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Enjoy the Sprinter fireworks, but take Focus for the day's banker

WHAT promises to be an exhilarating five-day climax to the jumps season gets under way at Punchestown with an eagerly awaited Irish debut for Sprinter Sacre.

As opening salvos go, the hallowed Kildare venue's executive couldn't have hoped for more. The Nicky Henderson-trained equine superstar is already a steeplechasing sensation of colossal proportions, and the task facing his four rivals in the two-mile Boylesports.com Champion Chase will be a futile one if nothing untoward occurs.

Utterly superlative in slamming Henry de Bromhead's Sizing Europe by 19 lengths in the Queen Mother Champion Chase at Cheltenham prior to devouring Cue Card and Flemenstar at Aintree, Barry Geraghty's mount has simply excelled in nine unbeaten starts over fences, the last six of which have all come at Grade One level.

He is a breathtaking force of nature in full flight and no doubt there are some out there who will deem the near 17pc potential return that his odds of 1/6 offer as cracking value. Regardless of your punting bent, though, it is a rare treat to have the seven-year-old grace an Irish venue while at the peak of his powers.

Once again, Sizing Europe, last year's venerable winner of the €200,000 showpiece, is the chief threat, if you could class anything as such. A wonderful warrior for his Waterford stable, the 11-year-old will cope with the testing ground better than most, but there is no evidence to suggest it will hand him any meaningful advantage now.

For all that Sprinter Sacre's presence represents an early pinnacle, a fascinating undercard is indicative of the sort of absorbing encounters that lie in store this week.

Willie Mullins' gallant Supreme Novices' Hurdle hero Champagne Fever takes on Jezki and Rule The World in the Evening Herald Champion Hurdle, with Kim Bailey's mud-loving Harry Topper, one of four raiders in attendance, tackling the champion trainer's Back In Focus and Boston Bob in the Growise Champion Chase.

That is a Grade One populated by other similarly dour prospects that won't mind ground officially described as soft, heavy in places.

A mixed forecast suggests the going won't change much from here on in but, bearing in mind the apocalyptic feel to last year's saturated Festival, that would still count as a manifest improvement.

3.40 Kildare Hunt Club Fr Sean Breen Memorial Chase (3m)

Zest For Life won this in 2010 and was third last year. He ran well to be placed behind Mossey Joe at Cork, so could be the one to beat for banks king Enda Bolger. Bolger's Near Perfection is a triple 'pointing' winner that struggled in a hunter chase at Christmas, while Send For Paddy defied his 12 years to win in the north last time.

Verdict: Zest For Life's form over this unique course stands out in a poor race.

4.20 Grade One Evening Herald Champion Novice Hurdle (2m)

Champagne Fever and Jezki face off for a third time over hurdles. On soft ground at Cheltenham, Champagne Fever excelled from the front again, and his form was thoroughly franked by the narrow runner-up My Tent Or Yours' Aintree rout.

Jezki, third then, shaded it when they clashed at Fairyhouse in December. The notion that Jessica Harrington's precocious sort might be more suited by this quicker track is somewhat negated by the prevailing conditions, but he remains a serious contender.

The improving Mallowney fell early at Fairyhouse, and Art Of Logistics, which conquered subsequent winner Midnight Oil at the Meath venue when last seen in February, is also progressive.

County Hurdle victor Ted Veale is another going the right way, but likewise has more to find in this company.

Rule The World's second to The New One at Cheltenham was a cracking effort that was nicely franked by the winner at Aintree. With the ground as it is, the drop back to two miles is manageable, and he is a classy horse that could trouble the big two.

Verdict: Rule The World to cause a minor upset for champion jockey Davy Russell (left).

4.55 Bragbet.com Handicap Hurdle (2m)

Last year's Philip Hobbs-trained winner Snap Tie may find this tough off an 11lb higher mark, having laboured on his only start this term at Cheltenham in November.

Tennis Cap's winning run came to an end with a fine second to Ted Veale at Cheltenham, but he was lifeless at Fairyhouse last time. Stablemate Tasitiocht may be a more potent threat on her handicap bow off a nice mark, while Shrapnel and Sitcom are recent winners at either end of the experience spectrum.

