O'Brien fires blanks on return to National Hunt at Punchestown

AIDAN O'BRIEN'S first National Hunt runners in well over eight years failed to land a blow in the AES Family Saturday At The Festival INH Flat Race at Punchestown.

The master of Ballydoyle is no stranger to the jumping game, having trained the incredible Istabraq to win three Champion Hurdles at Cheltenham.

However, the stable's last runner under National Hunt rules was The Alamo, ridden by Coolmore supremo John Magnier's son MV, in a bumper at Tipperary in October 2004.

O'Brien saddled two runners in the Punchestown bumper, with Egyptian Warrior a particularly fascinating contender due to him being a full-brother to last year's Racing Post Trophy scorer and Epsom Derby favourite Kingsbarns.

Trading as favourite early in the morning, Egyptian Warrior (3/1) drifted prior to the start of the race and although he made some headway from the back of the field in the hands of the trainer's daughter, Sarah O'Brien, he was ultimately well beaten in fifth.

Stable companion Shield (10/1), partnered by Kate Harrington, ran a more encouraging race for a long way, but he could only find the one pace in the straight and passed the post one place ahead of Egyptian Warrior in fourth.

The race was won by Garrett Power-trained newcomer Yes Sir Brian (20/1), with Ange Balafre second and the gambled-on favourite Guns And Malt third.

Connections of Pique Sous are praying for a dry three weeks before their pride and joy runs at the Cheltenham Festival.

The grey finished third behind Champagne Fever in the Champion Bumper last year, but heavy ground has restricted him to just two starts over hurdles and an easy win on the all-weather at Dundalk since last August.

He will head straight to Cheltenham now, most likely for the Supreme Novices' Hurdle, and Steve Massey, who helps run the Supreme Horse Racing Syndicate who own the gelding, hopes the rain stays away.

"He just can't act on soft ground, we found that out in the summer," said Massey of the Willie Mullins-trained six-year-old. "All we want now is for it to dry up and to hear no talk of watering!"

Enda Bolger is hopeful leading hunter chaser On The Fringe will have fully recovered from injury in time to compete over the Grand National fences at Aintree in April.

Bolger had hoped to see the JP McManus-owned gelding return to Prestbury Park next month, but an injury picked up over the Christmas period means he will not be ready to make the trip. However, the Foxhunters' Chase at Aintree could now be on the eight-year-old's agenda.

"He picked up a stress fracture over Christmas that ruled him out of Cheltenham," said Bolger.

"He could go to Liverpool (Aintree) for the Foxhunters' there and there is Fairyhouse and Punchestown too."