Penhill can edge battle with 'Thief'
Willie Mullins is leaving no stone unturned in today's feature - the Ladbrokes Champion Stayers Hurdle - as he bids to see off Gordon Elliott in the Irish Trainers' Championship.
The Closutton maestro unleashes a magnificent seven at the €275,000 prize and it could be the last-chance saloon for former stable stars Faugheen and Yorkhill, which have both disappointed this season and are stepped up in distance in an effort to recapture their old spark.
Stayers' Hurdle hero Penhill sparkled at the Cheltenham Festival and despite being turned over at this meeting 12 months ago when defending his Albert Bartlett crown, he is expected to progress even further and his duel with Aintree Stayers' Hurdle winner Identity Thief is a mouth-watering one.
Should Mullins prevail, it would be another feather in his trilby in a trainers' battle which looks set to go right down to the wire.
3.40 JLT Handicap Hurdle 2m 40yds
Anyone hoping to get rich in the opener faces a stiff task with a host of unexposed runners in this 25-runner minefield.
Ruby Walsh's first ride back from injury was a win aboard Lareena last month at Thurles and while she was subsequently pulled up when favourite in a decent handicap hurdle at Cork, Paul Townend's mount is given another chance in a competitive heat.
Verdict: Team Mullins can get their day off to a flyer with Lareena.
4.15 Pigsback.com Grade B Handicap Chase 2m
The last six favourites have been turned over in this ultra-competitive handicap - headed by English raider Speredek for Nigel Hawke - with a host of course and distance winners among the 24 runners.
One of those is the JP McManus-owned Bon Papa, the mount of Barry Geraghty for Mullins, and the seven-year-old has the class to prevail although James Grace's evergreen De Benno and Elliott's Sunsetstorise will give him plenty to think about.
Verdict: Bon Papa is the classiest contender under Geraghty.
4.50 Cross Country Chase for the La Touche Cup (Bank) 4m 1f 100yds
Some have done it in the past but it looks a tall order for Just Wait And See to reproduce his heroics of Tuesday for the Limerick-based father-and-son duo of John and Willie Gleeson.
Enda Bolger is the banks specialist and makes a four-pronged attack on this unique contest - once described as Irish racing's equivalent of a Mad Hatter's party - with Josies Orders (Nina Carberry) and Catlow (Mark Walsh).
However, both may play second fiddle to Elliott's Bless The Wings. With some brilliant Cross Country form in the book - and coming here on the back of his brilliant third in the Aintree Grand National - Keith Donoghue's mount looks the stand-out choice.
Verdict: Age can prove to be no boundary for 13-year-old Bless The Wings.
5.30 Grade One Ladbrokes Champion Stayers Hurdle 3m
So many questions to be answered in today's big one, among them are whether Faugheen's step up to three miles can bring back the best of the 'Machine' and if the enigmatic Yorkhill will finally put his best foot forward this season?
Ruby Walsh is adamant that 2015 Champion hurdle hero Faugheen requires a longer distance at this late stage of his career and the ten-year-old is an interesting contender but it's very hard to have faith in stable-mate Yorkhill.
La Bague Au Roi makes the trip across the Irish Sea for Warren Greatrex - who won this race two years ago with One Track Mind - but the mare faces a stiff task against some high-class rivals.
Penhill is a worthy favourite on the back of his stunning display to take the Stayers' Hurdle and Mullins was slightly shocked with his performance at Cheltenham, admitting that it was a prep run for this contest. With that in mind, you'd expect that there's more to come but Identity Thief will prove a tough nut to crack having looked at home over three miles at Aintree.
Prior to that, Henry de Bromhead's eight-year-old had the speed to be fourth in the Champion Hurdle behind Buveur D'Air while Bacardys, which has fallen on both of his last two starts (one over fences and the other over hurdles), is respected having taken the Champion Novice Hurdle here 12 months ago.
Verdict: Penhill is favoured back up his Chetenham success.
6.05 Alanna Homes Grade B Handicap Hurdle 3m
English raiders have taken this pot for the past two years and Harry Fry's Minella Awards - winner 12 months - makes another bold bid where he is joined by Greatrex's recent Wincanton scorer Jammin Masters and Tim Vaughan's Dadsintrouble.
The prize is likely to stay on these shores this time around but finding the winner is a difficult proposition. Elliott's Glenloe sets a fair standard after being edged out in the Plate at Cheltenham while stable-mate Folsom Blue is also of interest reverting back to the smaller obstacles after an excellent run in the Irish National
Noel Meade's Stoneford is open to improvement but there may be a little more to come from Thomas Gibney's Ah Littleluck, which was third in a decent race at Aintree, and Andrew Lynch can get the job done.
Verdict: Ah Littleluck can live up to his name for Gibney and Lynch.
6.40 Grade One Ryanair Novice Chase 2m
All eyes will be on Footpad - ridden by Daryl Jacob - after putting in a scintillating display to take the Arkle at Cheltenham last month.
Mullins' brilliant six-year-old missed Aintree after a slight setback but reappears two weeks later and looks unbeatable - 9lb clear of his nearest rival Petit Mouchoir on official ratings - bar an unexpected mishap.
There is already great expectations about a potential Champion Chase clash against the mighty Altior next year and with Mullins having winning favourites in four of the last five runnings of this race, this looks a penalty kick for Footpad.
Petit Mouchoir spoiled his chance by acting up before the off at Aintree two weeks ago and while there's no doubting his class, De Bromhead's charge has a bit to prove and Footpad has easily had his number twice already this season.
This is a massive step up in class for English raider Optimus Prime and Pat Fahy's Castlegrace Paddy may be the best of the rest having won his two starts over fences in impressive fashion, including a Listed win at Thurles last month.
Verdict: It's impossible to see past the brilliant Footpad.
7.15 Listed Close Brothers Mares Novice Hurdle 2m 40yds
Mullins has won three of the five runnings of this race and looks to have a strong hand again with Cut The Mustard and Glens Harmony the strongest contenders of his quartet.
The conditions of the race play to the strengths of Denis Hogan's Moyhenna, however, and the highest rated horse in the race receives weight from many of her rivals and can score for the in-form Tipperary trainer/jockey.
Verdict: It can pay to follow Moyhenna for the red-hot Hogan.
7.45 Kildare Post Flat Race 2m 40yds
Patrick Mullins is the man to follow, winning three of the last five renewals for his father Willie and his choice to partner Getareason of the Closutton sextet would suggest his mount is the one to beat.
Verdict: Team Mullins to prevail.