Shamiran has twice scored at the course, including when revelling in similar conditions a year ago. Sizing Machine is up four pounds for a narrow defeat at Fairyhouse, but he is progressive if he copes adequately with the wetter sod.

Verdict: In a wide-open contest, Sizing Machine has the potential to improve.

5.30 Grade One Boylesports.com Champion Chase (2m)

This is all about Sprinter Sacre. If he is anywhere close to his emphatic best and enjoys average luck in running, he will win with his head in his chest. As we saw over two and a half miles at Aintree, he is beginning to look as versatile as he is superior.

While this will almost certainly be the deepest ground he has ever encountered, he made light of heavy going when hosing up at Cheltenham in January, and boasts a cushion of 22lbs on official ratings over Sizing Europe.

Although not the force he once was, Henry de Bromhead's 11-year-old remains a brilliantly consistent standard-bearer, yet he was brushed aside with familiar ease when the pair clashed at Cheltenham. Should any misfortune befall the towering favourite, Sizing Europe would surely complete back-to-back wins.

Days Hotel is weighted to turn the tables with Foildubh after coming up just short at Fairyhouse, and he is one that will certainly relish the mud. Verdict: Sprinter Sacre can live up to his billing as an equine superstar.

5.30 Grade One Boylesports.com Champion Chase (2m)

While this will almost certainly be the deepest ground he has ever encountered, he made light of heavy going when hosing up at Cheltenham in January, and boasts a cushion of 22lbs on official ratings over Sizing Europe.

Although not the force he once was, Henry de Bromhead's 11-year-old remains a brilliantly consistent standard-bearer, yet he was brushed aside with familiar ease when the pair clashed at Cheltenham. Should any misfortune befall the towering favourite, Sizing Europe would surely complete back-to-back wins.

Days Hotel is weighted to turn the tables with Foildubh after coming up just short at Fairyhouse, and he is one that will certainly relish the mud.

Verdict: Sprinter Sacre can live up to his billing as an equine superstar.

6.05 Goffs Land Rover Bumper (2m)

Moyle Park joined the champion trainer after being acquired by Rich Ricci for £250,000, having won a decent Leopardstown bumper in December. He looks the one to beat.

English 'point' winner Classic Move represents a shrewd stable that won the finale with a debutant last year. Wrath Of The Titans made a big impression at Lingstown last month, as did The Game Changer in an ordinary bumper at Cork.

Verdict: Moyle Park is hard to oppose for his new connections.

6.40 Grade One Growise Champion Novice Chase (3m 1f)

English raider Harry Topper is interesting, having skipped Cheltenham after falling at Kelso. He had previously looked to be going places when unbeaten in three over fences, and is a thorough mud-lover that could have a big say here.

Back In Focus will also be in his element. For all that labour, his last-gasp triumph over Tofino Bay in Cheltenham's four-miler means he is still unbeaten over fences.

Tofino Bay has to enter calculations again, as has Lyreen Legend, which finished second to Back In Focus here in November and got collared by Lord Windermere in the RSA at Cheltenham. Neither horse has to find much more to win one of these.

Boston Bob fell at the last in the RSA. He seemed to have gained a decisive lead turning in, but failed to really press on and wasn't going away when he exited. Like Back In Focus, though, he is another Willie Mullins horse that knows how to dig deep.

Dedigout and Mount Benbulben are both very good when they put it all together, while Argocat couldn't be faulted for his routine win at Limerick recently.

Verdict: With Ruby Walsh up, Back In Focus is napped on ground that suits.

7.15 Finlay Motor Group INH Flat Race (2m)

Very Wood got off the mark in style at Oldcastle point-to-point. A son of coming sire Martaline, Gordon Elliott's Gigginstown Stud runner could figure prominently.

Some Hawk was a commendable second to On Blueberry Hill at Fairyhouse, but Western Boy really caught the eye when filling the same spot behind Private Treasure. He should go very close under a more experienced pilot now.

Verdict: The Jane Mangan-ridden Very Wood is just preferred to Western Boy.

 

Irish Independent