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Mullins aims to take Stronghold

NAVAN stage the final Grade One race in Ireland before things hot up again over Christmas and albeit a small field for the 2m4f Navan Novice Hurdle, it looks an informative renewal.

It goes without saying at this stage that Willie Mullins has an embarrassment of riches in this and every other National Hunt division and he was responsible for three of the seven entries at the five-day stage on Tuesday and has opted to run Cheltenham Festival winner Briar Hill.

However, Briar Hill will have to bring his 'A game' if he is to provide Mullins with victory in this Grade One for the third consecutive year after success with Pont Alexandre and Boston Bob, as he'll have to see off the most local runner in the field, the Noel Meade trained Apache Stronghold.

It was 2006 when Meade last won this race in which he is also represented by the talented Very Wood on Sunday, and while he is unlikely to ever admit it, you would have to feel that the trainer feels Apache Stronghold could well be in the same calibre of 2006 winner Aran Concerto.

Aran Concerto was a proper Grade One performer but never got to fulfil his potential owing to injuries and niggles and after some glowing statements about how good he was, Meade admitted he would never make such sentiments about a horse again after luck went against him.

However, the manner in which Apache Stronghold dismissed a strong looking field in the Monksfield Novice Hurdle last month suggests that the former champion trainer has got another real bright prospect on his hands.

"All going well, he'll run on Sunday and we are looking forward to it," Meade said this week.

Reflecting on the Monksfield Hurdle in which Apache Stronghold had three-lengths to spare over Azorian under an almost motionless Paul Carberry, the trainer added: "It looked a good race beforehand but he made it look very easy.



"I thought on the day he jumped well, but when I watched the race again I thought he missed four hurdles which was a bit frustrating as he can jump very well."

After winning the last day Meade said to the press; "Every time you turn around Willie has something else but at least we have something to take him on with now" and looking ahead to Sunday he concluded; "If he can put in a complete round of jumping I'd say he is obviously very good. I don't know what Willie is going to produce and he has so many to choose from, but if we get our horse there we'll be happy."

Meade will have the services of Carberry on the 147 rated novice as he returns from injury on Sunday.

Briar Hill was an emphatic Cheltenham Bumper winner when sent off a 25/1 shot and he began his hurdling career at Wexford last month when a facile 11-length winner.

Eoin Griffin has enjoyed notable success in a short time with Azorian who is his first runner for the Gigginstown House Stud team and he completes the field on Sunday despite the Kilkenny trainer admitted he was looking for more rain to fall.

"The plan is to run," Griffin said, "But ideally I would like to see a drop of rain beforehand.

"I was happy enough with his run the last day and he ran around a bit in front and was still green, but I think he has improved since the last day and as matters stand, he'll go on Sunday."

Griffin added: "He is a horse that I have always liked and I suppose we will learn a bit more about him after the weekend."