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1.05 - Nathaniel Lacy & Partners Solicitors '50k Cheltenham Bonus For Stable Staff' Novice Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m6f)
Straight into the Grade 1 action with this novice hurdle for the stayers, and it's a mouthwatering start to say the least. Willie Mullins and Paul Townend will be fancied for a big haul over the two days and have a great chance to launch their weekend with Gaillard Du Mesnil.
The French import was defeated on debut by Holymacapony at Punchestown, but has since easily won a maiden here (2m4f, soft) and should go on improving. He's got strong claims upped in class/trip.
Holymacapony flopped in one start since, a race won by Ashdale Bob (faller himself next start), but Henry De Bromhead's charge ought to prove that run was a blip. Don't be shocked to find him going well for Rachel Blackmore.
Stattler and Ganapathi give Mullins a strong hand in this opener, while Fakiera was second to the aforementioned Ashdale Bob over 2m4f (soft to heavy) at Navan in December and may improve now upped in trip for Gordon Elliott and Jack Kennedy - another power-duo to watch out for over the two days at Leopardstown.
Gentlemansgame routed his rivals in a Cork maiden (2m, heavy) early last month on debut for Mouse Morris and the point-to-point winner can improve upped in trip but perhaps so, too, can CAPE GENTLEMAN for Emmet Mullins.
Imported from France after winning his maiden on the level, he landed the Irish Cesarewitch at the Curragh (2m, soft) in October and looked to have plenty up his sleeve in a winning hurdles bow at Punchestown (2m4f, heavy) in December. He's worthy of a tilt at this prize in what is a strong opening contest.
1.35 - Ladbrokes Dublin Chase (Grade 1, 2m1f)
This has been the Willie Mullins show since the Dublin Racing Festival kicked off in 2018. Min won the first two renewals before finishing second last year to stablemate CHACUN POUR SOI - in the same Rich Ricci silks.
The gallant Min is perhaps better over further now, but shouldn't be dismissed too hastily over 2m1f on testing ground. That said, Chacun Pour Soi is a perfect 2-2 this season and he readily came clear of the re-opposing Notebook over C&D at the Christmas Festival here.
On this season's form, he is the top 2m chaser in Britain or Ireland and he is expected to confirm that status by retaining this Grade 1 prize and stamping his passport for a first ever Cheltenham Festival appearance next month, where he's already odds-on to win the Queen Mother Champion Chase - the only one of the four Championship contests in the Cotswolds now missing from Mullins' CV.
John Durkan winner Min is best-placed to chase the selection home. Notebook accounted for Fakir D'Oudairies on their respective comebacks at Naas in November but, the latter having tackled 3m unsuccessfully here at Christmas, may find himself competitive for minor money now for Joseph O'Brien. At just six, he clearly has lots of potential for better things.
2.10 - Patrick Ward & Co. Solicitors Irish Arkle Novice Chase (Grade 1, 2m1f)
A third straight Grade 1 contest to start the festivities and, once more, Willie Mullins has the ace-hand seemingly in Energumene. He's won 4-5 starts under rules having been denied in a Navan bumper in November 2019 on debut.
His chase wins at Gowran Park (2m4f, heavy) and Naas (2m, heavy) have been achieved within himself and he looks a classy operator in the making.
He's entitled to be favourite here and may justify that status, but he is already a shade of odds-on and there are dangers lurking that will surely, at the least, pose him some questions.
Captain Guinness and (stablemate) Blackbow had no answer to Energumene at Naas last time out and it's hard to see where they bridge the gap now.
Mullins has landed this with the likes of Douvan and Un De Sceaux in the past and he's mob-handed now; with Franco De Port and Unexcepted making it a quartet of runners from Closutton.
Brian Cooper's mount is 2-2 over fences after landing a festive Grade 1 over C&D, while Mark Walsh's partner hasn't been spotted since easily winning a beginners' chase at Tipperary in October (improvement to find on line through runner-up Entoucas).
Felix Desjy had Sizing Pottsie (second) and Darver Star (third) behind at Punchestown in November but was only third here on St Stephen's Day when Franco De Port fended off DARVER STAR.
