Classy Quevega looks cut above in red-hot contest
This evening's Ladbrokes.com World Series Hurdle at Punchestown is as competitive a renewal of the Grade One three-miler as the sponsors could have hoped for.
With War Of Attrition unlikely to take up his engagement, 14 horses are set to go to post, including the two Cheltenham winners Berties Dream and Quevega.
The latter's in-form trainer Willie Mullins also saddles Mourad and Cousin Vinny, both of which scored impressively at Fairyhouse, while the likes of Karabak and Powerstation, on the back of solid efforts behind Big Buck's at Cheltenham, are other genuine contenders. All told, a cracking contest looks assured.
Berties Dream, although a novice, shouldn't be underestimated, as he has improved steadily this term and the form of his Cheltenham triumph has stood up well. Three miles on good ground will again bring out the best in Paul Gilligan's gelding, and he may represent a bit of each-way value at up to 16/1.
That said, Quevega, having made a belated seasonal debut when recording her second successive win in the mares' race at Cheltenham, comes here fresher than most. She remains massively unexposed, and her sheer class is hard to deny.
At this meeting 12 months ago, Paul Townend's mount ran Solwhit and Punjabi to just three lengths, with plenty of good horses behind her, including this year's chasing find, Sizing Europe. There isn't another horse in today's race capable of operating at that level over two miles.
Notwithstanding the fact that the mares' decider at Cheltenham has lacked any real strength in depth since its inception two years ago, you couldn't but be impressed by Quevega's reappearance last month. If she can build on that, and taking on trust that three miles will be within her compass, she represents solid value at up to 4/1.
Sports Line is the sole Willie Mullins representative in the other Grade One on the card, the Ryanair Novice Chase. The drying ground may count against this one though, so preference is for Osana to finish his season on a high.
Edward O'Grady's eight-year-old got the campaign under way with two impressive wins at Navan, and he has maintained a high standard since then, making the frame in four graded events. He was a strong fancy to build on his Irish Independent Arkle Trophy third at Aintree last time, but came up against a potential star in Tataniano.
Captain Cee Bee is the obvious danger, but that one doesn't instil confidence at short odds after bursting a blood vessel in the Arkle. While Riverside Theatre and Psycho will have their chances, Osana is the one that stands out. At around 6/1, he looks too big.
In the Ernst & Young Handicap Chase, Valain catches the eye on his first appearance since October. Charlie Swan's charge has always been consistent, but needs good ground to be seen to best effect.
With just eight runs over fences, he remains relatively unexposed, and Tony McCoy's presence in the saddle can only be a plus. The last time McCoy partnered Valain, they ran out convincing winners off 133 over hurdles at Ffos Las in August, so today's rating of 129 gives the team a fighting chance.
Cuchulains Son, on the back of a promising return from injury at Naas in March, is the one to watch in the opening Aon Insurances Hurdle, while L'Ami is taken to defy top weight in the day's banks race, the Avon Ri Corporate & Leisure Resort La Touche Cup.
3.40 -- Cuchulains Son
4.15 -- Valain
4.50 -- L'Ami
5.30 -- Quevega (Nap)
6.05 -- Cloughmile
6.40 -- Osana
7.15 -- Cavite Beta