Mullins targets Gowran comeback for Quevega
Champion trainer Willie Mullins goes in search of five Grade Two prizes on the home front this weekend as the Saturday focus in England is firmly on the Paul Nicholls stars Denman and Master Minded at Newbury.
Tony McCoy's first taste of action aboard Denman in the Aon Chase at the Berkshire venue looks an ideal Cheltenham warm-up opportunity for the Irish-bred gelding in advance of another Gold Cup challenge.
Fellow perennial title-holder Ruby Walsh will also be in action for Nicholls as Master Minded bids to get his season back on track in the Game Spirit Chase, in which he'll face a maximum of seven opponents, which are spearheaded by Voy Por Ustedes and Mahogany Blaze .
That afternoon at Gowran Park, the Mullins yard has earmarked talented mares Quevega -- easy winner of the David Nicholson Mares Hurdle at Cheltenham last March -- and J'y Vole for the twin Red Mills-sponsored features.
The Red Mills Trial Hurdle over the minimum trip, which Solwhit landed 12 months ago, could see Quevega, out of action since an abortive trip to France last May, taking on another Auteuil regular Jumbo Rio and Noble Prince.
Newmill, another former Cotswolds winner which came back to form at Thurles last time out for John Murphy's Cork stable, has been left in both this Trial Hurdle and the Red Mills Chase over an extra four furlongs.
Having missed out on the Hennessy last Sunday, J'y Vole would be a prime fancy for the latter event for which Mullins has also entered Scotsirish, Snowy Morning and Deutschland.
Sunday's St Valentine's Day fixture at Navan includes three Grade Two races, and Mullins has Mourad, Shakervilz and Uimhiraceathair, which all won smartly last time out, catching the eye among the initial acceptors.
Mourad could face a tough task, however, in the Ladbrokes Boyne Hurdle over two miles, five furlongs against the likes of other recent scorers War Of Attrition and Ebadiyan, as well as Ninetieth Minute and Noble Prince.
The spotlight is on the first-season novices at the Meath course in both the Flyingbolt Chase and the Ten Up Chase, with the former on the short-list for Henry de Bromhead's Irish Arkle Cup winner An Cathaoir Mor. The Liam Burke-trained Major Finnegan, which made much of the Arkle running before finishing fourth, might reoppose in Sunday's two-miler, for which Mullins can choose between Uimhiraceathair and Shakervilz.
Uimhiraceathair might be more suited to the extra mile of the Ten Up Chase, which stablemates Pomme Tiepy and Snowy Morning won in the recent past.
Runners-up to Big Zeb and Dunguib in Grade One company at Punchestown and Leopardstown, Golden Silver and Fionnegas have been attracting ante-post interest for Cheltenham with Paddy Power clients.
Golden Silver was cut five points to 20/1 for the Champion Chase by Powers and Fionnegas has been cut from 20/1 to 14/1 for the Neptune Novice Hurdle, which Mullins has won for the past two seasons with sidelined pair Fiveforthree and Mikael D'Haguenet.
Across the water, Alan King will be hoping for further evidence that his string is firmly back on track this week.
Four days of unrelenting action, starting tomorrow with Mille Chief at Huntingdon, will go a long way to defining King's expectations for the Cheltenham Festival. The Betchworth Kid is then let loose on Friday, followed by Manyriverstocross, Voy Por Ustedes and possibly Bensalem on Saturday.
Over Sixty's triumph at Market Rasen yesterday was a seventh winner in the past two weeks for King. Mille Chief is King's only Cheltenham favourite, so expectations are high that the French import will tomorrow enhance his claims for the JCB Triumph Hurdle.
Robert 'Choc' Thornton, out of action since suffering severe bruising to his back in a heavy fall last month, returns today with three rides, subject to Ludlow passing a morning inspection.