Coney Island can bounce back to best as trainers' battle takes centre stage
If a main event is only as good as the undercard that precedes it, then punters are in for a treat at Fairyhouse today as the race for the Irish trainers' championship heats up between Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott.
Should Elliott take the Irish Grand National for the first time, the Meath trainer would look to have an insurmountable lead in his bid for a first trainers' crown, but if Mullins breaks his National duck then he would take a huge chunk out of his deficit. The stage is set for an intriguing day, but there's many other questions to be answered with a host of horses out on a retrieval mission.
When Balko Des Flos strode past Un De Sceaux in the Ryanair Chase at Cheltenham the hot favourite was stuffed and Mullins' star chaser bids to bounce back when stepped down in grade.
It won't be easy, however, with Eddie Harty's Coney Island also out to set the record straight in the Grade Two Devenish Chase, while the Elliott pair of A Toi Phil and Doctor Phoenix ensure this will be a cracking warm-up.
A lot of Cheltenham dockets went up in smoke when the Mullins hotpot Getabird failed to land a blow in the Supreme three weeks ago and the six-year-old bids to atone in the Grade Two Rathbarry & Glenview Studs Novice Hurdle, with Elliott pitting Fred Winter winner Veneer Of Charm against him.
Mullins is outnumbered 13 to four by Elliott in terms of runners in the National, but the Closutton maestro makes up for it in the Grade Two Keelings Irish Strawberry Hurdle, where he saddles seven - led by Coquin Mans - compared to three Cullentra runners.
The leading trainers dominate proceedings on paper, but there are sure to be many surprises at the Meath track on one of Irish racing's biggest days.
2.10 FARMHOUSE FOODS NOVICE HANDICAP HURDLE 2m
A wide open betting heat which looks a minefield for punters with a host of unexposed runners and Jessica Harrington's progressive Whisperinthebreeze is an interesting contender under Robbie Power.
The five-year-old impressed in his maiden hurdle win at Naas, but preference is for the lightly-weighted Quamino.
Wexford trainer Paul Nolan is in sparkling form after winning with a bit in hand on St Patrick's Day and he should be right in the mix.
Verdict: The improving Quamino (e/w) should be thereabouts for Bryan Cooper.
2.45 Grade Two Rathbarry & Glenview Studs Nov Hurdle 2m
No horse priced bigger than 7/2 has won this in the last 10 runnings, so all eyes will be on Getabird to bounce back after flopping at the Festival.
Should Mullins' six-year-old show the form which saw him swat aside Mengli Khan in a Punchestown Grade Two in January, Paul Townend's mount should prevail, but there are dangers.
Stablemate Sharjah has failed to live up to his promise, with the going likely to be against him, while Veneer Of Charm receives 16lbs in allowances from the likely favourite and is a danger under Jack Kennedy.
Verdict: It's hard to see past Getabird.
3.15 Fairyhouse Steel Handicap Hurdle 2m 6f
Another tricky handicap, but with doubts hanging over many of the runners regarding the trip, fitness and the going, Space Cadet ticks several boxes reverting back to hurdles.
Elliott's eight-year-old has been keeping good company over fences - placed in competitive handicaps like the Thyestes, Irish National Trial and the Leinster National - and is well treated over the smaller obstacles.
Verdict: Space Cadet looks well treated.
3.50 Grade Two Keelings Irish Strawberry Hurdle 2m 4f
The market usually tells the tale, with no horse bigger than 4/1 prevailing in the last 10 years, including five favourites and five victories for team Mullins, but this year may be different.
Last year's winner Renneti is one of seven from a powerful Closutton team, including Coral Cup winner Bleu Berry, but they may have to play second fiddle with Identity Chief's fourth place in the Champion Hurdle the stand-out in an ultra-competitive contest.
When it comes to freshness, however, it's hard to rule out Forge Meadow and Harrington's mare can repeat the form of her Red Mills Hurdle win over Henry de Bromhead's runner with a 4lbs swing also in her favour.
Verdict: There's an awful lot to like about Forge Meadow.
4.25 Grade Two Devenish Chase 2m 4f
Un De Sceaux looks hard to oppose, but considering his clear-cut defeat in the Ryanair Chase and his growing years, backing the 10-year-old at odds-on might not be the wisest move.
English raider Kylemore Lough won the Ryanair Gold Cup Novice Chase here two years ago, but Harry Fry's charge has disappointed since, while the improving Doctor Phoenix is a danger for Elliott and Davy Russell.
The forgotten horse of the race is Coney Island. Touted as a Gold Cup contender before flopping in the Ascot Chase, Harty's seven-year-old is a live contender if producing his best and the value bet against the hotpot.
Verdict: Coney Island to be in the first two if returning to his best.
5.45 Fred Kenny Lifetime Service To Racing Handicap Chase 3m 150yds
This could end up being a battle between two Elliott runners.
Out Sam lost his chance when travelling sweetly on the home turn in the Ulster National as a loose horse forced him wide and impeded his progress, but the nine-year-old can gain revenge on stable companion Poormans Hill, which picked up the pieces on that day.
Verdict: Out Sam to make amends.
6.15 Cawley Furniture INH Flat Race 2m
Some smart sorts have won this race, including Samcro 12 months ago, and Elliott can score again with Getaway John, which finished second to subsequent Champion Bumper third Tornado Flyer on his penultimate start.
Verdict: Getaway John can land the last.