Western Leader one to follow
Western Leader can continue his remarkable comeback from injury in today's Noel Farrelly Memorial Hurdle at Punchestown, provided the course survives a precautionary inspection.
Retired after breaking down when finishing an excellent second as a novice in the 2010 Aintree Hurdle, John 'Shark' Hanlon's eight-year-old made a surprise return here on New Year's Eve.
Under an enterprising Brian Hayes ride, the Barry Connell-owned gelding led until turning in, before finding only Mikael D'Haguenet too strong.
If Western Leader can reproduce that performance under Hayes now, he is the one to beat in this six-runner, two-and-a-half-mile conditions race.
Mouse Morris' smart chaser China Rock, injured in the 2011 Gold Cup, is another on the comeback trail.
Jessica Harrington's Hugo De Vindecy, conqueror of Rubi Light when last seen at Down Royal, has a yawning 710-day gap to defy, while Willie Mullins' French import Sergent Guib's has been off for five days longer than that. Completing the line-up are the useful novices Golanbrook and Ipsos Du Berlais.
The opening novice chase sees an interesting clash between Fully Funded and Gates Of Rome. On its first three runs this season over flights, Fully Funded finished second to Owega Star, Voler La Vedette and So Young.
Noel Meade's charge then tired into third behind Son Amix after making the running on his chasing bow over three miles here a fortnight ago, so the half-mile drop in trip should suit. That said, Gates Of Rome is marginally preferred for Colm Murphy and Davy Russell.
Experienced at a high level, the Luso gelding was in with a big shout when tipping up three-out in the race that was won by Call The Police at Gowran Park in November. At the ninth time of asking, this could be the day he finally breaks his chasing duck.
In the Grade Three Juvenile Hurdle, Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh are represented by the impressive Clonmel scorer Ut De Sivola. On a line through the runner-up that day Bat Masterson, which subsequently got within a head of today's contender One Cool Shabra, it's hard not to envisage another bold show from Walsh's mount here.
The same partnership is taken to double up with last year's Aintree Bumper third Allure Of Illusion in the following two-mile maiden hurdle, though it will be interesting to see how Thouva, a bumper winner in France during the summer, fares on its first start in the ubiquitous Gigginstown Stud silks for Noel Meade.
Later on, The Mighty Milan is deserving of the nap vote in the bumper. Placed in two decent contests at Thurles and Leopardstown, TJ Nagle's Katie Walsh-ridden five-year-old appeals as a more reliable option than Mullins' disappointing Robin Angevin.