A mouth-watering showdown between former Champion Hurdle heroes Hurricane Fly and Binocular looks set to materialise at Leopardstown on Sunday, though the same day's scheduled Irish Arkle Novice Chase will now take place 24 hours earlier than planned due to an adverse weather forecast.
Testing ground conditions on the Foxrock venue's chase track – described as soft to heavy, heavy in places – prompted officials to reduce the maximum field size for that particular circuit from 28 to 20 on Monday. And with rain forecast to hit Dublin this weekend, the showpiece novice chase is now being brought forward to Saturday's Boylesports.com Hurdle programme.
"The decision was made to ensure that we were able to run The Frank Ward Solicitors Arkle Novice Steeplechase over the weekend," Leopardstown's chief executive Pat Keogh said of the move. "With all the uncertainty over the weather, we have decided to err on the side of caution."
The Leopardstown Beginners' Chase goes in the opposite direction, while the Listed Solerina Mares' Novice Hurdle from Fairyhouse's lost Sunday card has also been switched to this Sunday's programme. In an effort to give the ground on the chase track time to recover from Saturday's three chases, the two remaining races over fences on Sunday have been switched to the end of the day's proceedings. Last Sunday's Fairyhouse fixture, which had the Dan Moore Memorial Handicap Chase as its headline, had already been rescheduled for Saturday week, though the exact details have yet to be confirmed.
If the featured BHP Irish Champion Hurdle goes ahead as planned on Sunday, we are likely to see an intriguing third clash between the 2010 and 2011 Cheltenham heroes, though there will be a maximum of just four other runners in the two-mile Grade One event.
Hurricane Fly has emerged on top in both previous encounters – latterly when the pair finished third and fourth at Cheltenham last March – and Willie Mullins' stable star is as short as 1/3 to reaffirm his superiority. "He's in great shape," the champion trainer said of the nine-year-old that will be looking for a third successive triumph in Sunday's marquee event. "Looking at him coming off the gallops on Monday morning, he's fit and ready."
No English-trained horse has won the event since Collier Bay in 1996, but Frank Berry, racing manager to Binocular's owner JP McManus, has confirmed that the 2010 Cheltenham winner is expected to make its seasonal debut for the in-form Nicky Henderson team in the €110,000 contest.
"The plan at the minute is that he'll go to Ireland," Berry revealed of the French-bred. "Everybody seems very happy with him and we're looking forward to a good run at Leopardstown."
Mullins' Arvika Ligeonniere, twice a winner at the top level already this term, will also face a maximum of five rivals should he endeavour to justify odds-on status in Saturday's Arkle. The Jessica Harrington-trained Oscars Well, runner-up to Hurricane Fly in last year's Irish Champion Hurdle, is next best in the ante-post market at up to 11/4.
Denis Hogan, whose much improved Flat handicapper Inis Meain is the 9/2 favourite to make a winning debut for its new owner Barry Connell in the Boylesports.com Hurdle, has stated that the €100,000 handicap is the favoured option over the Betfair Hurdle at Newbury two weeks later. "Leopardstown is plan A," Hogan reported, "although there's still a little time to go and I have a bit of work to do with him yet."
Meanwhile, Cheltenham's Festival Trials Day could be run on Sunday if officials are forced to abandon their Saturday card owing to the weather.
A statement issued on behalf of the course last night said: "As a result of the hard work of the ground staff in removing snow lying on the frost covers today, there is increased hope that the meeting can go ahead as scheduled on Saturday.
"However, one to two centimetres of snow is forecast to fall on Tuesday night and, in the event that the course is unraceable, Cheltenham has reached agreement with the British Horseracing Authority that, weather permitting, Festival Trials Day could instead be staged 24 hours later on Sunday."