ON THE opening leg of Leopardstown's four-day Christmas Festival this afternoon, Arvika Ligeonniere is an odds-on favourite to bring Willie Mullins' domestic Grade One haul for the season to five in the featured two-mile novice chase.
The champion trainer's increasingly dominant Closutton stable is four from seven to date, but his exuberant frontrunning Drinmore Chase hero is unlikely to have things all its own way this time. Jessica Harrington's high-class Robbie Power-ridden Oscars Well leads the opposition, with Tony Martin's fellow Grade One-winning novice hurdler Benefficient also on duty under Bryan Cooper in the €85,000 headline event.
Throw in the prolific Mouse Morristrained Baily Green, just denied an eight successive triumph by Mullins' Twinlight at Punchestown last time, and there is the makings of a mouth-watering contest.
As the Foxrock venue's bumper gathering gets under way, ground conditions are unavoidably heavy. That, though, has been very much the norm this season, and it certainly doesn't appear to have had any detrimental effect on numbers. The remainder of the card is immensely competitive, which won't make the business of finding winners easy.
2.20 BOOKMAKERS BAR AT BEWLEYS HOTEL MAIDEN HURDLE 2M
Urano ran into a smart sort when beaten by Ally Cascade on his Irish debut at Thurles. A three-time bumper winner in
France, he has to be respected again. Ned Buntline, a Naas bumper winner, filled the runner-up spot behind Bright New Dawn at Fairyhouse. He is another that should come on for that experience.
Cnocan Diva was a consistent handicapper on the Flat that may need better ground, thought Grey Monk, a £300,000 purchase, is bred to go in the mud. A ready winner of his only pointto-point, he will be expected to show up well.
Verdict : Urano is hard to oppose, with Grey Monk an intriguing newcomer.
12.50 Q8 OILS MAIDEN HURDLE 2M 2F
Expanding Universe is a precocious prospect. On its first run for almost a year, Dermot Weld's son of Galileo stretched clear to score at Fairyhouse, with subsequent easy winner Curley Bill effortlessly held back in second. Mags Mullins saddles two last-time out bumper winners, King Of Firth and Anonis, the latter possibly the more interesting after obliging in style at Cheltenham on his return from 20 months off at Cheltenham in November. Operating and The Paparazzi Kid are both solid campaigners, but may not be quite good enough for one or two of these.
Verdict: Expanding Universe appeals as nap material.
1.20 GRADE TWO Q8 OILS JUVENILE HURDLE 2M
On paper, Our Conor is the most accomplished of these. A two-time winner on the Flat that relishes deep ground, he has made a smooth transition to hurdling, maintaining a 100pc record when taking a Fairyhouse Grade Three last time, beating subsequent winner South South West, which reopposes now, in the process. Fisher was two from two prior to being beaten after a costly last-flight mistake at Kempton in October. He has plenty potential but may prefer better going.
Blood Cotil looked exciting on his Fairyhouse bow for Willie Mullins, travelling keenly and jumping cleanly en route to a bloodless 17-length defeat of a reasonable yardstick. Of the rest, newcomer One Fine Day is the most interesting with an eye on the future, as he was rated higher than any of these on the level and loves deep going.
Verdict: Blood Cotil has the scope to unsettle Our Conor.
1.50 HANDICAP HURDLE 2M 2F
The admirable Happy New Year comes here looking for a timely fourth victory in less than a month. He is 17lbs higher than when his spree started and eight pounds up on his latest Punchestown win, when he certainly didn't seem at the end of his tether.
Mobile Sizer ground out a narrow maiden hurdle win at Tipperary in April. This 25-runner affair will be different, but his handicap mark of 111 could prove fair.
Miss Accurate, The Boys Dont Know and Majestic Oak have all been in decent form, while Shariyan returns from a long break. Second to Changing Times in deep ground at Fairyhouse when last seen in February, she is a well-bred mare with more in her.
Verdict: Shariyan is not without an eachway chance on her return to action.
2.20 IRISH RACING HANDICAP CHASE 2M 1F
Instant Impacked is looking for a treble, having earned a seven-pound penalty for making light of gruelling conditions a Cork last time. He has little weight to carry, and his trainer Robert Tyner does well on his forays here, winning this in 2010.
Lead Kindly Light beat a decent sort when bettering Far Away So Close last time. She continues to improve and is another that won't mind a thorough test.
Lastoftheleaders, Jacksonslady, Glibin, Tadhg, On The Way Out and Carlingford Lough have chances. Carlingford Lough hasn't shown its best over fences, but makes its handicap bow off a five-pound lower mark than when last successful over flights. Verdict: Carlingford Lough has shown enough to exploit a favourable rating.
2.55 GRADE ONE NOVICE CHASE 2M 1F
Oscars Well was the best of these over hurdles. Runner-up to Hurricane Fly in
the Irish Champion Hurdle here in January, he has been solid if not spectacular in winning his two completed chasing starts, falling early on at Punchestown in between.
His fencing will come under more pressure now, though he seems to handle this sort of ground perfectly well. Arvika Ligeonniere won two of his four hurdle starts for Willie Mullins two years ago. Back then, there was little hint of the horse that we have seen since switching to fences on his return from a lay-off this term.
He has routed the opposition in both starts, making light of the testing conditions to plunder the Drinmore over two-and-a-half miles last time. Baily Green is another revelation, winning seven on the spin until outclassed by Twinlight at Punchestown.
Benefficient is interesting. Good enough to win a Grade One here over
two-and-a-quarter miles in the spring, he didn't fully stay three miles when second to a decent horse at Newbury last month, but he remains open to progression in this discipline.
Verdict: Arvika Ligeonniere has the pace to cope with this trip under Paul Townend.
3.30 DONOGHUE MARQUEES INH FLAT RACE 2M
Texas Tea reappears for a first time since finding only Kauto Star's halfbrother Kauto Grand Mogul too strong when well backed at Limerick in the spring. Blackmail, Bose Ikard, Saffron Wells and Rough Justice have more recent place form.
Rough Justice won a Dromahane point-to-point, and should improve for his reappearance third in a decent Punchestown contest last month.
Verdict: Rough Justice gets the nod in a tricky contest.