Mullins prepares to declare novice hand
Leopardstown 'Arkle' will help to solve riddle
A second dust-up between Hurricane Fly, Jezki and Our Conor means that Sunday's Irish Champion Hurdle sells itself, but the card's other Grade One is also going to be some contest.
There is even a chance that the Frank Ward Solicitors Arkle Chase might yet prove the more informative of the two prestigious Leopardstown events.
If The Fly gets turned over in the mouthwatering BHP Insurance-sponsored two-miler, then obviously we'll have learned something new, but the Arkle seems destined to be instructive. The final declarations might even be revelatory.
Predictably, the stamp of our indomitable champion trainer Willie Mullins is all over the race, with Felix Yonger heading ante-post lists at 9/4, with Champagne Fever (4/1) and Mozoltov (9/1) his other potential big players.
Paul Nolan's Defy Logic is the layers' second best at 5/2, with Trifolium, Don Cossack, Mallowney and Djakadam all capable of making their presence felt.
Depending on what Mullins runs, the Arkle could be crucial in terms of deciphering some of the riddles that the Carlow-based juggernaut has thrown up.
Defy Logic was no match for Felix Yonger at Punchestown in November, but he capitalised on Champagne Fever's blunder at Leopardstown on St Stephen's Day, when Trifolium took second, having chased home Felix Yonger at Navan.
Felix Yonger throttled White Star Line over two-and-a-half miles on his Punchestown fencing debut last May, and only Simonsig beat him over a furlong further (albeit over hurdles) at Cheltenham in March 2012.
Come St Stephen's Day, Mullins opted to send him to Limerick for a Grade Two over two-four, leaving Champagne Fever to tackle the Grade One over the minimum trip in south Co Dublin.
Even now, it's hard to know the full extent of what can be gleaned from either race.
In deep ground at Limerick, Felix Yonger was thwarted by his less illustrious stablemate The Paparazzi Kid -- also engaged on Sunday -- when his fencing lacked its usual fluency. He eventually chased down the winner on the run to the line, but it was a puzzling defeat that raised more questions than answers.
The big race at Leopardstown was equally inconclusive, as, after going toe to toe with Defy Logic, Champagne Fever looked in command until the lights went out following that desperate mistake at the second-last.
Having suffered similar shock defeats in each of the previous two seasons en route to glory over two miles at Cheltenham, most of his fans would have been relatively unperturbed.
Mullins' reaction, though, was significant, as he suggested he'd consider stepping the gangly grey back up in trip, with the Grade One Dr PJ Moriarty on February 9 an obvious target.
In the same breath, he noted the renewed potency of Felix Yonger's two-mile form-lines, prompting you to conclude that events that unfolded within 10 minutes of each other had clarified things in his head.
The various permutations will have been busily whirring round inside there ever since, but you wonder if his deliberations aren't slightly less vexing than they might have been before.
Perhaps crucially, for the first time ever the Jewson Novices' Chase over the intermediate trip has Grade One status this year, the first Festival race to be elevated to the highest echelon since 2008.
While the debate over the Festival's evolution and whether or not the Jewson deserves such a promotion is for another day, that it is now a Grade One is inevitably going to make it a more appealing option. When Mullins won it with Sir Des Champs in 2012, it was the poor relation.
With its newly-enhanced status, though, it will be less of a consolation prize. The entries for Cheltenham's three novice chase majors will be unveiled on Thursday, and Champagne Fever could well be put in all three.
Still, at this stage of the campaign, Mullins might not be keen to ask him to stretch for the opposite extreme of the RSA's extended three miles.
A year ago, you suspect the Closutton maestro wouldn't have willingly given the Jewson a second thought for a heavyweight like Champagne Fever.
That he might now does nothing to dispel the notion that the Arkle or RSA could be robbed of a marquee name, but it will surely make his life a mite easier. We await Friday's morning's declarations with interest.
RULE DOMINATES AT NAAS AS DUNGUIB RUNS WELL ON RETURN
Rule The World (5/4 favourite) added his name to the travelling World Hurdle contingent with a decisive victory in Saturday's Limestone Lad Hurdle at Naas.
Mouse Morris' 2013 Neptune Novices' Hurdle runner-up made all in deep ground to run out a convincing winner of the Grade Two.
