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Natural High can get Weld offto a perfect start at Ballybrit

A typically competitive seven-race programme gets the Galway festival under way at Ballybrit this evening.

While the anomaly of the mixed standard of racing and the legions of revellers that frequent the week-long gala is often commented on, tonight's fare is a fine example of what it is about the place that appeals to so many.

Every race looks set to be ferociously contested, with festival legend Dermot Weld particularly well represented.

The Curragh maestro, who has been crowned leading handler at the summer highlight on no fewer than 26 occasions and last year recorded a massive haul of 11 winners, has six runners.

Weld's exceptional level of dominance has now become strangely unexceptional to Ballybrit regulars, while there is a similarly comforting level of familiarity with many other protagonists.

Bahrain Storm, fast becoming the latest ultimate Galway specialist, may not be due out until Wednesday, but the likes of Weld's Force Of Habit and Natural High are both repeat visitors that have won here before.

The latter will dispute favouritism for tonight's showpiece, the Carlton Hotel/Galway City Handicap for amateur riders.

If Natural High is to prevail, he will need to topple the 2010 hero Admiral Barry, as well as Oneeightofamile. The Co Waterford trainer John Kiely will saddle that one.

Already responsible for two Galway Hurdle winners, including Indian Pace in 2008, it is now 22 years since the popular Kiely sent out Nameloc to land this illustrious prize. He's just about due another one.

5.05 Hotel Meyrick & theghotel.ie Novice Hurdle

Dermot Weld and Paul Townend bid for a second win in a row in this with Sulwaan.

Twice a winner on the Flat in England, Sulwaan beat the useful and more experienced pair Tavern Times and Princeton Plains on his debut at Sligo a fortnight ago.

Virgil Earp is also a good horse. Second to the classy Unaccompanied in December, he scooted home at Wexford last month, and has been ticking over on the Flat since. There is probably little to choose between the other winners, though High Importance and Devil's Elbow are likeable sorts.

Verdict: Sulwaan's Sligo debut sets the standard

5.35 Salthillhotel.com Handicap Hurdle

Despite a tame Ballinrobe defeat, Uncle Taffy should show up well again. He had previously won three in a row, but then failed to fire on his second start in three days.

Sixteen Forty Two, up a stone for winning a middling race at Cork, Van Wyck and Carlingford Lough are all interesting, as is last year's maiden winner Force Of Habit.

De Senectute should also run well. Unexposed over flights, Willie Mullins' charge scored on her reappearance on the Flat.

Verdict: De Senectute appeals off a favourable weight

6.10 Claregalwayhotel.ie & Ramada Hotel Card Club EBF Maiden

Riviera Poet and Learn are the two to focus on.

The latter Aidan O'Brien-trained colt ran a fine third behind useful stablemate David Livingston at The Curragh in June.

While he can improve for that, Riviera Poet should likewise be better for his previous effort to fill the same position at the track in May.

On that occasion, he was beaten only by subsequent Royal Ascot victor Power and Remember Alexander, which was successful in a Group Three last week.

Verdict: Riviera Poet's form is the best on offer

6.45 Carlton.ie/galwaycity Qualified Riders' Handicap

Another excellent renewal of this prestigious amateur riders' race.

The top weight End Of The Affair ran out an impressive winner of a good heat at Dundalk's all-weather last time out.

With a useful seven-pound claimer up, the in-form mare cannot be discounted.

Silk Hall and the British raider Praxiteles also have winning form, but Oneeightofamile, triumphant over hurdles at Cork, may be a more potent threat off an attractive weight.

Natural High, representing Dermot Weld, hosed up in a bumper here in 2009 and has been placed at the track in three subsequent starts.

He won nicely on his seasonal bow at Limerick in June, and breaks from the box seat on the rail.

Verdict: Natural High to just shade it from Oneeightofamile

7.15 Claytonhotelgalway.ie Handicap

Red Army Blues and Lake George are the only two of 17 runners here to have won races.

Of those two, Lake George may be more suited to this seven-furlong trip.

Good Shot Noreen has potential, as does Extra Steps, which has frequently looked up to winning off her current rating.

Verdict: Extra Steps might be due some luck

7.45 Galwaybayhotel.com & Radissonhotelgalway.com Handicap

Goldplated comes here on a hat-trick, while there are none more unexposed than the Bellewstown winner Tantalising. David Wachman's filly is having just her third start.

On form, Gentleman Duke should also figure now that he tries 12 furlongs. When third at Killarney, he had Long Live The King, since a Leopardstown winner, behind.

Verdict: Gentleman Duke gets the nod

8.15 Irelandhotels.com Flat Race

If Maller Tree leaves behind a slightly disappointing second start at Killarney, he should play a big part based on his May runner-up debut at Punchestown.

Ri An Domhnaigh was third at the same venue later that month having failed to settle, while Passage Vendome is probably not as bad as his dismal effort at the Kildare track.

Saint Gervais, another that made its debut at the National Hunt festival, improved to finish second to the talented Clondaw Warrior at Cork earlier this month.

Verdict: Saint Gervais may be the one to keep on side

Irish Independent