Faugheen should reassert his authority under Walsh
Somewhat unexpectedly, Leopardstown's BHP Irish Champion Hurdle will tomorrow host a mock version of the real thing in gruelling conditions.
As a rule, Willie Mullins always strives to keep his best horses apart ahead of Cheltenham in March. However, the reigning champion Faugheen, his nemesis Nichols Canyon and the perennial bridesmaid Arctic Fire are all owned by different people.
Each party is believed to have been eager for a cut at this €110,000 Grade One, which is sporting, but also just as well. In a nutshell, apart from Identity Thief, there aren't any other contenders here, and British trainers tend not to travel to this fixture.
That highlights the potential pitfall of having a monopoly of talent concentrated in so few hands, so the Leopardstown executive will be relieved that all three have been given the go-ahead. In short, it promises to be an utterly fascinating encounter, with Ruby Walsh predictably staying loyal to the commandeering Faugheen.
Walsh had no such dilemma ahead of the Arkle Novices' Chase. Again, were the likes of Killultagh Vic and Shaneshill stabled somewhere other than Closutton, the €54,000 winner's purse might not look so much of a non-event.
With the undeniably exciting Douvan trading at as low as 1/14, though, against two inferior rivals, this is a Grade One of pretty lamentable proportions.
12.50 Donohue Marquees Maiden Hurdle 2m
Don't Touch It has been second in four of his last five. Maybe he has a soft centre, but he did little wrong behind A Toi Phil at Christmas.
Jack The Wire, by the same sire Scorpion, is a capable sort but may need this experience, while Lip Service might also need time.
Beau Mome flopped on his Irish bow, but showed much more here last time. He raced keenly before tiring into fourth behind Coney Island. If he settles better, this won't take as much winning.
Verdict: A chance is taken on Beau Mome settling adequately.
1.20 Nathaniel, Lacy & Partners Solicitors Novices' Hurdle 2m 4f
There was lots to like about the way that A Toi Phil saw off Don't Touch It here last month. He goes in the ground, has massive scope to improve and should stay the extra couple of furlongs.
Acapella Bourgeois and Chain Gang also won maidens here over Christmas, over this trip.
Acapella Bourgeois did a lot of it from the front and Chain Gang only led on the line with a late lunge. Both are likeable sorts, though may ultimately need further as time goes on.
Woodland Opera beat Coney Island in a Navan maiden before capitulating behind Long Dog when stepped up in class. He is better than that and could have a big say again now, while Chitu probably has a little more to find.
Verdict: If A Toi Phil improves, he could prove hard to beat.
1.55 Grade One Frank Ward Solicitors Arkle Novices' Chase 2m 1f
Hard to picture this being anything other than a formality for Douvan. At different removes, he has thrashed both of his rivals.
Ground-versatile, he has a frighteningly high cruising speed and seems to be refining his already fluent fencing technique as he goes. Domesday Brook and Velvet Maker are both nice horses but their only hope here would derive from some or other misfortune occurring to Douvan.
Verdict: Douvan can complete his Cheltenham preparations at will.
2.30 Handicap Chase 2m 1f
Treat Yourself won this off a four-pound higher mark in 2014. He doesn't win often but he continues to run well, especially here.
When he was fourth here last month, Forty Foot Tom finished third, having made the running. He is also four pounds higher than when he won here in 2014 and could feature prominently again, though he is always a little vulnerable.
Rogue Trader makes his handicap bow off the same mark that he was second off over flights at Punchestown in the spring. He has run well in novices' and will surely win off this sort of mark sooner or later. Life will be tougher for Eiri Na Casa after being put up 11lbs for winning at Naas, while the likes of fellow Naas winner Boher Call and Kates Benefit are others to note.
Verdict: Treat Yourself is overdue a result in one of these.
3.05 BHP Insurances Irish Champion Hurdle 2m
Tactics will likely prove crucial here. When Faugheen wasn't granted an uncontested lead in the Morgiana Hurdle and when Nichols Canyon then persisted to serve it up to him late on in a way that has never happened before, the response was unconvincing.
At Kempton over Christmas, he made amends in emphatic style when slamming The New One.
His engine looked as good as ever that day, so it will be interesting if Nichols Canyon is again tasked with unsettling him, as allowing Faugheen to dictate may undermine Nichols Canyon's chance. By the same token, neither will Ruby Walsh want to give Nichols Canyon a freebie.
Paradoxically, of course, if they take each other on, there is a danger that they will cut each other's throats, so the early exchanges will be intriguing. Nichols Canyon is teak-tough.
He loves a battle, and it may be that Paul Townend will sit on Faugheen's girth or tail and hope to nail him late. It isn't beyond him to cause an upset, and the same applies to Arctic Fire.
The decision to run him in deep ground over three miles at Christmas came out of left-field.
However, Arctic Fire isn't far off the very best at this job, and could capitalise if the two main protagonists happen to prematurely punch each other out.
In all probability, the only relevance of Plinth or King Of The Picts would be if one of them should for some reason be charged with setting the pace, which is highly unlikely.
Verdict: Faugheen warrants the benefit of the doubt to gain vengeance for his sole defeat.
3.35 Handicap Chase 2m 5f
Art Lord has just a four-pound penalty for dotting up at Ayr on Tuesday, but this will be tougher. Clar Na Mionn might be handicapped to the hilt after going up seven pounds for his victory here last time, while any amount of others have chances.
Kayf Supreme makes his handicap debut after running well to be fifth to Zabana over a slightly shorter trip. He has a lot of weight but is unexposed.
Knock Beauty is also of interest after finding some form again over flights last time. At her best, she would have claims.
Verdict: Knock Beauty is trusted to bounce back to form.
4.05 INH Flat Race 2m
Village Mystic won an English point-to-point without coming off the bridle and is by a sire whose offspring relish the mud. He will doubtless be a threat for his illustrious team.
Black Warrior and Candlestick have both run well in defeat, as has Jack Dillinger. Eddie Harty's Westerner gelding shaped nicely when third at Punchestown.
Verdict: Jack Dillinger has nap appeal after an encouraging debut.