Mullins primed to unleash Power on Ascot Hurdle
Willie Mullins has given a strong indication that his high-class unbeaten mare Annie Power will make her seasonal bow against Paul Nicholls' Zarkandar in Saturday's Ascot Hurdle.
The champion trainer also has the precocious five-year-old in the Hatton's Grade Hurdle at Fairyhouse on Sunday week. However, he has six others – including Hurricane Fly – to choose from for that and the conditions of Saturday's two-mile-three-furlong Grade Two are slightly more favourable.
"It looks like we'll go to Ascot," Mullins said. "She is well in herself and wherever we go, we are going to meet something good, so we think Ascot might be as good a starting point as any. The conditions of the race are also a good help as she only gets a half penalty."
Mullins also has last year's Hatton's Grace hero Zaidpour in both races, but it is the prospect of Annie Power clashing with Aintree Hurdle victor Zarkandar that adds real intrigue.
Melodic Rendezvous is another potential starter, though Jeremy Scott also has next week's Gerry Feilden and Fighting Fifth Hurdles to choose from. The bookies have made Annie Power as low as evens favourite for the Ascot Hurdle, with Zarkandar at 13/8.
Ruby Walsh's success on Quick Jack at Cheltenham last Friday is the only time the eight-time champion jockey has ridden in England since he stood down as Nicholls' stable jockey last May. With just a low-key Gowran meeting at home on Saturday, he's likely to opt to extend his winning sequence aboard Annie Power if she travels.
Walsh's blank at Fairyhouse yesterday was the first time he didn't register a winner in 10 days of activity that stretches back to Fairyhouse on the sixth. In that time, he has partnered 17 winners, extending his lead over Davy Russell and Andrew Lynch in the domestic jockeys' table to nearly double figures.
Of course, it was Walsh who partnered Zarkandar to Aintree glory in April. On Saturday, Nicholls' new stable jockey Daryl Jacob will take over, but the Amlin 1965 Chase on the same card could provide a first real test of Nicholls' commitment to the new arrangement.
Nicholls' entry in that is Al Ferof, the classy grey on which Walsh won Cheltenham's Paddy Power Gold Cup this time last year. He has partnered John Hales' grey to victory five times in all, including a famous Supreme Novices' Hurdle success at the 2011 Festival.
Wexford-born Jacob (30) has never ridden Al Ferof. However, he enjoyed his finest hour when galvanising Nicholls' Neptune Collonges, another Hales-owned grey, to a last-gasp triumph in the Aintree Grand National last year, so it would be interesting to see if Nicholls or Hales might be tempted by the prospect of an available Walsh on Saturday.
Nicholls has already signed up Noel Fehily to ride Silviniaco Conti in Saturday's Betfair Chase at Haydock. Another Grade One Aintree hurdle winner that could be poised to return earlier than scheduled is Solwhit. Charles Byrnes is considering letting him take his chance in the Hatton's Grace.
"He'll do a piece of work on Saturday and we'll make a decision on whether he goes to Fairyhouse after," Byrnes said.
AP McCoy, who was forced to miss five rides at Warwick yesterday following a fall at Fakenham on Tuesday, hopes to be passed fit for Chepstow this afternoon.
Also today, Liberating represents Jessica Harrington and Kevin Manning in a seven-furlong Listed race at Fountainebleu at 1.20.
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