Morris' First Lieutenant can lay down the law to rivals
THIS afternoon's JNWine.com Champion Chase at Down Royal promises to be an absolutely fascinating edition of the season's opening Grade One.
Last year's winner Kauto Stone returns in an attempt to secure Paul Nicholls what would be a remarkable fifth success in the €140,000 feature since 2007.
The Gigginstown Stud-owned duo First Lieutenant and Quito De La Roque – second and third 12 months ago – are also back, as is the previous dual runner-up Sizing Europe, which Henry de Bromhead scratched because of the prevailing soft ground on the day in 2012.
With plenty of good in the ground this time, the former champion chaser should be suited by conditions as he strives to finally break his three-mile hoodoo.
Mount Benbulben, on the other hand, could be withdrawn if Gordon Elliott and Barry Connell feel that there isn't enough juice in the ground for him. Elliott's Roi Du Mee and Willie Mullins' Prince De Beauchene complete the field but they may lack the required class to make a genuine impact.
With the surface as it is, this is arguably as good a chance as Sizing Europe has had in the Maze venue's showpiece and there's no doubt that he looked on fine terms with himself when making a winning return at Gowran Park a month ago, jumping to the front in the Grade Two contest two fences from the end to land the spoils from a competitive field.
Nonetheless, First Lieutenant is also ideally suited by decent ground. Some are put off Mouse Morris' charge because of his tendency to produce his best in the spring.
However, part of the reason for that is simply that his high-cruising speed and exuberant fencing style are seen to far more impressive effect on slightly better going at that time of the year.
Granted, he was turned over at odds-on by Toner D'Oudaires and Roi Du Mee on good ground at Punchestown last month; however, he should come on a bundle for that outing, and there won't be too many of these able to live with Davy Russell's mount in the closing stages if he gets into a rhythm over his obstacles.
All told, First Lieutenant appeals as nap material to atone for last year's near miss, with Sizing Europe possibly the one to give him most to do again.
Should he line out, Mount Benbulben would also be feared, but it must be noted that an erratic jumper like him is hard to trust.
Toner D'Oudairies tackles the Grade Two Powers Irish Whiskey Chase, with Bryan Cooper keeping the ride and the champion jockey on Dessie Hughes' returning Tofino Bay, which chased Mount Benbulben home in a Grade One at Punchestown in April.
Dedigout and Oscars Well could also figure prominently, but rolling aces gets the nod to send the spoils back to Nicholls' Ditcheat base for a sixth time in a row.
Nick Scholfield's mount found only Opening Batsman too strong in what was a proper Kempton handicap back in February – he went down by a narrow margin that day and is the clear pick at the weights here on his first start since then.
Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh could plunder the opening juvenile hurdle with French import Gitane Du Berlais at the main expense of Guitar Pete, and the jockeys' championship leader also has a live chance aboard Twin Plan in the staying handicap chase. Successful off 115 over flights in the spring, James Lambe's smart Beneficial mare should be capable of exploiting her current chase rating of just 101.