Tuesday 20 February 2018

Mullins leads the charge

Richard Forristal

Richard Forristal

Willie Mullins leads a strong Irish challenge on day one of the Cheltenham Festival, with the champion trainer double-handed in his bid for a first Champion Hurdle victory.

Ruby Walsh, who is also seeking a first triumph in the two-mile championship event, takes the reins on Hurricane Fly, while Paul Townend switches to last year's County Hurdle hero Thousand Stars.

Mullins' decision to replace Townend with Walsh on Hurricane Fly was a blow to this year's young champion jockey-elect, whose haul of six Grade One victories on the son of Montjeu included a debut Irish Champion Hurdle success for the stable at Leopardstown in January.

Nonetheless, Mullins, who has yet to win any of the four traditional championship races at Cheltenham, has opted for Walsh's cool hand.

As well as Thousand Stars, Townend also gets the leg-up on the smart Zaidpour in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle.

The one note of caution, on a day when Mullins attempts to win the mares' race for a third time in a row with Quevega, is the stable's recent form. Of the last 12 favourites to represent the Closutton outfit in recent weeks, just one has landed the money.

Dunguib completes the Irish contingent in the feature, as Philip Fenton's 2009 Champion Bumper winner sets out to atone for what was an unsatisfactory defeat behind today's favourite Menorah in the opener last year.

A staying-on third then -- having taken the long way round under Brian O'Connell -- Dunguib is something of the forgotten horse in the race.

He's now at 9/1 in a high-quality renewal that lost some of its gloss with Binocular's surprise defection on Sunday morning. Noel Meade is another who has something of an old score to settle on the day.

The Meath handler saddles Realt Dubh in the Irish Independent Arkle Trophy, and he will be hoping for more luck than he has enjoyed in this Grade One in the past.

In 1998, Meade watched as Hill Society failed by an agonising short-head under Richard Dunwoody, while 11 years ago Frozen Groom and Barry Geraghty crashed out at the third-last when travelling like a winner. Few would begrudge him better luck now.

1.30 Stan James Supreme Novices' Hurdle 2m

Last year's runaway Champion Bumper winner Cue Card sets the standard. Colin Tizzard's five-year-old has not put a foot wrong in three outings over flights, as he could hardly be faulted for a sole defeat to Menorah when stepping out of novice company in the International Hurdle before Christmas.

The fact that he hasn't run since then is no great concern, and his proven affinity for Cheltenham will stand to him again.

Al Ferof, runner-up in the bumper 12 months ago, must rate as a serious danger to him.

A faller on his hurdling debut, Ruby Walsh's mount took third in a Grade One at Newbury, and two subsequent wins suggest he is on the up.

The Totesport Gold Trophy hero Recession Proof is another to consider, while Barry Geraghty has opted for Spirit Son, of Nicky Henderson's potent-looking three-pronged attack.

The Irish challenge is not easy to weigh up. Royal Bond winner Zaidpour has found one too good on his two most recent starts at Leopardstown, but it is of note that he is Willie Mullins' chosen representative here.

Hidden Universe, which recorded an easy success in the Champion Bumper on good ground at Punchestown, might be suited by today's better ground.

He was disappointing when fourth behind Oscars Well and Zaidpour in the Deloitte in February, but conditions were extremely testing that day.

Rathlin and Magen's Star are also interesting. Both have undoubted potential, but might not be quite ready for a race of this quality.

Verdict -- Cue Card may well be banker material.

2.05 Irish Independent Arkle Trophy Chase 2m

Realt Dubh is the only Irish representative in a renewal that lacks a Grade One-winning hurdler.

Noel Meade's big seven-year-old, like many of his rivals, was always going to be better over fences, so it would be unfair to judge them on anything other than their chasing form.

As a winner of two recent Grade Ones at Leopardstown, Realt Dubh must have a chance, but there is a suspicion that two miles on good ground around here will not be a stern enough test for him. The home team looks to have the edge.

Philip Hobbs' decision to run Captain Chris in this rather than in the Jewson on Thursday is respected.

But his son of King's Theatre is bred for further, and confirmed as much when finally getting off the mark over fences in a 2m 5f contest at Kempton in February.

Medermit is also better over further. It was over the same trip at Sandown that he excelled last time, and he may be an unreliable market leader.

Finian's Rainbow must be on any short-list, despite not winning as impressively as the 11-length margin suggests on his most recent start. Nicky Henderson's charge was fifth behind Peddlers Cross 12 months ago, so he has proven course form, too.

The other that jumps off the page is Ghizao. Although beaten on his chasing debut, he has been flawless in two starts since, running out a facile winner from Captain Chris at the November meeting.

He then gave that one 10lbs when successful at Newbury, so he has the form in the book.

