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Champagne Fever can pop Don's bubble in the Brae Chase

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Ruby Walsh will be hoping to partner Champagne Fever to another success at Thurles this afternoon

Ruby Walsh will be hoping to partner Champagne Fever to another success at Thurles this afternoon

SPORTSFILE

Ruby Walsh will be hoping to partner Champagne Fever to another success at Thurles this afternoon

Thurles hosts a fascinating clash between two of the highest-rated chasers in the country this afternoon when Don Cossack and Champagne Fever face off in the Ladbrokes Kinloch Brae Chase.

An 8.0 morning inspection is a slight concern, but it is described as precautionary and the sodden track was reported to be race-able yesterday.

Should racing go ahead, the presence of last year's Noel Meade-trained winner Texas Jack adds further appeal to the featured €40,000 Grade Two, although the rank outsider Smokey Joe Joe is the only other declaration.

Regrettably, that means that this is the smallest field in the 18-year history of the two-and-a-half-mile contest, an untimely landmark given the annual industry figures that underlined the plummeting population of horses in training yesterday.

At least there is consolation in the quality on show. With a rating of 166, Gordon Elliott's Don Cossack is the second highest-rated Irish chaser, while Willie Mullins' Champagne Fever is just 4lb inferior.

At the start of the season, connections of both horses would have had varying degrees of Gold Cup aspirations.

However, neither look likely to go down that path now, as Don Cossack's owner Gigginstown Stud has one of the big-race market leaders in the top-rated Road To Riches, and Elliott clearly favours the intermediate trip of the Ryanair Chase for him anyway.

Champagne Fever was more accomplished as a youngster, the dual Cheltenham Festival hero amassing four Grade One victories in bumpers and over flights.

Over fences, though, he has failed to develop as expected, winning just twice, notwithstanding his galling defeat when seeking to complete a Cheltenham hat-trick last March.

Settled

On stepping up to three miles in the King George VI Chase, he never settled or got into a rhythm and consequently failed to get home. Still, he was beaten by only 10 lengths by Silviniaco Conti, which is a testament to his class.

While neither of Champagne Fever's two wins have required him to dig deep, they have both come over this trip.

In the Clonmel Oil Chase, he destroyed a decent field in testing conditions that were similar to what he will encounter here, so it might be premature to write him off just yet.

In contrast to the bold-jumping grey, Don Cossack has bloomed this term. He plundered a first Grade One in the Drinmore last season but frustrated otherwise, to the point that his belated maturity has been mildly surprising.

He is tactically versatile, and scored for a third time on the spin with a comprehensive victory in the John Durkan Chase.

That form hasn't stood up too well, but there is no denying that Bryan Cooper's mount is deeply progressive.

That all said, Don Cossack must concede 2lb to Champagne Fever here. On official ratings, he has the scope to do so, though Ruby Walsh's mount might warrant the benefit of the doubt over this trip. Sure, Champagne Fever has become expensive to follow, but there is a chance that everything will suit today, as Walsh should be able to dictate proceedings over what may be his ideal trip.

Of course, in the unlikely event that he and Don Cossack spoil each other's chances, Texas Jack won't need to be asked twice to pick up the slack, as these are proven to be his optimum conditions. Nonetheless, Champagne Fever is fancied to come good.

Earlier, Mullins, Gigginstown and Cooper should take the WT O'Grady Memorial Novices' Hurdle with Milsean. Beaten by No More Heroes in a Naas bumper a year ago, the Milan six-year-old has otherwise impressed in a point-to-point, two bumpers and a decent maiden hurdle at Navan when last seen in November.

He steps up to two miles and six furlongs here, and it will be disappointing if he doesn't confirm the impression that he is a bit of a dark horse for the Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle by seeing off four lesser rivals.

Mullins and his son Patrick are also likely to have a big say in the hunters' chase with Prince De Beauchene, and the stable has a really exciting runner in Vroum Vroum Mag in the mares' Grade Two novices' chase.

The likes of Jennies Jewel and Down Ace are among a number of useful rivals that would normally be expected to figure prominently in a race like this, but Vroum Vroum Mag looks just a little bit special.

Precocious

She skated up on her Irish bow at Wexford prior to scoring similarly emphatically in a Cork Grade Three last month, and she is the latest in a line of precocious mares sourced by Mullins.

Should the main event prove anticlimactic for any reason, then the sight of Vroum Vroum Mag strutting her stuff under Walsh ought to provide race-goers at the north Tipperary venue with a different brand of treat.

Although the champion trainer has the potential to dominate proceedings, Mouse Morris also has a couple of eye-catching prospects at his local venue.

He and Cooper could take the handicap hurdle with the favourably handicapped Horendus Hulabaloo, while Baily Cloud is nap material in the maiden hurdle.

This 18-runner affair lacks depth, so David Casey's mount should win if he runs to form just four days after unseating two-out at Fairyhouse while bang in contention.

Irish Independent