Champagne has class to steal show for Mullins
Leopardstown's Christmas racing festival gets under way with a cracking St Stephen's Day spread that features one of the most exciting novice chasers around.
Successful on both his forays to Cheltenham in March, Champagne Fever is a brave, relentless galloper blessed with an arsenal that also includes tremendous pace, and his recent chasing debut at Punchestown revealed a fencing technique that is especially fluent.
Five other able rivals are declared for the Grade One Racing Post Novices' Chase, but Willie Mullins' grey is a heavyweight title-holder that is going to take some stopping under the inimitable Ruby Walsh, who graces this fixture for a first time in 12 years.
In Walsh's absence, the insatiable champion trainer has won the last two editions of the €85,000 two-miler with Blackstairmountain and Arvika Ligeonniere, and three in that time in all.
Champagne Fever and the Knight Frank Juvenile Hurdle favourite Analifet will be among three likely odds-on shots that Mullins will saddle for action today.
Nonetheless, in general terms, this is a mouthwatering card that offers a welcome reprieve from the small-field, uncompetitive action that has dominated the campaign.
The ground is forecast to ride suitably soft, so the Foxrock venue couldn't ask for much more as it kicks off four days of frenzied racing activity that will culminate in one of the showdowns of the entire year when Hurricane Fly, Jezki and Our Conor touch swords in the Istabraq December Hurdle on Sunday.
12.20 Bewleys Hotel Maiden
Hurdle 2m 2f
Dromnea has run really well in defeat behind The Tullow Tank and Rathvinden, but this is all about Clondaw Court. If the runaway point-to-point and bumper winner is right on his first start for just over a year, he will be incredibly hard to stop.
Verdict: Clondaw Court should have little trouble justifying short odds.
12.50 Thorntons Recycling
Maiden Hurdle 2m
In contrast to the opener, this boasts tremendous depth. Daneking kept on after getting his second win on his Cork hurdle bow, but he raced keenly and may be vulnerable.
The Winkler is a dual bumper victor that had a subsequent hurdle winner behind when third to the smart Faugheen on his Navan hurdle bow, while Western Boy accounted for Sunday's Lingfield scorer Mm Dazzler when collecting at Thurles.
Chancol looked useful when he won at Navan, and Beach Of Falesa did plenty right when fourth there behind Urticaire recently. Wrath Of Titans is a 'point' and bumper winner that tired into third on its hurdle debut behind Moyle Park at the same track.
Verdict: Wrath Of Titans is the one that has ticks in the most boxes.
1.20 Grade Two Knight Frank
Juvenile Hurdle 2m
Analifet won easily first time up and looked even more polished on stepping up to Grade Three company when slamming Noble Inn and Clarcam at Fairyhouse. She is the standout juvenile right now and a worthy Triumph Hurdle favourite.
Guitar Pete is the pick of the rest on paper but was put in his place by Royal Irish Hussar at Cheltenham, form that has taken a knock since. French winner Arzembouy Premier is one to watch in the market on its debut for Gordon Elliott.
Verdict: There is simply no good reason to oppose Analifet.
1.50 Copper Face Jacks
Handicap Hurdle 2m 2f
Not For Changing was better value for his Fairyhouse win than the neck margin. His form has held up, but the handicapper hasn't missed him with an 11lb hike.
Sea Light warrants similar analysis. Backed as if defeat was out of the question at Thurles, he obliged in the manner of a fine horse, but is 10lbs higher now.
Sammy Black returns to hurdles for a first time since denying Not For Changing at Fairyhouse over Easter off a seven-pound higher mark. Second here last year, he should have a big say again this time, while Vaxalco is another to consider.
Jim Culloty's grey four-year-old has been running well over slightly further, and was just unlucky to get pinched close home at Fairyhouse last time.
Verdict: Vaxalco can overcome the drop in trip to prevail in a competitive affair.
2.20 Racing Post Handicap
Chase 2m 1f
Savello reverts to handicap company, but this won't be easy under top-weight. Perfect Smile, Shanpallas, Gentleman Duke and Cairdin are all unexposed contenders.
Placed in four of his five chasing starts, Cairdin was a fine second to Trifolium at Thurles, and he won here 12 months ago off a pound higher mark over hurdles.
Verdict: Brian Hayes' five-pound claim makes Cairdin seem really well in.
2.55 Grade One Racing Post
Novice Chase 2m 1f
Champagne Fever drops back in trip for what should be a fair test for the dual Cheltenham Festival winner. He was flawless on his debut over two-and-a-half miles at Punchestown, but he was also entitled to beat his rivals in the manner that he did.
Trifolium is the most accomplished of his opposition here, though he was put firmly in his place by the classy Felix Yonger at Naas. He would appreciate any drying of the ground and is certainly one that could make a race of it if he continues to improve.
Defy Logic went down gallantly to Felix Yonger at Punchestown previously.
His front-running style could bring him into early conflict with Champagne Fever, but he is classy and unexposed so should have his best days in front of him yet.
County Hurdle hero Ted Veale will come on for his debut third at Cheltenham, while Road To Riches lost little in defeat when third to Don Cossack in the Drinmore. He may need further than this, a comment that might also apply to Art Of Logistics.
Dessie Hughes' charge didn't seem to run his race in the Drinmore. Prior to that he looked pretty smart, so it will be interesting to see if this trip is to his liking after all.
Verdict: Champagne Fever is a horse of enormous potential in this discipline.
3.20 Donohue Marquees INH
Flat Race 2m
A minefield of a bumper simply because so many appear to hold live chances. All Hell Let Loose and Fort Smith have caught the eye over hurdles, with Macbride, The Herds Garden, Windsor Park, Mr Diablo, New World and Vedettariat all showing promise in bumpers. The market moves will be interesting.
Verdict: Fort Smith's debut fifth to Moyle Park was particularly encouraging.