Walsh gets the nod for supersub role on Jezki
Mark Walsh will be rewarded for his unstinting loyalty to JP McManus after it was confirmed that he is in line to take the reins on the reigning champion hurdler Jezki at Punchestown on Sunday .
With McManus' first-choice rider AP McCoy sidelined by injury and Barry Geraghty likely to be claimed by Nicky Henderson to ride at Cheltenham, Jessica Harrington's brilliant six-year-old may need a new jockey when he renews rivalry with Hurricane Fly in Sunday's Grade One Morgiana Hurdle.
"Mark will ride him if Barry can't, so we'll see what happens," McManus' racing manager Frank Berry said yesterday. "The horse worked this morning and Jessica was delighted with him, so fingers crossed all goes well for the next few days."
Geraghty stretched his unbeaten record on Jezki to five when fending off McManus' McCoy-ridden and Henderson-trained My Tent Or Yours at Prestbury Park in March. The brilliant Co Meath native took his win tally over the past two weeks to 13 with a short-priced treble at Huntingdon yesterday, scoring once for Henderson and twice for John Ferguson.
He has yet to state where he will ride on Sunday, but Henderson's Greatwood Hurdle ante-post favourite Vaniteux is among those that his boss is expected to saddle at the famed Cotswolds venue.
Given his and Henderson's close affiliation with McManus, Geraghty may be granted leave to renew his impeccable association with Jezki.
However, Vaniteux is also an enormously exciting long-term prospect that he has won on twice in four starts for Henderson, with a third to Vautour in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle hinting at his potential.
With Berry feeling compelled to make yesterday's announcement, there is clearly a sense that Geraghty might opt for Cheltenham. Should he do so, Walsh would be thrust into the spotlight with a rare blue-chip ride at championship level. He is a reserved but utterly dependable individual whose measured performances in the saddle have served him well as McCoy's frequent deputy in Ireland.
When opportunity presents itself, he has never been found wanting, as evidenced by an array of valuable handicap wins spearheaded by Bob Lingo's 2012 Galway Plate coup and a breakthrough Grade One success aboard Defy Logic last Christmas.
Walsh then rode Gilgamboa to a valuable triumph in the Boylesports.com Hurdle at Leopardstown, and another poised display when guiding Enda Bolger's horse to an assured chasing debut victory at Navan on Sunday will have done his claims no harm.
Berry's revelation will doubtless come as a blow to Robbie Power, who is the only other rider apart from McCoy and Geraghty to have partnered Jezki over flights, enjoying a Grade One win on him at Leopardstown two years ago.
Power has ridden around a dozen winners for McManus aboard Aidan O'Brien-trained horses this year, but Walsh's increasingly lucrative link with the champion owner has earned him a potentially glorious opportunity to star on the big stage.
The €80,000 two-miler has a touch of a decider about, with Jezki and Hurricane Fly prevailing twice each in their four clashes last term. Willie Mullins' dual champion hurdler lost out on the latter two occasions, but the bookies still have him shading favouritism for Sunday at odds of 11/10.
"He has been working well up to now and I think that he is at least as fit as this time last year, but he'd want to be a bit fitter if Jezki turns up," Mullins admitted of his exceptional 10-year-old, which would extend his record number of Grade One wins to 20 should he claim his third Morgiana.
Disappointingly, there are just four other entries in the two-miler. Colin Bowe says that his prolific mare Little King Robin is an intended runner, although that may change if ground - officially yielding to soft - deteriorates.
Like Little King Robin, Mullins' Indevan has won five in a row over jumps, but his participation in either of the graded novice chases may also be thwarted by rain. Henry de Bromhead could saddle Sizing Granite in the two-mile version, while the in-form handler has the similarly exciting Shanahan's Turn in the longer event.
Who is your sportstar of the year?
Vote in the Irish Independent Sport Star Awards and you could win the ultimate sports prize.
Prizes include, tickets to Ireland's against Scotland in the Six Nations, All Ireland football and hurling final tickets and much more.