Hurricane Fly tops the list as jumping season gets into gear
It's that time of year again. The likes of Camelot and So You Think might still have a part to play as the Flat fizzles out, but attentions now begin to turn inexorably towards the jumping game. Heroes from last term such as Sizing Europe and First Lieutenant have kick-started the current campaign with varying degrees of success in recent weeks.
Today, Master Minded adds further weight to proceedings at the first Aintree meeting of the season. Next weekend, Diamond Harry, Time For Rupert and Nacarat are scheduled for an early dust-up in the Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby.
It continues to come thick and fast thereafter, with Down Royal's JNWine.Com Champion Chase set to provide an intriguing skirmish between Sizing Europe, Rubi Light, Quito De La Roque and Bostons Angel. Then things get really serious.
Over one weekend in November, the mighty Long Run will have a first outing since his incredible Gold Cup victory, with the ageing Kauto Star, third then, likely to be among his Haydock opposition. At Punchestown 24 hours later, Hurricane Fly, Willie Mullins' scintillating Champion Hurdle winner, will turn out.
Having missed the two previous Festivals in the Cotswolds, 'The Fly' headlined that remarkable week in March that yielded 13 Irish-trained winners. Here, he tops a list of 10 that might reach similarly illustrious highs over the months ahead.
Or at least that's the theory.
1 Seasoned hurdler
Hurricane Fly (Willie Mullins)
The classy French import's only defeat on either side of the Irish Sea for Willie Mullins came when he was a below-par third to Solwhit in the Morgiana Hurdle on his 2009/2010 debut at Punchestown. Troubled by injuries then, he finally got to Cheltenham for the first time in March, when a stunning Champion Hurdle success proved what an exceptional talent he is. The outstanding hurdler of his generation, his campaign gets under way back at Punchestown in the Morgiana next month.
2 Second-season hurdler
The Real Article (Edward O'Grady)
The controversy surrounding his narrow July defeat at Tipperary apart, The Real Article is one of the most progressive hurdlers in training. His subsequent fourth in the Galway Hurdle was a meritable turn on his handicap bow, but a return to the Limerick Junction venue three weeks ago confirmed the six-year-old's real potential. On that occasion, he thrashed two 150-plus rated operators, leaving the distinct impression that he isn't done improving yet. Next stop Down Royal in a fortnight.
3 Novice hurdler
Mount Benbulben (Gordon Elliott)
As the only horse to beat Lovethehigherlaw, few novices boast such a noteworthy CV as this Beneficial gelding. A point-to-point winner in January, he impressed when landing a bumper by seven lengths at Thurles in February, before then putting the subsequent Punchestown Champion Bumper-winner to the sword by a similar margin. Purchased by Barry Connell for £250,000? in April, Mount Benbulben makes his first start for Gordon Elliott at Galway today -- watch this space.
4 Seasoned chaser
Rubi Light (Robbie Hennessy)
At just six years of age, last season's Ryanair Chase third has immense scope. Prior to Cheltenham, he ran out a 10-length winner of the Red Mills Chase at Gowran Park, and was about to dish out a similar thrashing to the reigning champion chaser Sizing Europe on his reappearance at the same venue three weeks ago. He crashed out at the last on that occasion, a rare lapse in concentration for an otherwise sound jumper. Another that is Down Royal-bound for the JNWine.com Chase.
5 Second-season chaser
Quito De La Roque (Colm Murphy)
Few novices progressed with as much panache as this one last term. In six starts over fences, he was beaten only by the subsequent Cheltenham Festival scorer Bostons Angel on just his second attempt in the Dr PJ Moriarty over Christmas. He then won three Grade Twos, including the Mildmay at Aintree, before signing off with a superb Grade One rout at Punchestown. Is pencilled in to meet Rubi Light at Down Royal.
6 Novice chaser
Solwhit (Charles Byrnes)
In four starts last term, Solwhit won once, his sixth Grade One triumph coming at Punchestown in November. On the other three occasions, he ran into one Hurricane Fly, and came out second best each time. Little surprise, then, that he is being switched to the bigger obstacles, with a debut outing expected in the next month. The highest-rated Irish hurdler to switch codes since Limestone Lad's mixed endeavours in 2000/2001, he ought to make a big impression.
7 Handicap chaser
Muirhead (Noel Meade)
A Grade One-winning hurdler that ultimately failed to cut it at the highest level, but is a horse to keep on side of after sluicing up in the Munster National. That was just his fourth start over fences, and an 11lb hike still leaves him over stone shy of his best hurdling mark. With the step up to three miles key that day, he could lead the charge to end a 21-year drought for Irish-trained horses in next month's Hennessy Gold Cup.
8 Handicap hurdler
Nearest The Pin (Tony Martin)
After three middling efforts in testing going, this one turned on the style to score on its handicap debut on good ground at Fairyhouse over Easter. Off a 13lb higher mark of 115 at Punchestown next time, he ran with immense credit to push Willie Mullins' progressive hurdler Johnny McGeeney hard, the pair drawing a long way clear of the rest. While fences are also on the agenda, he could still have a say in a good hurdle race off his current rating of 125.
9 Dark horse
Rathlin (Mouse Morris)
A maiden hurdle winner last March in advance of running brilliantly at Cheltenham 10 days later, this fellow went on to be second at Fairyhouse, before showing the effects of his first full campaign when disappointing at Punchestown. On his fencing debut at the Kildare venue recently, seasoned paddock-watchers suggested that he looked burly beforehand, and he ran accordingly, travelling and jumping well until emptying abruptly three-out. Time should show Rathlin to be far better than that.
10 Bumper horse
Shotavodka (Sinead O'Sullivan)
Fourth in a decent standard of contest on its debut at Limerick in May, Shotavodka's devastating 19-length rout at Tramore two weeks ago was a deeply impressive performance. While it was, admittedly, a poor contest, the manner in which the well-bred Alderbrook gelding took it up with a circuit to run and proceeded to gallop his rivals into submission suggested that he could yet have a bright future.