Hurricane Fly still sets standard
At the end of what has been a veritable feast of racing, Leopardstown has surely saved the best until last with a festive finale to die for tomorrow.
Ever since Dessie Hughes' Our Conor stormed to Cheltenham glory under Bryan Cooper in the Triumph Hurdle last March, the appetite has been whetted by the prospect of a definitive duel with Hurricane Fly.
The climax to the four-day Foxrock gala finally provides that heavyweight showdown in the Ryanair Hurdle, 42 days after it was initially expected to happen in the Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown.
Barry Connell, the burgeoning Carrickmines-based owner who purchased Our Conor for a reputed six-figure sum after Cheltenham, has been waiting as patiently as anyone.
Our Conor had a pipe-opener under Danny Mullins on the Flat at Naas in October, but this will be the first time that Connell gets to see him jump hurdles in his yellow and blue silks. In short, that is what this precocious talent was bought to do.
Whether or not it is his destiny to dethrone Willie Mullins' brilliant dual Champion Hurdler may or may not be fully revealed tomorrow. Hurricane Fly, a three-time winner of this €100,000 Grade One, was uncharacteristically laborious in the Morgiana, but in getting the job done he claimed a record 17th Grade One success.
He and Ruby Walsh remain a formidable force, so it will take something special to deny them. As yesterday's two breathtaking dust-ups between Walsh and his old Antrim-born foe reminded us, special is what AP McCoy does as a matter of routine.
The perennial British champion is aboard Jessica Harrington's Jezki in the two-mile showpiece. JP McManus' exciting four-time Grade One winner also missed the Morgiana, so his presence here ensures that this really will be an occasion to savour.
Down Under's second at Navan was no bad effort and it was franked when the fifth home Art Lord won last week. Thurles winner Baily Dusk is in fine form, while Quartetto was just chinned here in January and showed up well on his reappearance.
Verdict: Down Under is a course winner that should be thereabouts again.
Sea Light tries for a quick hat-trick following his emphatic win here on Thursday. There is no easy race in these conditions, but he must have a chance under a 6lb penalty if those exertions haven't taken a toll.
Dick Dundee is another that may still be well handicapped. Rated 136 over fences, he is in off 106 here following a decisive Cork hurdle victory. Araku Valley, Noah Webster, Back Off Mate and Good As Gold are others that have been running well.
Verdict: This is a cracking little heat but Dick Dundee looks nicely treated.
Rockdown was second to the useful Marlbrook on his pointing bow before winning himself, and then he knuckled down for a hard-earned bumper win at Gowran in March. He denied the four-time winner Indevan that day so he is no slouch.
Shanahan's Turn's Down Royal third to Gilt Shadow was a solid effort, likewise Blue Bicycle's Naas fourth to The Tullow Tank. He is an improver to keep an eye on.
Verdict: Rockdown may have the quality to extend his winning run.
Much has been made of Hurricane Fly's less-than-impressive reappearance win in the Morgiana Hurdle, but it is surely significant that the least perturbed was his trainer Willie Mullins. There was doubtless plenty left to work on, and he continues to set the standard for everything else to reach. Period.
Only two of his four rivals should matter. Jezki swerved a clash with him at Punchestown despite having the benefit of race-fitness.
He was subsequently somewhat workmanlike and one-paced in landing the Hatton's Grace at Fairyhouse, leaving the impression that he might yet prove more effective over further.
That said, his best performance was in the Grade One Novice Hurdle over course and distance 12 months ago, and he has the scope to do better.
Our Conor was a revelation last season, signing off with that barnstorming Triumph Hurdle rout.
His Flat outing at Naas was satisfactory, so it was a pity that minor knocks ruled him out of the Morgiana. Juvenile hurdlers that come off the Flat often have less scope to improve in their second seasons as they are already physically advanced.
It will be fascinating to see if Our Conor can buck that trend, as he comes alive over flights.
Verdict: Hurricane Fly is trusted to maintain his superiority.
Upsie stretched her unbeaten run to five on her return at Cork last month. She clearly has bundles of quality, but her erratic jumping is likely to hinder her at some stage.
Her Willie Mullins-trained stable-mate Urticaire won five French bumpers, and was tidy on her hurdle bow at Navan. She clearly has a stack of potential.
Of the rest, the consistent and ultra-game Jennies Jewel is the clear pick on ratings.
Verdict: Urticaire gets the nod in what should be an informative affair.
Morning Assembly isn't flashy, but he keeps doing enough and that is a fine attribute.
A Grade One winner over hurdles, he conquered the subsequent Drinmore Chase hero Don Cossack in a Punchestown Grade Two last time, so his form is rock solid.
Bright New Dawn, though, is an enormously exciting individual.
He has long looked a potential star, and his battling chasing debut success over Dogora and Talbot Road did nothing to dispel that theory, as he galloped strongly and fenced with real panache.
Carlingford Lough's game third in the Drinmore showed that John Kiely's Galway Plate winner remains on the up, though Sizing Rio's tame defeat there was puzzling. Foxrock, My Murphy and Mad Brian may all have a bit to find at this level.
Verdict: Bright New Dawn is napped to confirm his towering reputation.
Fort Smith's fifth to Moyle Park on his hurdle bow was noteworthy, but winners Value At Risk and Yes Sir Brian are likely to fight this out.
Yes Sir Brian's latest defeat behind Vatour at Navan was his most comprehensive yet, while Value At Risk's pillar-to-post Fairyhouse success was thoroughly decisive.
Verdict: Value At Risk is a smashing individual with scope to improve.