Hurricane Fly can confirm superiority
Hurricane Fly and Binocular, both exceptional respective winners of the last two Champion Hurdles at Cheltenham, go head to head in what promises to be a thrilling Rabobank Champion Hurdle at Punchestown this evening.
Having produced a devastating turn of foot to claim the 2011 crown in Binocular's absence in March, victory over Nicky Henderson's charge now would further cement the Willie Mullins-trained star's standing as the best Irish hurdler since Istabraq.
Binocular, for his part, has to leave behind a below-par effort at Aintree if he is to deny Hurricane Fly a second successive win in this €96,000 Grade One.
With Menorah also out for redemption following a slightly disappointing fifth at Cheltenham, not to mention the presence of the ever-progressive Thousand Stars under Katie Walsh in the six-runner field, the two-mile highlight ought to be a corker.
The pick of the remainder of an eight-race programme that looks distinctly tricky is the Champion Novice Hurdle that sees First Lieutenant, a last-gasp hero under Davy Russell at Cheltenham, renew rivalry with third-placed So Young. The latter, not helped by a bundled leap at the final hurdle that day, is another live contender for Mullins. With 18 runners declared, the champion trainer is set for a busy day.
3.40 KFM Hunters' Chase
A difficult race to get a handle on. Last year's winner Cool Warrior has failed to score since, but couldn't be written off if the ground remains good.
Curragh Boy has run well twice in point-to-points this year without winning, while The Baler will be better for a run in a bumper at Fairyhouse. The five-year-old previously looked pretty useful when winning at Tattersalls in the autumn.
Verdict -- The Baler has the potential.
4.15 Stephen's Green Hibernian Club H'cap Chase
Fair Along is a very good horse at his best, and it is of note that Philip Hobbs steps him up to this extreme distance of three miles and six furlongs. With two recent wins to his name, Uncle Junior has really found his form. Drybrook Bedouin, another British raider, is already successful over this type of trip having hosed up at Exeter last month. Ballymak, although not the most convincing sort, makes his handicap debut with some useful form to his name.
Verdict -- Ballymak is a tentative selection.
4.55 Mick The Tent Memorial Novice Handicap Chase
Wishfull Thinking is a massively progressive horse, so it could be within his capabilities to concede weight all round here. Second to Noble Prince at Cheltenham, he was a fine winner at Aintree subsequently.
Mistakes cost Tharawaat when he finished a long way behind Wishfull Thinking at Aintree, but he is better off at today's weights, despite being out of the handicap.
Quadrillon is another that could get involved off the minimum, as could Montan. The latter has some decent form to his name in novice company.
Verdict -- Montan to score on his handicap debut.
5.30 Rabobank Champion Hurdle
Hurricane Fly faces what is potentially his toughest test yet on home soil. Binocular has been typically in and out this term, but the JP McManus-owned gelding e is a genuine top-class two-mile hurdler on his day, and was a brilliant winner of last year's Champion.
If Binocular produces his best, Nicky Henderson's charge will push Hurricane Fly to the pin of his collar. Willie Mullins' gelding did everything that was expected of him when taking this year's championship event at Cheltenham, so the classy French import comes here as the form horse.
Menorah, fifth in the Champion, also warrants respect, while Thousand Stars is the springer in the field. A place in front of Menorah at Cheltenham, Katie Walsh's improving mount subsequently ran a blinder to be second at Aintree.
Verdict -- Hurricane Fly sets the standard.
6.05 Cathal Ryan Memorial Champion Novice Hurdle
First Lieutenant and So Young filled the first and third spots in the equivalent contest at Cheltenham. A mistake at the last cost So Young valuable momentum then, but whether it cost him the race is a moot point.
First Lieutenant did just enough that day, and the form has taken a few knocks since. Nonetheless, a similarly desperate victory over Zaidpour previously suggests that he may well be the type that only ever does enough.
Prima Vista turns out quickly after his win at Fairyhouse, and Frisco Depot's form catches the eye after Shot From The Hip's success on Tuesday. Dessie Hughes' charge beat that one last time out at Naas in November.
Verdict -- First Lieutenant to shade it once again.
6.40 Novice Hurdle
Realt Mor, a full-brother to Realt Dubh and trained in England by Nicky Richards, will be difficult to beat. A winner of his only point-to-point two years ago, he looked destined to win on his belated track debut at Ayr in March before tipping up three-out, and easily made amends at Kelso next time.
Kid Cassidy is another raider with realistic prospects, although it's not easy to decipher the best of Willie Mullins' three. Ruby Walsh has opted for the often-frustrating Sicilian Secret.
Verdict -- Realt Mor could be a cut above the rest.
7.10 Irish Thoroughbred Breeders' Association Fillies' Bumper
Fuschia Belle and Golden Firebird each have a win to their name. However, few fillies are good enough to collect two bumpers, something that Whatwillwecallher has already achieved. With no penalty to carry, Robert Tyner's mare could make it three.
Verdict -- Whatwillwecallher can bring up the hat-trick.
7.45 the Champion Hunters Chase
A few familiar old faces turn out in what is a cracking hunters' chase. The likes of Cork All Star, Snowy Morning and Gone To Lunch were all good track horses in the past.
Salsify won a similar event at Fairyhouse, while Simonsberg has been in excellent form between the flags, winning his last three in convincing fashion.
Verdict -- Simonsberg to continue his recent purple patch.