WITH the start of the turf season just a month away, Johnny Murtagh and Declan McDonogh return to take their first mounts of the year at Dundalk tonight.
The winners of six champion jockey's titles between them, Murtagh and McDonogh have had a contrasting couple of months since the latter was appointed the Aga Khan's retained Irish rider for 2013 following Murtagh's sacking last autumn.
McDonogh embarked on a four-week busman's holiday in Japan that yielded three winners, with Murtagh opting for an Austrian skiing holiday after Christmas that resulted in his suffering a first fracture courtesy of a broken collarbone on day one.
They are joined at the Co Louth facility by reigning champion Joseph O'Brien and six-time holder Pat Smullen, both of whom remained on terra firma for the most part, though O'Brien did make a flying visit to ride in India in December.
Each of the quartet has good rides here, with Katiola and Papaya appealing for McDonogh.
The Aga Khan-owned filly Katiola won a Leopardstown maiden under Murtagh in July, before finishing third to Montebell on her handicap bow at the Curragh in September. That was a decent race, so, notwithstanding the lack of a recent outing, John Oxx's four-year-old could take a bit of stopping off a 3lb lower mark now in the concluding Ladbrokes-sponsored 12-furlong handicap.
El Salvador, a ready maiden winner here recently, is the obvious danger for O'Brien and his father Aidan if he can build on a recent taking performance over course and distance.
Papaya, a well-bred Sheikh Mohammed debutant in the fillies' maiden, is a tentative fancy ahead of Ger Lyons' Nomoneynohoney, which was second in modest company three weeks ago.
Irish Grand National-winning handler Tom Gibney might bag a first win at the all-weather facility if To Choose can replicate his runner-up finish at the same fixture in the mile maiden. The home-bred gelding has improved steadily, and this looks distinctly winnable.
In the seven-furlong handicap, Khyber Pass gets the nap vote for Eddie Lynam and Wayne Lordan. A convincing course and distance scorer in a conditions race two weeks ago, he was previously just chinned on the line by Rummaging off the same mark of 73 that he competes tonight, so he could be very hard to beat again now.