees John Kiely's Araucaria put her unbeaten record over obstacles on the line. The six-year-old, which will have the assistance of Ruby Walsh, mixed it at a high level in bumpers last season and a hurdling debut success at Navan in September was followed by a runaway victory at Wexford a month later.
She is up in class and down in trip in this Grade Three and her trainer hopes conditions are testing enough for his mare to make her stamina come to the fore. Araucaria won't have it all her own way, however, with Patrick Neville's Macville and Sean Byrne's Oilily both bidding to complete hat-tricks.
The opening juvenile hurdle is a hard puzzle to solve and, with 20 runners expected to line up, luck in running will play a part in the destination of the prize. Gordon Elliott saddles two contenders, Toner D'Oudairies and Caracal, but slight preference is given to John O'Shea's Ember Jack.
The trainer-jockey alliance of Mullins and Walsh should strike with Glenlo Abbey in the staying maiden hurdle, while a chance is taken on the fitness of seasonal debutant Ad Idem in the novice chase, though the Harrington-trained Bostons Angel will be a tough nut to crack.