THE possibility of Hurricane Fly's eagerly-awaited return being further delayed seemed to increase substantially last week when Paddy Power felt compelled to suspend the ante-post market on this afternoon's Istabraq Hurdle.
A flood of money for the exceptional champion hurdler's stablemate Thousand Stars had prompted the bookmaker to take action, and the money was proved right when the declarations for the Leopardstown Grade One filtered through yesterday morning.
Willie Mullins subsequently reported that he simply wasn't happy that Hurricane Fly was ready to do himself justice, so the wait goes on.
Similar to what happened prior to the Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown in November, then, the stage is set for Thousand Stars to exploit the opportunity that presents itself.
Granted, this two-mile contest has the makings of a slightly more thorough test, but there is undoubtedly an element of Hamlet without the prince here.
Earlier on, two of last season's leading novice hurdlers clash when Hidden Cyclone and Shot From The Hip tackle the beginners' chase.
Neither had their limitations fully examined over the smaller obstacles, and trainer John 'Shark' Hanlon has gone so far as to speak of Hidden Cyclone as the sort of horse that could one day develop into a Cheltenham Gold Cup contender.
Such a bold prediction is unlikely to be definitively proven or dismissed on the imposing six-year-old's fencing bow, but it does add extra intrigue to proceedings.
12.25 Martinstown Opportunity Handicap Chase 2m 5f
Imperial Shabra has faced a few tough assignments recently. This is a more suitable target, and he couldn't be discounted despite the burden of top weight.
Noble Commander, which goes well on good ground, has bundles of experience. The eight-year-old ran into a bit of form when fourth at Fairyhouse recently.
Glam Gerry has struggled in decent novices so far, but gets in here off a mark that is 12lbs lower than his hurdle rating. He was a winner here over flights in January.
Verdict: Glam Gerry is weighted to run a big race.
12.55 Ballymaloe Country Relish Beginners' Chase 2m 3f
Hidden Cyclone has never looked anything other than a chaser in the making. In a bumper and six maiden hurdles, his only defeat came when third in the big novice hurdle here a year ago, though most of his runs have been in testing conditions.
With the ground as it is, Nearest The Pin, placed in his two chasing starts, is not without a chance, while the JP McManus-owned Shot From The Hip will also enjoy the surface.
The latter -- in the shrewd hands of Edward O'Grady -- finished last term with a Grade One triumph at Punchestown, and is a useful prospect.
The Dessie Hughes-trained Stonemaster was disappointing in the Troytown last time, but this switch back to novice company will be less demanding for this former smart hurdler.
Verdict: Hidden Cyclone is expected to thrive over the bigger obstacles.
1.25 ITBA Fillies Scheme EBF Mares' Hurdle 2m 4f
Last year's winner Our Girl Salley has been finding her form. She kept on to be third to Mikael D'Haguenet over two miles at Naas, so the return to this trip should suit.
Magen's Star ran no race at Cheltenham in March. Two from two previously, Tommy Stack's six-year-old reappears here on ground that may be drier than she would like.
While fellow Cheltenham winner What A Charm is another that likes the mud, she wouldn't be without a squeak in receipt of weight.
Stephanie Kate, fifth to Quevega at Cheltenham, has been running really well in defeat over fences.
Verdict: Our Girl Salley is coming into form at just the right time.
1.55 Istabraq Hurdle 2m
Thousand Stars had Oscars Well behind when cantering up in the Morgiana Hurdle. Mullins' honest and consistent sort is undoubtedly the one to beat again today.
Unaccompanied was a high-class novice for Dermot Weld last term, and recorded an impressive win in a decent Listed race at Naas in November. She remains open to further progression, though she may be most effective with more cut in the ground.
With Voler La Vedette doubtful, Moon Dice and The Real Article are the up-and-comers.
The latter, third to Voler La Vedette in the Hatton's Grace, will be better suited by the drop back to two miles on decent going.
Galway Hurdle winner Moon Dice is a likeable type and was an eye-catching fourth in the Greatwood Hurdle, but he still has something to find at this level.
Verdict: The game Thousand Stars will be hard passed.
2.30 Pertemps Handicap Hurdle 3m
Sweet My Lord is one of the more obvious options in a minefield of a race. Willie Mullins' charge bounced back to form at Cork in November, and cannot be written off under a nine-pound penalty over a trip that he has looked in need of at times.
Tillahow ran out a smart winner of a conditions race at Limerick on Tuesday. This is a different ball game, but the Mouse Morris-trained inmate has room to improve at just four.
Rourke's Cross makes its handicap bow after scoring at Fairyhouse, while Define is another to consider. A faller at Cheltenham in November, he is unexposed at the trip.
Verdict: Define could show up well at a big price.
3.05 Ryans Event Cleaners Maiden Hurdle 2m 4f
The Barry Connell-owned Star Neuville made a big impression when taking a bumper at this venue 12 months ago. The five-year-old hasn't set the world alight since, but his most recent run to be second to Toostrong at Fairyhouse is encouraging in the context of this weak maiden.
Carrig Millie, placed four times in bumpers and once in two hurdling starts, would not be without a shout at its best, though Shrapnel is starting to look like one to avoid.
Vesper Bell, a winner first time out in heavy going last term, is a leading contender if he handles these less testing conditions.
Verdict: Vesper Bell is a tentative selection.
3.35 Thornton's Recycling Bumper 2m
With the benefit of a recent run over flights, Wandering Aengus, successful in his only previous bumper outing at Punchestown more than a year ago, should figure prominently.
Charles O'Brien's Van Diemens Land beat subsequent winners when he obliged first time up at Gowran Park in October, so deserves plenty respect now.
Sands Cove and Mumbo Jumbo are two other winners, while Kingclip represents a stable with a fine bumper record. Fifth on his debut in the spring, he should improve.
Verdict: Kingclip is an interesting contender on its reappearance.