Friendless Faugheen primed to prove his doubters wrong
All the leading protagonists have held their ground for the BHP Insurance Irish Champion Hurdle on Saturday with Faugheen the star turn as champion trainer Willie Mullins bids to make it a magnificent seven in the Leopardstown feature.
Mullins will hope that Faugheen - winner of this race in scintillating fashion two years ago - can put his Christmas problems behind him but the ten-year-old is friendless in the market (drifting from evens to as big as 7/4) as he faces an impressive cast including British raider Defi Du Seuil.
Much like Faugheen, Philip Hobbs's Triumph Hurdle winner is on a retrieval mission following a sub-par display at Ascot while last year's Supreme Novices' Hurdle second Melon - also trained by Mullins and vying for favouritism - and Gordon Elliott's Ryanair Hurdle winner Mick Jazz are all set to oppose in a high-class renewal.
That quartet heads the nine remaining horses including Elliott's exciting hurdler Samcro, which is unlikely to run and instead opt novice company until next season, while Jessica Harrington will be double-handed with Supasundae and 2014 Champion Hurdle hero Jezki also expected to take their place.
The card could throw up one of the duels of the Festival as Mullins' star novice chaser Footpad puts his burgeoning reputation on the line against Henry de Bromhead's Petit Mouchoir in the Frank Ward Solicitors Arkle Novice Chase.
Petit Mouchoir had Footpad a length behind in second when landing the Irish Champion Hurdle 12 months ago and after winning his chasing debut in fine fashion at Punchestown in October, he appears the main danger to Mullins' hotpot, which is already as short as 5/4 favourite for the Arkle at the Cheltenham Festival in March.
After claiming this prize with Un De Sceaux (2015) and Douvan (2016), Mullins holds three entries with the JP McManus-owned pair of Bon Papa and Demi Sang while the Limerick owner has a third potential representative in Ted Walsh's Any Second Now.
Mullins looks to also hold all the aces in the Grade Two Coral Dublin Chase with stablemates Yorkhill (4/5 favourite) and Min (9/4) battling at the head of the market while Nicky Richards brings Simply Ned back to the Foxrock track where he will renew his rivalry with Min after their controversial clash at Christmas and 2017 Champion Chase hero Special Tiara looks set to race on home soil for the first time in nearly two years.
Sunday's Unibet Irish Gold Cup will see the return of last year's Irish Grand National winner Our Duke - absent since a back injury picked up on his disappointing return at Down Royal in November - as the eight-year-old bids to book his place in Cheltenham's blue riband.
After taking all before him as a novice last season, Our Duke is one of ten remaining along with the likes of Mullins' Killultagh Vic and Djakadam, Tony Martin's Anibale Fly and last year's Cheltenham Gold Cup second Minella Rocco for Jonjo O'Neill.
Elsewhere, Gavin Cromwell's Espoir D'Allen will put his unbeaten record on the line in the Grade One Tattersalls Ireland Spring Juvenile Hurdle but the McManus-owned runner will have to be on his game with the Mullins-trained pair of Stormy Ireland and Mr Adjudicator as well as Elliott's Farclas heading some stiff opposition.