Solwhit to keep crown
LAST Yast year's winner Solwhit, Punjabi, which landed the prize in 2008, and crack novice Dunguib will be out to compensate for Cheltenham defeats when clashing for the first time in the Rabobank Champion Hurdle today.
This evening's running of the traditional Friday highlight at Punchestown has the makings of a most informative and ultra-competitive contest before the better timber-toppers head out to summer grass.
Add in last year's Grade One novice hurdle hero Hurricane Fly, progressive stablemate Thousand Stars, Medermit and classy mare Voler La Vedette and all the ingredients are there for a vintage renewal.
It remains to be seen, though, whether the drying ground, which has been available here this year only for the final week of the campaign, will impact on the likely outcome of the 11-runner event.
Constant watering overnight has ensured a safe surface after the going rode on the easy side of good on Tuesday and both Solwhit and Dunguib were confirmed as starters after their trainers walked the course.
Despite the lack of rain, Philip Fenton is looking forward to Dunguib having a tilt at his senior rivals after spurning the chance to go instead for the Evening Herald Novice Hurdle on Tuesday.
A year ago, Hurricane Fly was all the rage ante-post for last month's hurdling championship at Cheltenham after readily landing the odds in the Evening Herald promotion, only for a leg injury to intervene late last year and confine the son of Montjeu to a spell on the sidelines.
Thus, it will be yet another outstanding training feat on the part of Willie Mullins should Hurricane Fly blow them away and, indeed, the last two winners Solwhit and, particularly, Punjabi need to step up to the mark again.
The current Irish ratings of the latter pair at 166 for Solwhit and 160 (Punjabi) could come up for serious review from Noel O'Brien if they don't perform this time over what's arguably their favourite route.
Just where Dunguib fits into the picture at this level, how primed for the day Hurricane Fly will be and whether the surface will bring about a revival in Won In The Dark's fortunes are other pieces of the jigsaw.
Elsewhere on a marathon card, Quantitativeeasing and Copper Bleu, which were among the four English winners here 12 months ago, bid for further glory in the Cathal Ryan Memorial Champion Novice Hurdle and the Stephens Green Hibernian Club Handicap Chase respectively.
Successful once more at the Cheltenham Festival, Copper Bleu could top up Planet Of Sound's Guinness Gold Cup earnings for Philip Hobbs and Richard Johnson by defying the handicapper again.
They also have Duke Of Lucca with place prospects at least for the Cathal Ryan Memorial Hurdle off a higher rating than Quantitativeeasing, but just inferior to likely main market fancies Luska Lad and Reve de Sivola.
Rabobank Champion Hurdle (5.30)
A year ago Solwhit overtook the previous season's victor Punjabi from the final flight, denying the runner-up a festival treble in the process after he had landed the previous month's Cheltenham version.
Neither, however, ran up to form back at Cheltenham, Solwhit having gone there after a training setback, and Medermit also failed to sparkle then after pulling muscles in the early stages.
Dunguib, in particular, and Voler La Vedette, which were both heavily supported for other top-class races there, had to settle for third money. Dunguib charted a wide course that didn't help his cause and the mare pulled too hard.
Hurricane Fly disappointed here last autumn when unable to cope with Solwhit from the last hurdle in soft ground, subsequently got injured and has been off the track for more than five months.
Verdict: Solwhit to win again here.
Cathal Ryan Memorial Hurdle (6.05)
Runner-up to Peddlers Cross at Cheltenham, Reve de Sivola and multiple scorer Luska Lad set a proper standard along with the former's fellow English raiders Duke Of Lucca and Quantitativeeasing.
Fionnegas for the in-form Willie Mullins stable, which won this event a year ago with Mikael D'Haguenet, comes out best ratings-wise of the home defence with the exception of soft-ground specialist Luska Lad.
Verdict: Reve de Sivola merits a bet.