Verdict -- Ghizao's fluent fencing to give him an edge over Finian's Rainbow.

2.40 Stewart Family Spinal Research Handicap Chase 3m

Rare Bob and Slippers Percy have both been running well this season, and the latter is particularly interesting in his first handicap over fences.

Denis Hogan's charge has run with credit in two Graded races since winning at Thurles in January, so he could get involved off just 10st 9lb.

Reve De Sivola is another novice that catches the eye. Nick Williams' six-year-old is better than when well beaten behind Medermit at Sandown last time.

If he recaptures anything like the form that saw him finish second to Peddlers Cross 12 months ago, he will represent tremendous value at 10/1.

Bensalem, Sunnyhillboy and Great Endeavour look the pick of the rest. The latter was a winner here last year, though he has plenty on at today's weights.

Bensalem hasn't run over fences since falling two-out in this in 2010, and will be a force to be reckoned with off the same mark now.

Verdict -- Reve De Sivola's jumping needs to improve, but he is thrown in if it does.

3.20 Stan James Champion Hurdle 2m

Not with standing the absence of the reigning champion Binocular, this is still going to take some winning.

Of the remaining 11 runners, five have amassed a total of 14 Grade Ones, while six bring an aggregate of 18 successive wins to the table.

Reputations are going to fall, that much is guaranteed.

Given that their very best form has come on slower going, ground conditions may not be ideal for the two leading Irish hopes, Hurricane Fly and Dunguib. Nonetheless, they have won on similar going in the past, and come here in good spirits.

The main negative against Hurricane Fly, which is responsible for half of the Grade One collective, is that he has not run here before. Alderbrook was the last horse to overcome that stat in 1995, but Ruby Walsh's presence in the saddle ought to help counter the lack of racecourse experience.

Dunguib had an interrupted preparation, but did everything right when he finally reappeared at Gowran Park last month. He will be fitter now, and, while he came up short when third to Menorah in the opener 12 months ago, you couldn't rule him out.

Overturn will set the strong pace that Dunguib needs, while his stablemate Peddlers Cross brings the only unblemished record into the race.

The Oscar six-year-old is honest and straightforward, and was brilliant here last year when winning the novice hurdle that Istabraq and Hardy Eustace won before going on to further glory in this.

Menorah is the other prime home contender. Unbeaten in three starts over course and distance, he has looked the part ever since he won a bumper on his debut for Tom Mullins two years ago, and is a worthy favourite.

Verdict -- Hurricane Fly, the classiest Irish hurdler since Istabraq, can assert his superiority.

4.0 Glenfarclas Cross-country H'cap Chase 3m 7f

Enda Bolger has farmed this race since its inception in 2005. Dual winner Garde Champetre bids for a three-timer off a 4lb lower mark than when fifth 12 months ago, while none of Bolger's other three runners can be discounted.

If something is to thwart the Bruree man's attempt to record a remarkable fifth win in the race, it may well be one of his fellow raiders. Of the five others to cross the water, last year's surprise victor A New Story has plenty going for him once again.

He is 6lbs higher in the ratings, but he still gets in off a fair 10st 5lb when you factor in his rider's claim, and he ran a cracker when third over hurdles at Naas last time. The versatile One Cool Cookie is another to consider under Davy Russell.

Verdict -- A New Story is a solid each-way option at up to 10/1.

4.40 David Nicholson Mares' Hurdle 2m 4f

The peerless Quevega has taken advantage of relatively poor fields to win this in 2009 and 2010. This year's race may be a little stronger, with Sparky May the most likely threat to the hat-trick bid.

That one is now unbeaten in four starts over flights, and you couldn't but be impressed by the way she dismissed the more experienced and much higher-rated Carole's Legacy at Ascot.

Should Sparky May improve again, Quevega is certain to have a race on her hands. Willie Mullins' star mare has not run since cruising to a first Grade One triumph over three miles at Punchestown in April.

A longer lay-off proved no impediment a year ago, so there is no reason to believe it will now either.

Verdict -- Quevega remains difficult to oppose on her reappearance.

5.15 Centenary Novices' Handicap Chase 2m 4f

The last race of the day has the makings of an absolute minefield for punters. Gordon Elliott's Tharawaat is progressive, but whether he will be suited by the drying ground is a moot point.

A similar comment applies to Arthur Moore's Lastoftheleaders and the Tony McCoy-ridden Quantitativeeasing.

That one has been in fine form, winning twice since coming up well short against Time For Rupert on its chasing debut.

Definity should be thereabouts under Ruby Walsh, while the five-year-old Rougham has scope to improve.

Philip Hobbs' gelding scored on its first start in a handicap over fences at Ascot, and is just 6lbs higher now.

Verdict -- Rougham gets a tentative nod to defy fancy odds.

Irish Independent

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