Thursday 22 February 2018

Mullins holds powerful hand in quest for Christmas riches

Damien McElroy

A DOWNPOUR overnight is reckoned to be the sole remaining obstacle to an eagerly awaited start later today of the Christmas Festival at Leopardstown, where the considerable effects of yesterday's thaw were described as "incredible" by general manager Tom Burke.

"It was an extraordinary transformation from the previous evening when I had mentally resigned myself that we wouldn't be getting going again until Wednesday," said Burke.

"There was a stretch near the three-mile start which was waterlogged and we had some surface water elsewhere, but the track has improved steadily throughout the day and there's a very good chance now that we will be racing.

"I'm very happy with the way the day has turned out and hopefully we won't get much more rain before our inspection in the morning," he added.

Obviously, the going will be testing for the triple-header of Graded races over three miles: the Lexus Chase -- from which Kempton travellers Forpadydeplasterer and Sizing Europe plus last year's winner What A Friend were taken out -- the Fort Leney Novice Chase and the Woodies-sponsored Christmas Hurdle.

After his latest tour de force at Fairyhouse this month, champion trainer Willie Mullins brings a strong squad to the session, even allowing for the absence from the Fort Leney of Mikael D'Haguenet, whose last-fence tumble at the Meath venue was the yard's only real setback then.

Mourad, which stayed on resolutely to take fourth prize behind stable companion Hurricane Fly in the Hatton's Grace Hurdle, is favourite to get back on the winning trail in the Christmas Hurdle, before Mullins saddles Paul Townend's mount Cooldine, Kempes with Tony McCoy up and J'y Vole in the hands of Davy Condon in a concerted attack to scoop the Lexus Chase spoils that have gone for export for the past four years.

Just the long-absent 2006 hero The Listener, now rising 12, and last December's year-younger second Money Trix have made the journey from our neighbouring island, so it will be an acute disappointment if this two-pronged challenge isn't successfully rebuffed.

Last year's winner Powerstation is the senior member of the field for the Woodies promotion, as Shinrock Paddy steps up into all-aged staying company along with runaway Cork scorer Mossey Joe -- which puts his undefeated career record to a pretty stern test.

Lexus Chase (2.35)

Last year's second and third, Money Trix and Joncol -- which experienced vastly different fortunes in a return match in the Hennessy Gold Cup, the former being eclipsed as Joncol enjoyed a memorable win over Cooldine -- each have something to prove when attempting to profit from their conqueror What A Friend's absence.

Money Trix hasn't been seen since, Joncol jumped badly right when reportedly suffering from a muscle problem behind Big Zeb at Navan and, indeed, Cooldine let his followers down once more when outpaced by Tranquil Sea at Fairyhouse.

The 2006 victor The Listener has been off the track since his bloodless Down Royal success in early November 2009, while Notre Pere and Pandorama, which are also proven over this course and distance, seem to be struggling to recapture their best form.

Second-season novice Kempes will have the assistance of Tony McCoy, who landed the 2008 Lexus on Exotic Dancer.

However, he may not be as effective in the testing ground as stable companion J'y Vole, which has plenty going for her both on form and with the mares allowance.

Verdict -- J'y Vole makes most appeal.

Fort Leney Novice Chase (1.25)

Noel Meade has a prime candidate in Thegreatjohnbrowne as the former champion trainer tries for a rare hat-trick in this stamina test, for which Casey Jones was a shock scorer two years ago and Pandorama short-headed Weapon's Amnesty after a stirring duel 12 months back.

Thegreatjohnbrowne, which seems to be in his element when making the running, jumped impeccably on successive visits to Punchestown and probably sets the standard here in the regretted absences of Mikael D'Haguenet and Jessies Dream.

Elysian Rock, which is on a hat-trick mission, will hardly pose the same kind of threat as Head Of The Posse -- a decent third to Jessies Dream at Fairyhouse -- and Chicago Grey, which has been performing with plenty of credit around Cheltenham.

Verdict -- Thegreatjohnbrowne jumps for fun. Christmas Hurdle (2.0)

The current official ratings suggest the destination of the spoils should rest between Mourad, which is off the top mark of 156, Powerstation (150) and Oscar Dan Dan (150) as this trio meet yet again at Grade Two level, which is probably their rightful category.

Tapped for toe when Solwhit went for home at Fairyhouse with Hurricane Fly in hot pursuit, Mourad still emerged with his reputation intact as he rallied in fourth and that display on his seasonal return will surely see him head the betting.

Far from disgraced in fifth that day, Oscar Dan Dan might be more at home in the mud this time than Powerstation, but it's anyone's guess how Shinrock Paddy and the less exposed, though clearly also very talented, Mossey Joe will adapt to these conditions.

Verdict -- Go with Mourad.

Irish Independent

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