PUNCHESTOWN officials were yesterday keeping their fingers crossed that the course would pass a morning inspection (7.30).
With the two steeplechases due to start their session, Punchestown racing manager Richie Galway explained that their anxiety to hold the event resulted in the maiden hurdle being divided "to maximise our options in the morning".
"There's more fresh ground available on the hurdles course than on the chase track, which might allow us to start an hour later and run five hurdle races and the bumper if the frost is severe enough," he explained. "They would be racing around the inner but finishing up the main straight."
Should the full programme survive, the €59 Hospitality Beginners Chase should go to Flat Out for Willie and Emmet Mullins as this grey gelding, which mixed it in the best of company over hurdles last season, has more scope for improvement than Healys Bar.
Tommy Stack's enviable strike rate with his occasional jumpers could be enhanced an hour later, when Limerick debut victor Mister Carter and Billy Lee renew their rivalry with their three closest pursuers there in the Visit Punchestown.com Juvenile Hurdle.
A greater threat to Lee's mount on this occasion than the reopposing trio of Tillahow, Chaperoned and Little Green or indeed Sunday's Naas winner Quarton looks to be the eminently consistent Fearless Falcon with talented teenager Keith Donoghue up.
Only half of the 10 original entries have accepted for the Dr Maire O'Connor Memorial Hurdle commemorating the Turf Club's late senior vet, with Willie Mullins opting to saddle last April's Grade One course hero Blackstairmountain instead of Ballyhaunis and Sivota.
Despite a rare below-par display at Down Royal in early November behind Gimli's Rock, Blackstairmountain -- which goes into the fray with an official rating of 145 and steps up in trip now -- will hardly be turned over by Rick, which is currently on a mark of 131.
The Mullins stable in fact may be the one to follow yet again at Punchestown as, in addition to old rivals Blackstairmountain and Flat Out, Mullins introduces French import Shifa in the first division of the maiden hurdle and another new recruit Samain for the bumper.
Successful first time out and then fourth on her only other Flat start, Shifa, with Mullins' son Patrick aboard, can make a winning Irish debut. Mullins should be on target too in the finale with Samain, which was a Fairyhouse runner-up in this grade last April for former trainer Eddie Hales.