Mangan and Weld a Notable partnership to keep onside
Master of Ballybrit can repeat last year's success in feature race on highly competitive opening day
Not that it ever disappoints, but the opening night of this year's Galway Festival could hardly offer more compelling fare than this evening's €150,000 seven-race spread.
From the intriguing 13-runner novice hurdle that will get proceedings under way to the 20 maidens that will tackle the concluding bumper, it is a deeply competitive programme containing the variety that you naturally associate with the western gala. As is often the case, that there is just one English-based runner among the 105 likely starters vying for a share of the generous prize fund is slightly baffling.
Still, that's not to take from what's on offer, with a cracking edition of the Connacht Hotel Qualified Riders' Handicap the undoubted highlight.
The 2010 winner Admiral Barry has his third stab at the €70,000 two-mile showpiece for Eoin Griffin and up-and-coming teenager Johnny Burke, with Jim Culloty's Cry For The Moon also having a third try under Derek O'Connor, having finished second the past two years.
Shadow Eile, such a revelation in winning here last year for Irish Grand National-winning handler Dot Love, is another that adds to the theme of familiar Ballybrit faces, while Aidan O'Brien teams up with daughter Sarah for Marchese Marconi.
Rachael Blackmore gets the plum mount on John Nicholson's in-form Knockcroghery, as Dermot Weld and Jane Mangan endeavour to replicate Midnight Music's resounding 2012 triumph with Notable Graduate. Naturally, the renewal of such a potent combination is of particular significance.
Weld's jockey booking on Pay Day Kitten later on is arguably of even more note, with the teenage riding sensation Connor King making his debut for the stable on the top-weight.
Given Weld's habitual Ballybrit domination and the insatiable form that has seen King already ride 12 winners this month, such a partnership is tantamount to the coming together of an immovable object and an irresistible force.
5.10 Galwaybayhotel.com Novice Hurdle 2M
Diplomat represents the powerful Dermot Weld-Ruby Walsh axis, having left behind a couple of moderate spring hurdle turns to sluice up at Sligo. That form has since been franked handsomely, and he is ground-versatile.
A similar comment applies to Zabana, which is on a hat-trick here. Down Royal scorer Boss's Star, out of the 2004 winner of tomorrow's feature Palace Star, is possibly the pick of the rest, though he might not want it too soft.
Verdict: Diplomat appeals as nap material for the Galway dream team.
5.40 Sean 'The Budgie' Burgess Memorial Handicap Hurdle 2M
Top-weight Anshan Dreams is interesting here on his first hurdle start since sluicing up over course and distance in September. He should be fit from two recent Flat runs.
Raydari has been hit with a harsh 18lb penalty for his Roscommon win, with Aladdins Cave also bringing winning hurdle form to the table.
Ted Dolly, Usa, Whatever It Takes, Hurricane Ridge and Admiral Hawke are others with chances. The unexposed Admiral Hawke ran with promise when second at Gowran Park recently, and is a live contender off a 6lb higher mark.
Verdict: Admiral Hawke appeals off a low weight under Brian Hayes.
6.10 Claregalwayhotel.ie EBF Maiden 7F
Sniper made an encouraging debut in a cracking Leopardstown maiden behind subsequent Group Two winner Sudirman. Ballydoyle's Friendship, second to Thursday's Group winner Exogenesis at the same track earlier in the month, is another with strong claims, but Mustajeeb is probably the one to beat.
The Weld colt ran a bit green when a one-paced fourth to Sir John Hawkins on his Curragh bow. He steps up in trip now, so that could be key to an improved showing.
Verdict: Mustajeeb has the scope to see off Sniper and Friendship.
6.45 Connacht Hotel Qualified Riders' Handicap 2M
Digeanta is unbeaten in a bumper, maiden hurdle and two Flat turns. His form is rock-solid and he won't mind a bit of cut, but this is going to be tough under a big burden.
Domination, second over course and distance last year, is possibly the more appealing of the joint top-weights.
Shadow Eile has won three of her four runs here. She wasn't good enough off the same mark in this last year but this slower ground will suit.
Cry For The Moon has gone well in the last two editions. He confirmed his liking for the track when filling the same spot here in September, so won't be far away again.
Knockcroghery is the form horse, having won two similar heats before scoring over hurdles last time. She is in foal and appears to be absolutely thriving, though she is over a stone higher for her two Flat wins.
Notable Graduate is in off a career-low mark. He ran with promise on his first start of the year at Leopardstown last month, and should strip fitter in first-time visors now.
Verdict: The excellent Jane Mangan is trusted to get Notable Graduate home.
7.15 Claytonhotelgalway.ie Handicap 7F
Target Acquired has been a model of consistency. He won for a second time this term at Down Royal on Friday and couldn't be discounted under a 5lb penalty.
There is little to choose between the rest, with the possible exception of Doc Holliday, which should have more to give after a fine second on his Fairyhouse return.
Verdict: Doc Holliday has plenty appeal for Eddie Lynam and Ronan Whelan.
7.45 Galway Oyster Hotel Handicap 1M 4F
This is an excellent race, all nine being likeable sorts with real potential. Abu Nayef and Pay Day Kitten are the two of most interest, John Oxx's Abu Nayef looking as though he would appreciate this trip when winning over shorter at Killarney.
Pay Day Kitten is up 8lb for edging out subsequent winner Kingdom at the Kerry venue back in May. She has plenty of weight, but will relish any further rainfall.
Verdict: Pay Day Kitten might just shade it under man of the moment Connor King.
8.15 Pillohotelgalway.com INH Flat Race 2M
Market moves for Jim Bolger's Sukiyaki or Dermot Weld's Martys Magic would obviously be significant, but Wicklow Brave sets the standard. Willie Mullins' charge just got chinned at Punchestown in May, and has the scope to build on that again.
Verdict: Wicklow Brave gets the nod in a tricky heat.