Nichols Canyon can fill void left by 'Hurricane' on final day at Leopardstown
Leopardstown's Christmas Festival comes to a close today with another card that boasts some real quality.
In keeping with some of the Grade One highlights of the preceding days, though, it is more about elite individuals than the standard of competition.
Willie Mullins has enjoyed another beano at the Foxrock venue, and it will be a surprise if his stamp isn't all over proceedings again this afternoon.
In recent times, the champion trainer's relentless juggernaut has farmed the Ryanair Hurdle with Hurricane Fly.
His old warrior won each of the four editions of the €100,000 two-miler that he contested since 2010.
Nichols Canyon, which vanquished the formidable Faugheen on their respective reappearances in the Morgiana Hurdle, takes up the mantle now. He will be short odds to confirm his ascent up the ranks now, although he does face a couple of intriguing rivals in Windsor Park and Identity Thief.
At Cheltenham in March, Windsor Park inflicted Nichols Canyon's sole defeat in completed starts for Mullins. At the time, Davy Russell rightly won the plaudits for seizing the initiative so boldly on Dermot Weld's charge.
Windsor Park has never run over as short a trip as this over flights before, so it will be interesting to see how he fares on his seasonal return.
Identity Thief, which sports the sponsor Michael O'Leary's colours, has the benefit of race-fitness. He took full advantage of what was a soft Grade One at Newcastle last time and remains capable of better still.
His jockey Bryan Cooper had three to choose from for O'Leary's Gigginstown House Stud firm in the day's other Grade One, the Neville Hotels Novices' Chase that they won with Don Poli last year.
Such an enviable dilemma wouldn't be unusual for Cooper, but, in the context of there being only four horses declared for a race worth €85,000, it is a worrying state of affairs.
In truth, on this occasion, Cooper didn't have to choose at all, as the Gordon Elliott-trained No More Heroes is a class apart. Like, Nichols Canyon, then, he will be odds-on to prevail.
12.10 Martinstown Opportunity Handicap Chase 2m 5f
On The Shannon and Corporate Box are consistent performers with relatively light weights.
On The Shannon was third in this a year ago. He is 10lbs higher now but his latest Fairyhouse second was a characteristically fine turn. Kilcrea is another that has run well here in the past, while Court Frontier danced up off a mark of 100 over hurdles at Fairyhouse. He is in off 112 here but is quite unexposed over fences.
Verdict: A chance is taken on Court Frontier transferring his hurdle form.
12.45 Copper Face Jacks Maiden Hurdle 2m 4f
Call It Magic ran a lovely race over what was probably an inadequate trip when fifth at Navan. A point-to-point and bumper winner, he can do better over this trip and could have a big say.
Acapella Bourgeois ran a nice race to be third to Up For Review on his Irish bow. He is another that could improve, and a similar comment applies to Air Command and Yes Sir Brian.
Space Cadet was no match for Up For Review at Fairyhouse but still came clear for second. He never runs a bad race and, while he has passed up a few chances, he has a bit of quality.
Verdict: Space Cadet is fancied to get his head in front for Davy Russell.
1.20 Grade Three Willis EBF Mares' Hurdle 2m 4f
In a way, this is all about Morning Run. If she is at the top of her game on her first start since stretching her unbeaten record to six at Fairyhouse in January, she should win.
She is an absolutely cracking individual that travels, jumps, stays and goes on any ground. The likes of Rock On The Moor, Keppols Queen, Miss Dinamic, Thanks For Tea and The Brock Inn are all able but operate at a lower level, so it could fall to Morning Run's stablemate Whiteout to keep her honest.
She won a Listed race at Punchestown but is a little more limited.
Verdict: If Morning Run is close to her best, she wins this.
1.55 Grade One Neville Hotels Novices' Chase 3m
No More Heroes has always been a lovely prospect but he has really blossomed over fences.
It is hard to find fault with him, although this is a slightly different test to the Drinmore that he won so stylishly at Fairyhouse, as he is stepping back up to three miles.
On his only previous foray over the trip, he was arguably an unlucky loser at Cheltenham in March. As such, stamina shouldn't be an issue, but this will be gruelling, and he has a tendency to race a shade keenly.
Presumably, Rule The World could set a decent gallop, which would help No More Heroes. Neither Rule The World nor Wrath Of Titans should be good enough to win, though a case could be made for Monksland.
Second in the Drinmore, his best performance came when he won a Grade Two hurdle here over three miles in 2012, so that gives him a life.
Verdict: No More Heroes is trusted to confirm his enormous potential.
2.30 Grade One Ryanair Hurdle 2m
Nichols Canyon's only blip in seven completed starts for Mullins came when third at Cheltenham in March, a defeat that connections put down to the decision to deploy hold-up tactics.
Tactics may also have played a part in his vanquishing Faugheen on their Punchestown returns, but it would be wrong to underestimate the extent of his capabilities. He is a serious horse that seems to go on all types of ground.
Arctic Fire is unlikely to participate, so Identity Thief looks the danger. He has progressed significantly this term, plundering a relatively weak Grade One at Newcastle in determined style.
This is a stiffer test, but that isn't to say that he can't keep improving, as he is a five-year-old that has had just six starts over hurdles.
Windsor Park won on his hurdle bow here last year before recovering from a couple of defeats to triumph over two miles and five furlongs at Cheltenham in March. Chances are that he will be better for the run and for going over further.
Verdict: Nichols Canyon's conquering of Faugheen sets the bar pretty high.
3.05 Ryanair EBF Novices' Handicap Hurdle 2m 4f
Archive reverts to a more realistic level after toiling behind Long Dog in the Royal Bond. He is a fair sort that has a chance under top-weight, though his best form is on better ground.
Baily Cloud, Cliffside Park, Crown Of Gold, Ma Garrett and Kinnitty Castle all have chances. Kinnitty Castle is hard to gauge for Tony Martin but he has more to give than he has shown over flights to date, and he has no weight on his back.
Gordon Elliott's Squouateur won nicely at Fairyhouse before chasing American Tom home at Gowran Park. He is in off 120 here and has the scope to progress beyond that.
Verdict: Squouateur has nap appeal under Barry Geraghty.
3.40 Ryanair Flat Race 2m
First Figaro made it third time lucky at Galway in the summer. This is a different level but it is not beyond him to figure.
New To This Town made a fine impression at Thurles and Jack The Wire remains a fair type despite being well beaten by Death Duty at Navan.
Lucky Pass, a facile point-to-point winner, readily saw off Avellino on his Fairyhouse debut. The runner-up has since danced up in a Down Royal bumper so the form is smart.
Verdict: Hard to oppose Lucky Pass for the Mullins combination.