Hurricane Fly to reassert his Champion superiority
Ruby factor can prove difference in eagerly awaited rematch with Cheltenham conqueror Jezki
Jessica Harrington's newly crowned champion hurdler Jezki gets the opportunity to convince the doubters by reaffirming his superiority over Hurricane Fly at Punchestown today.
Steps To Freedom, a likely pace-maker from Harrington's stable, is the only other runner in the Racing Post-sponsored edition, in essence rendering it a Grade One match. Given that there is €200,000 up for grabs and €6,000 allocated down to sixth place, that is a dismal turnout.
It is a situation fed by the fact that there are three separate Grade Ones for novices, as well as a mares' equivalent tomorrow. When there are so many valuable options, there is simply no incentive for many of the best horses to take each other on, especially when so many reside in the same yard.
Willie Mullins is entitled to spread the riches if the programme facilitates as much, but the inclusion of Annie Power, Faugheen or Vautour would have lent added intrigue to this two-mile feature.
As it is, Hurricane Fly faces just one meaningful rival under Ruby Walsh in his bid to claim his 20th top-level success, while AP McCoy pulls rank at Barry Geraghty's expense on JP McManus' rising star, which prevailed in a Champion Hurdle in the Cotswolds that raised as many questions as answers.
Vautour steps up in trip for the Tattersalls Champion Novice Hurdle. So awe-inspiring at Cheltenham, he is one of the most exciting horses in training, a point emphasised by Mullins' repeated assertion that the similarly relentless Faugheen is a notably inferior animal. Imagine.
3.40 KFM HUNTER CHASE (BANKS) 2M 4F
Mtada Supreme is in form, a Down Royal hunter chase win following two from three in point-to-points. He beat Hasty Times here in February and Ross O'Sullivan's horse returns after landing another 'point'. O'Sullivan's wife Katie Walsh is on The Baler, which won this three years ago.
Verdict: Mtada Supreme could be the answer in a difficult race.
4.20 AON NOVICE HANDICAP CHASE 2M 5F
Ericht struggled in competitive company at Cheltenham, but this is less daunting, while Road To Riches will probably be more suited to this trip than when successful at Fairyhouse. His presence keeps the weights down for lots of these, with Sizing Gold one that appeals as being well-treated.
He has yet to fulfil his potential, but drops considerably in class. Balnaslow, Followmeuptocarlow, Operating and Ballinvarrig are others with live chances.
Verdict: Sizing Gold could exploit a fair first-time rating of 137.
4.55 SEANIEMAC.COM EBF MARES' HANDICAP CHASE 2M 5F
Interesting that Barry Geraghty has opted for Utopie Des Bordes of the two he had to choose from of Nicky Henderson's.
She has been running well off similar ratings over flights, but hasn't run over fences since winning at Auteuil in 2012. Une Artiste saw off Nadiya De La Vega off similar terms at Fairyhouse, with the third Burn And Turn slightly better off now. She's Got Grit is up 7lb for her hat-trick bid, having beaten Wednesday's winner Orpheus Valley at Navan last time out.
Verdict: She's Got Grit is highly progressive and has decent form.
5.30 GRADE ONE RACING POST CHAMPION HURDLE 2M
The youth in Jezki's legs enabled him to draw readily clear of Hurricane Fly at Cheltenham. That may be the end result again, but the new champion isn't entirely straightforward.
He got the strong pace that suits him best at Prestbury Park, as he did when Champagne Fever set the fractions here in 2013. Tactics will be key, as he needs to settle and he needs a truly run race.
Maybe Steps To Freedom will set a proper pace and he will follow. That might work, but he would then be the hare to Hurricane Fly's fox, and there are few more wily duos than him and Ruby Walsh.
Hurricane Fly twice had his measure in similar circumstances earlier in the campaign, while he hasn't been beaten in Ireland since 2009. He is no spent force and any rainfall would suit him.
Verdict: Hurricane Fly is fancied to do Jezki for toe at the death.
6.05 GRADE ONE TATTERSALLS CHAMPION NOVICE HURDLE 2M 4F
Vautour sets a tall standard. He absolutely devoured a decent field in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle at Cheltenham, and the runner-up Josses Hill duly franked the form at Aintree.
Having slammed The Tullow Tank over two-and-a-quarter in deep ground at Leopardstown in February, the extra two furlongs on better going won't be a problem. The only concern is that he failed a fitness test for Tuesday's race. Still, if Willie Mullins deems him ready, that will suffice.
Lac Fontana complemented his County Hurdle triumph with a Grade One success at Aintree, but the runner-up Splash Of Ginge was beaten 20 lengths in the Supreme. Still more will be needed here.
While Noble Emperor has won a soft ground bumper and maiden hurdle with a bit of style, this is a different kettle of fish.
Lieutenant Colonel was only 16 lengths behind Faugheen at Cheltenham and then beat Wednesday's impressive winner Le Vent D'Antan at Fairyhouse. His star is likely to continue rising yet.
Apache Stronghold tired into fourth on his first run since November in the same race. He has always been a cracking prospect and will doubtless be much sharper now, but this is a pretty formidable assignment.
That doesn't mean he won't have a say.
Verdict: There are a few nice horses in this, but Vautour is impossible to oppose.
6.40 STAR NOVICE HURDLE 2M
Arctic Fire was denied by Lac Fontana in a desperate finish to the County Hurdle. That form has stood up and he had the quality to run well in Grade Ones previously despite his keen running style. Double Irish has been disappointing, but his Fairyhouse third to Valseur Lido was better.
While The Plan Man burst into life at Cork, this is tougher and Sizing Codelco is more of a chaser.
Verdict: Arctic Fire is the one to beat if the ground does not deteriorate.
7.10 ITBA FILLIES' SCHEME BUMPER 2M 1F
Montana Belle changed hands for £170,000 after winning at Newbury in December. She certainly looked the part then, is really well bred and could take a bit of stopping here.
Patrick Mullins has gone for debutante Morning Run of his father's trio, despite On The Bike having made a respectable debut when second to All Hell Let Loose at Thurles.
Carrigmoorna Rock scraped home from subsequent winner Missyspet at Wexford in March, so she is another to note.
Verdict: Montana Belle would want to be winning this to justify her price tag.
7.45 DONOHUE MARQUEES CHAMPION HUNTERS CHASE 3M 1F
Warne is in superb heart, including Tammys Hill among his victims at Fairyhouse before then running them ragged in the Foxhunters at Aintree. All his best form is just shy of three miles.
On The Fringe has become frustrating. The manner of his Cheltenham defeat confirmed that he doesn't really get a stiff three miles, but he won this two years ago. In-form 'pointer' Vital Plot is an outsider that could run well at a price.
Verdict: On The Fringe (nap) should have the reserves to get home here.