The Don should compensate for poor Champion field
Don Cossack shouldn't have to come out of third gear to plunder the first Grade One of the jumps season at Down Royal today.
Unfortunately, we are unlikely to learn anything new about Gordon Elliott's exciting eight-year-old in the JNwine.com Champion Chase. He is poised to face a paltry three rivals in what is a rare poor turnout for the €140,000 three-miler.
In the event's 16-year history, only once before - 2003 - has such a small field prevailed. It is a disappointing turn for a race that has tended to be quite a competitive early-season feature, but it will be some consolation if Don Cossack fulfils his brief.
The Gigginstown Stud-owned son of Sholokhov's sole defeat in eight starts over the past 12 months came when he was unlucky at Cheltenham in March, a superlative spell that also included a smooth victory in the Grade Two on this afternoon's card.
He has won four Grade Ones and is a genuine Gold Cup contender, albeit he hasn't enjoyed any luck to date at Cheltenham in March.
Today, if Don Cossack turns up in the form that saw him cruise home for Bryan Cooper at Punchestown last month, nothing will touch him.
There is a 15lb ratings gap back to his closest rival on official figures, that being the 160-rated Rocky Creek, whose trainer Paul Nicholls has won the race four times.
A distant runner-up to Road To Riches last year, Rocky Creek is a decent staying handicapper on his day. Roi Du Mee, which also represents Elliott and Gigginstown, won the race in 2013. However, he was put firmly in his place by Don Cossack at Punchestown, so he is impossible to fancy, even with Ruby Walsh up top.
The Don Cossack triumvirate might also take the Grade Two Powers Irish Whiskey Chase for second-season chasers once again. Nicholls, who won this six times in a row prior to 2014, relies on Ptit Zig.
Sam Twiston-Davies' mount was a fair sort last term prior to his form dropping off in the spring. He could well win this, but Elliott's Clarcam sets a fair standard. Twice a Grade One winner as a novice, he needed the run when third behind Cailin Annamh on his Gowran Park return.
If he comes on for that, he ought to be hard to beat, likewise his stablemate Death Duty in the bumper. Nina Carberry's mount is highly regarded and appeals as nap material after an encouraging spring debut at Fairyhouse. One recurring theme over the weekend is a notable upsurge in the quality of JP McManus horses turning out all over the place. The first to fall into that bracket here is De Name Escapes Me in the Tayto Maiden Hurdle.
Noel Meade's Vinnie Roe gelding destroyed Thursday's easy winner Roman Gold in a Clonmel bumper in February, before running a lovely race to be third behind Sandymount Duke on his hurdle bow at Punchestown in June.
De Name Escapes Me returns in a tricky affair. The likes of Space Cadet and Round Tower will keep him honest, but he is expected to have too much quality under Mark Walsh
Arthur Moore's Gentleman Duke is fancied to have a big say in the famous green, white and gold silks when he contests the valuable handicap hurdle on the back of another chasing victory at Cork, while The Doorman is interesting in the same colours in the equivalent chase.
Preferred in that, though, is Sandra Hughes' Knockanarrigan, which had a nice blow-out over flights at Limerick on his first run for more than a year.
At Naas tomorrow, McManus's My Hometown is an exciting chasing recruit in the beginners' contest. Enda Bolger's charge was deeply impressive in a point-to-point and maiden hurdle, so it is significant that he goes straight over fences now.
Sizing Granite also reappears in the Grade Three Poplar Chase. Henry de Bromhead's Milan gelding was revelation over fences last term, winning each of his four completed starts, including the Grade One Maghull Novices' Chase at Aintree.
He faces four reasonable performers tomorrow, but none of the quartet has the potential to excite like this flamboyant, old-fashioned young chaser. Sizing Granite could be a champion in the making, so nothing less than a win for Jonathan Burke's mount will do here.
In the Cork Grand National, McManus' King Leon gets the nod to collect. The wealthy Limerick patron's 2013 winner Sword Fish also runs in the marathon contest and his Riverside City is a player as well, while Dushrembrandt and Unoccupied have both been second in the €50,000 handicap in the past.
Despite an unusually small field of 12, it is a competitive renewal. King Leon might be one of the slowest horses in Aidan O'Brien's care, but he could still be good enough to win this.
A dour stayer, he is in off a light weight, so he should go close under Mark Walsh if he handles the mud.