It was Bryan Cooper's mount's best performance since Cheltenham last year, prompting World Hurdle sponsors Ladbrokes to cut him to 20/1 from 33/1.
On its first start for three years, the 2009 Champion Bumper hero Dunguib ran a hugely satisfactory race to finish third.
Now an 11-year-old, he travelled with all his old enthusiasm and hurdled fluently before keeping on at one pace, and Philip Fenton confirmed that he was 100pc sound yesterday morning, with next month's Red Mills Hurdle now on the agenda.
Annie Power's Cheltenham target remains undecided, though owner Rich Ricci has admitted that the main reason her novice chasing career was delayed was because of a desire to see her run in the Champion Hurdle.
Her Willie Mullins-trained stable-mate Boston Bob will contest the three-mile Galmoy Hurdle at Gowran Park on Thursday ahead of a likely cut at the World Hurdle.
Mullins' Ivan Grozny thrust himself into the Triumph Hurdle picture courtesy of a straightforward victory under Ruby Walsh at Naas.
Ted Walsh's Barry Connell-owned Foxrock (11/8 fav) is as low as 7/1 favourite for the Festival's four-miler after he saw out the three miles of the Grade Two Novice Chase better than the highly-regarded Sizing Gold in the hands of Danny Mullins.
However, training honours on the day went to Liz Doyle, who secured a quick 254/1 double. The wily Wexford handler watched 33/1 shot Glen Beg get up late on for Kevin Sexton in the handicap hurdle, before Adrian Heskin drove Reality Dose to a decisive win in the handicap chase.
HIDDEN CYCLONE BLOWN AWAY BY IMPRESSIVE GRUGY
Sire De Grugy once again confirmed himself the best two-mile chaser in the business outside of Sprinter Sacre with a comprehensive victory in the Clarence House Chase at Ascot on Saturday.
Gary and Jamie Moore are eager to have a cut at Nicky Henderson's superstar in the Queen Mother Champion Chase.
If Sprinter Sacre is on his game, Sire De Grugy would surely extend his 100pc strike-rate of second-place finishes at Prestbury Park, but it's hard to see anything beating him if the title-holder misfires.
Irish raider Hidden Cyclone ran creditably to fill the runner-up spot in a Grade One for a second time in a row.
John 'Shark' Hanlon's stable star jumped left, but plugged on to finish 11 lengths behind, and Hanlon said Andrew McNamara's mount would run in either the Champion or Ryanair Chase next.
RING COMES OF AGE IN STYLE WITH FINE HAYDOCK DOUBLE
Conor Ring took his career tally to 15 with a high-profile Haydock double spearheaded by Wychwoods Brook (16/1) in the £50,000 Peter Marsh Chase on Saturday.
The talented 7lb claimer, a native of Charleville in Co Cork, who turns 21 tomorrow, initiated his fine brace aboard the 22/1 shot Extreme Impact.
Both horses are trained by his Welsh boss Evan Williams, whom he joined on Michael Hourigan's recommendation in the autumn of 2011.
Melodic Rendezvous ran out a stylish winner of the card's Champion Hurdle trial for Jeremy Scott and Nick Scholfield, though victories for Daryl Jacob, AP McCoy, Aidan Coleman and Paddy Brennan ensured the ex-pat jockeys dominated proceedings.
Brennan had just two rides on the day for his regular employer Tom George, the first of which, Ballinvarrig, also obliged at Ascot. Eager not to miss out, the ambitious Galwegian chartered a helicopter to fly north in time to partner novice hurdler Wuff.
TWEET OF THE WEEKEND
Delighted to get off the mark for 2014 and off the cold jockeys list!! Finally a change of luck! :-))
-- Kilkenny native Conor O'Farrell got off the mark for the new year at Towcester yesterday, coming from last to first aboard the Mark Rimmell-trained Twoway.
2 Winners that Noel Fehily requires to complete a maiden century following a sensational 272/1 hat-trick at Ascot on Saturday. Having sat Friday out after giving his wrist a knock in a fall on Thursday, the exquisite Cork-born 38-year-old bounced back with televised wins aboard Highland Retreat for Harry Fry and two for Fry's old boss Paul Nicholls on Irish Saint and Bury Parade.