All eyes on Faugheen - Here is today's Leopardstown card and tips
The much-anticipated return of 2015 Champion Hurdle winner Faugheen, who had been off the track for 665 days, went as smooth as everyone hoped in the Morgiana Unibet Hurdle at Punchestown in November, propelling him to the top of the 2018 Champion Hurdle betting.
But on St Stephen's Day, Nicky Henderson's Buveur D'Air also confirmed he's in great order with a facile victory in the Unibet Christmas Hurdle at Kempton, and has just edged ahead of Willie Mullins's star in the ante-post markets.
It's far too early to be talking up the Champion Hurdle like it's a two-horse race, but you can't help getting excited about the prospect of these two locking horns in March. Faugheen is back today at Leopardstown for the Ryanair Hurdle, and while there's always a chance of an upset, this should be a straightforward penalty-kick.
We also have the Neville Hotels Novice Chase to look forward to, which sees the Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle runner-up Monalee make his second start over fences, having won a novice chase at Punchestown last time.
12.20 Adare Manor Opportunity Handicap Chase
A tricky handicap chase to start off the day. Tony Martin's Dallas Cowboy could be worth a few euro each-way down near the bottom of the weights rated 107, and priced in double figures.
Third off 109 in this last year and also third off 110 in the Sandyford Handicap Chase here back in January, he's lost his way a little and put in some disappointing performances in May. But he later showed some encouragement when sixth in a handicap chase at Down Royal in November. That will have sharpened him up and I don't think the handicapper has been too unkind.
Lasoscar is also worth a mention at around 13/2. He's versatile distance-wise, and was only half a length behind Gordon Elliott's Poormans Hill in a decent handicap chase at Down Royal last time.
Verdict: The Alan Fleming-trained Deputy's Pass has claims based on a nice handicap chase win at Gowran in September, but he's gone up in the weights and may struggle at the business end of the race. Dallas Cowboy is a nice each-way price and should be race-fit.
12.50 Pigsback.com Maiden Hurdle
Willie Mullins's Ballyward looked promising when winning a bumper here last year and should prove popular in the betting - but he hasn't seen a racecourse since, so he's a little short for my liking at around 6/4.
Jessica Harrington's Someday also won a bumper here, and would have gone closer than his 13-length second to subsequent winner Next Destination had he not blundered two out in a Naas maiden hurdle.
Verdict: Someday seems a little mistake-prone, but that's built into his price of around 4/1. If he keeps out of trouble, he'll be thereabouts.
1.20 Willis Towers Watson Irish EBF Mares Hurdle
Let's Dance was trading at 4/6 yesterday evening, and an odds-on price is justified for Willie Mullins' five-year-old which won the Dawn Run Mares' Novices' Hurdle at Cheltenham back in March.
She later hit 1/3 in-running on the exchanges before finishing second in a Grade One mares' race at Fairyhouse, so this Grade Three is well within her range.
Let's hope a spill in her comeback run at Punchestown in November, won by Forge Meadow, hasn't taken too much out of her.
Verdict: Let's Dance should have too much for these, although some odds-on backers will be cautious as she fell last time out when priced 4/9. Stablemate Karalee looks the best of the rest.
1.55 Neville Hotels Novice Chase
Monalee is already warm in the betting for the RSA Chase at Cheltenham at around 6/1, and the six-year-old did well to place in the Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle in March.
But physically, he looks like a chaser and he got his career over the larger obstacles off to the perfect start when winning a beginners' chase at Punchestown. His jockey Davy Russell barely had to move a muscle and this horse is definitely going places.
Of the rest, Willie Mullins' Rathvinden is worth a mention having won some graded races over fences.
Verdict: Henry de Bromhead had a few nice winners at Leopardstown earlier this week and his good run of form can continue with Monalee, albeit at a restrictive price.
2.30 Ryanair Hurdle
Mega Fortune, a faller priced 1/7 in a Limerick hurdle race in October, once again proved the old adage that there are no certainties in horse racing.
But barring some sort of catastrophe, this should be a walk in the park for the hugely-talented Faugheen, which is just behind Buveur D'Air in the ante-post betting for the 2018 Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham.
Willie Mullins's charge is 19lbs clear of nearest rival and stablemate Cilaos Emery in the ratings but is priced accordingly at 1/5, making this a no-bet race. Cilaos Emery is also a Grade One winner but should be no match for the favourite.
Verdict: All racing fans will be hoping Faugheen gets around trouble-free, with the chance of a mouth-watering clash with Buveur D'Air in store at Cheltenham.
3.05 Top Oil Irish EBF Novice Handicap Hurdle
Joseph O'Brien's Mischievious Max has been living up to his name lately in some respects, and has proved frustrating to follow. He goes close but doesn't always get his head in front and has been runner-up in five of his last six races, winning one.
But his latest race when second in a large-field handicap at Cheltenham was one of his best runs to date, and he may still have more to come off a rating of 130.
Verdict: Mischievious Max is rarely out of the frame and can register his first win since August, priced around 9/1. Mind's Eye is another for the shortlist.
3.35 Guinness INH Flat Race
It's certainly been an eventful festival with plenty of thrills and spills, and it all draws to a close for another year with a five-runner bumper which can go the way of Minella Encore, trading around 11/8 at the time of writing.
Willie Mullins's point-to-point winner was well supported on his debut under rules in a bumper at Fairyhouse earlier this month, and duly obliged at 4/9. He's related to a couple of useful sorts and could be one for the notebook.
Verdict: Minella Encore cost a couple of quid for a point-to-pointer, and can reward connections with a second win under rules. The Gunner Murphy looks the biggest danger to the bet.