Walsh to return from injury, but Ruby has the mark of champion
Mark Walsh is poised to return to action after two months off with a broken arm, possibly as soon as tomorrow at Wexford.
The south-eastern venue hosts an experimental left-handed fixture, so it is a card that will attract plenty attention. Walsh faces a daunting task in his bid to overhaul Ruby Walsh in the riders' table. He was nine clear on 68 wins when he got hurt in February, but he now trails the nine-time champion by five.
The new leader has enjoyed a turnaround of 17 in that time, and, barring injury, he will top the pile for a joint-record 10th time, notwithstanding that his namesake should have plenty of Punchestown Festival ammunition for JP McManus owing to AP McCoy's retirement next Saturday.
Davy Russell will also to return to the fray for Punchestown after fracturing a bone in his arm last month, while Barry Geraghty, who broke his shin bone, is pencilled in for a review with surgeon Paddy Kenny tomorrow. The absence of Davy Condon and Robbie McNamara from the season finale due to the serious injuries they suffered last week will loom large, but the return of Walsh, Russell and Geraghty would be welcome.
The five-day gala has enjoyed a renaissance in recent times and this year's fare should be as entertaining as ever. Willie Mullins threatens to make it his own personal fiefdom and there is good and bad in that, while course officials have been compelled to begin watering ground described as yielding. That won't please everyone.
Ger Lyons has been venting his well-worn fury at track officials for what, in his view, is unnecessary watering for Flat cards. The Turf Club advises "judicious" watering to promote safe ground and grass growth, with optimum conditions for Flat cards given as good to firm.
Today's meeting at Cork was the chief source of Lyons' ire, as ground officially given as good was reported as having been selectively watered. The Meath handler wondered if he would "get through the season in one piece if they are going to start this madness in April," and you can see his point. Flat horses should be granted an opportunity to race on fast ground.
Over jumps, though, it is different these days, and Punchestown are within their rights to be proactive. Good ground is what the Turf Club describes as the optimum National Hunt surface, and anything quicker would erode the quality of horse on view. In that sense, if there is a degree of confidence behind the settled weather forecast, it is better to begin the watering process now.
Coneygree, Dodging Bullets and Silviniaco Conti will be among those absent next week, but Mullins has committed to running seven of his Cheltenham heroes; the retired Glens Melody misses out.
How he divvies up the troops will be intriguing, with Vautour's destination a topic of much debate owing to the Boylesports Champion Chase being given serious consideration. At this stage, we would also implore Mullins to take on the boys with Annie Power.
It was a tactic he deployed to great effect with Quevega, which won three World Series Hurdles prior to getting denied by Jetson in a thriller last year. Her annual presence in the race was real treat.
Annie Power danced home a bloodless winner of the mares' Grade One in 2014. To date, her only foray in an open Grade One resulted in defeat, so another procession in the mares' race would do nothing to enhance her reputation.
Staff awards need fine-tuning
Tuesday's Irish Stud and Stable Staff Awards ceremony in Newbridge's Keadeen Hotel proved to be an immensely enjoyable night.
The event had been running for 10 years. However, a sponsorship injection from Godolphin transformed this year's ceremony with €70,000 in prize money.
With increased status, there will be increased scrutiny, and there are issues that need fine-tuning if the enhanced event is to be embraced.
Firstly, while each winner was immensely deserving, there were murmurings of discontent on the night over some nominees being overqualified in their categories, which may have had its roots in some trainers' benign ambition to give an entry to as many of their employees as possible.
That staff are at the whim of the quality of their employers' recommendations is a thorny issue.
They toil tirelessly on behalf of their employers for pretty meagre financial reward, so there is an onus on all bosses to give them the chance of a cash windfall and the recognition that comes with it by taking the time to craft a worthy endorsement. We understand that some high-profile establishments went to great lengths - as also did some less recognisable firms.
However, many employers, apparently didn't bother. Given there's a total prize of €19,000 for the overall winner and their colleagues, composing a couple of applications for those worthy in any given yard is a worthwhile venture.
Of the 15 nominees for the five categories up for decision on Tuesday - four other winners were announced on the night without reference to further nominees - 14 were Leinster-based. The 15th was a Coolmore representative, which means that, with the exception of the principality of the world's most powerful bloodstock operation, there wasn't another nomination from Munster, Connacht or Ulster.
That is hardly satisfactory for an event with national aspirations. Part of the solution might be to alternate between provincial venues, to engage the electorate.
Finally, the elevation of the ceremony saw it switch from a largely all-ticket affair to invite only, therefore excluding large swathes of those who traditionally attended. A little compromise would go a long way on that score.
No judgment in Foxrock inquiry
Saturday's re-opened Turf Club inquiry into the run of Ted Walsh's Foxrock at Punchestown in December concluded without a verdict after a 10-hour hearing.
Walsh was represented by the former justice minister Michael McDowell and called both Aidan O'Brien and Willie Mullins among his 12 witnesses. The Turf Club called on seven witnesses, and chief executive Denis Egan reported that "judgment was reserved and will be communicated to both parties."
Dunne enjoys famous Ayr win
Jim Dreaper's Goonyella was just denied by the Robbie Dunne-ridden 25/1 shot Wayward Prince in Saturday's Scottish Grand National.
Tony Martin's ante-post favourite Gallant Oscar was a late withdrawal due to the drying ground, which didn't help Goonyella either, as he became outpaced before staying on gamely for Jonathan Burke to go down by three-parts of a length.
Gallant Oscar could yet tackle the old Whitbread Gold Cup at Sandown on Saturday, while Wayward Prince's win for two-horse trainer Hilary Parrot was also a career-high triumph for Dunne, a 30-year-old Garristown, Co Dublin native.
At Newbury, Ballydoyle's Dick Whittington could manage only fourth in the Greenham, which went to Charlie Hills' 16/1 shot Muhaarar, one of three winners on the day for Frankie Dettori.
Tweet of the weekend
Ger Lyons (@gerlyonsracing)
Cork racecourse watered 'good' ground yesterday! Turf Club should hang their head in shame allowing this. They shd stick to NH racing there.
Lyons ensures that Cork officials will roll out the red carpet when he visits with his two runners today.