Willie Mullins' Eagle and Hobson take Leamington test at Warwick
Willie Mullins sets a poser for punters by saddling two leading contenders in Open Eagle and Thomas Hobson in the Neptune Investment Management Novices' Hurdle at Warwick on Saturday.
Both horses were decent Flat performers for David O'Meara and John Gosden respectively, before joining Ireland's top jumps trainer. The pair have already made their mark over hurdles and will now try to earn their place as a member of the Mullins battalion heading to the Cheltenham Festival.
Open Eagle is owned by the Supreme Horse Racing Club, who are looking forward to seeing their charge step up in distance following his good run behind Altior at Kempton on Boxing Day.
"We're trying a new trip with him. Ruby (Walsh) said after his really good run at Kempton that we should step him up in trip," said Supreme spokesman Steve Massey.
"We have thought for a while he needs further than two miles. We're hopeful of a good run. He's in good order, but it's a tough race. He's a very exciting prospect. If he runs well then hopefully the next stage is Cheltenham in March."
Mullins' son and assistant, Patrick, also feels it is worth seeing if Open Eagle stays further. "We think Open Eagle will stay. When Ruby got off him at Kempton he suggested stepping him up in trip, but the winner there (Altior) was certainly very impressive," he said.
Of the Rich Ricci-owned Thomas Hobson, Mullins is hoping the six-year-old can show his true colours "Thomas Hobson should stay but he is not an easy ride at all, he is keen and can hang. He has loads of ability and we're just hoping he can fulfil it. He fell on his first run and his jumping at Galway wasn't great, but it's improving slowly."
Dan Skelton is looking to bag back-to-victories in this two-mile-five-furlong contest, registered as the Leamington Novices' Hurdle.
Successful with Three Musketeers 12 months ago, he saddles Born Survivor, who made a winning hurdling debut over the course and distance five weeks ago.
"He's a nice horse and won over the course and distance last time," said the Alcester handler. "He's won on soft, I don't know how he'll cope with heavy ground, but I don't see why it would be a massive problem."
Ballagh, runner-up to Three Musketeers 12 months ago, has another crack at this contest having had just two races since then. Trainer Ben Case was delighted with the seven-year-old's third place behind O O Seven at Sandown six weeks ago, in what was his first outing since February.
"He ran well on his first run back at Sandown. The form is looking fairly strong. His form from last year is strong," said Case. "He really is a chaser in the making and I'm just biding my time with him this year. That's what he'll do next year. The race is quite strong, but hopefully he'll have a chance."
Brian Ellison is excited at stepping Viens Chercher up in distance and has plenty of belief in the five-year-old's ability. The French import has already shown decent form, winning novice events on his first two starts in Britain before running creditably against better company.
"We're trying a new trip with him and I think it will suit," said the North Yorkshire handler. "He's a half-brother to Nicky Henderson's good horse, L'Ami Serge and, like him, we see his future over fences.
"At home he's lazy and you have to give him a boot to go up the gallops, but when he gets on the track he loves jumping. I think he's a really good horse, we've freshened him up since Haydock and before that he wasn't disgraced behind Altior, but he got interfered with at the start that day which didn't help."
Rebecca Curtis is hoping to find out how good Definite Outcome is as the lightly-raced seven-year-old has his first run since landing the odds at Aintree 10 weeks ago.
"I think he'll be fine on the ground. This looked a nice race to come back in and I suppose we will see what we've got," said the Newport handler.
Alan King's Wishing And Hoping defends a 100 per cent record over hurdles, following victories at Plumpton and Sandown. "He is unbeaten in two races over hurdles and steps up in trip here, but I am glad that they have had a couple of rain-free days as I would not have wanted the ground too deep," the Barbury Castle trainer told his website.