Gavin Cromwell's charge may benefit from the no-nonsense pace likely to be injected by the front-running favourite in this contest. Placed in the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham in March, he ran a stormer behind Honeysuckle at this festival last year and will be suited by the testing ground forecast now.
He has scores to settle with a couple of these rivals but may well be able to do it and with nine runners he's a fair each-way contender allowing for the fact the jolly may simply be too good.
2.45 - Matheson Handicap Chase (Grade B, 2m1f)
The handicaps over two days here will be tough puzzles and that's the case from the get-go with a max field of 20 (plus reserves) installed for this event.
The Shunter was last spotted winning the Greatwood Hurdle at Cheltenham in November and his earlier beginners' chase win at Punchestown (2m5f, yielding to soft) is looking strong form with distant second Enjoy D'Allen twice a winner last month. An opening mark of 132 over fences is certainly not beyond him on what could be a big afternoon for Emmet Mullins and Brian Hayes.
There are of course a raft of dangers, including the likes of Aramax, Entoucas, Pont Aven and Epson Du Houx but a chance is taken instead with PORT STANLEY.
The Jessica Harrington-trained seven-year-old ended last season winning a maiden hurdle at Naas and posted figures of 3322 in four starts in beginners' chases this season at 2m-2m4f all on testing ground.
He's clashed with some very smart sorts in the sequence, including Energumene, while he was close second behind Aramax last time at Fairyhouse attempting to give him 6lb. He's much better off now and Robbie Power's mount can be very competitive here on handicap bow off 135 with potential improvement coming in the first-time cheekpieces.
3.15 - Chanelle Pharma Irish Champion Hurdle (Grade 1, 2m)
The magnificent mare HONEYSUCKLE can be a perfect ten for Henry De Bromhead and Rachel Blackmore by emulating Istabraq and Hurricane Fly in retaining the Irish Champion Hurdle.
Connections have strongly hinted this week that such an outcome will ensure Honeysuckle goes to Cheltenham next month not to defend her Mares' Hurdle crown, but to have a crack at Epatante and the rest in the two-mile Championship contest instead. From a neutral standpoint, that's an outcome most would relish.
She wasn't at her best in retaining the Hatton's Grace on comeback in November, but Honeysuckle should be sharper now and connections believe she's a more fluent jumper than when getting the better of Darver Star in this race a year ago. She's just seven-years-old and still a work in progress and, getting 7lb from the boys, can see them off again.
Sharjah misfired in this race a year ago but he won a third C&D Grade 1 at Christmas under regular rider Patrick Mullins. He had Petit Mouchoir (third), stablemate Saint Roi (fourth), Abacadabras (distance fifth) and another stablemate Saldier (sixth) behind in that race.
Sharjah looks the big danger on paper but there's no doubting that both Abacadabras and Saint Roi (first and second in Grade 1 Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown in November) retain the potential for better things.
Honeysuckle's win in this race last year was seven seconds faster than Sharjah managed at Christmas in similarly comparable conditions. The mare will handle heavy ground too, and conditions ensure her extra stamina is another plus-factor in her bid to make it 10-10.
3.50 - Ladbrokes Hurdle (Extended Handicap Hurdle, Grade B, 2m)
Some very talented sorts going after the ?75,000 on offer to the winner here and it's likely to be a wide open betting heat.
Buildmeupbuttercup and Stratum are dual purpose performers for the Mullins machine, while Gordon Elliott has Eclair De Beaufeu and Saint D'oroux as likely sorts.
Joseph O'Brien is another trainer with multiple interests. The Moyglass Flyer has not finished out of the money in four hurdles starts, including a C&D win in December 2019. He finished third here at Christmas having missed a complete year and must be shortlisted from an unchanged mark of 129.
He gets the nod from Mark Walsh but, in the same JP McManus hoops, there's a case for FRONT VIEW and JJ Slevin too.
A useful novice hurdler last season, he went off favourite for the Martin Pipe at Cheltenham in March but faded late on in that 2m4½f test on soft ground, eventually beaten under 10-lengths at the line.
He's run well enough in four chase starts this season, including a win at Fairyhouse in December (2m, soft to heavy) but hasn't totally convinced with his jumping (unseated since) over the larger obstacles. He's reverting to hurdles rated 5lb lower than for that Cheltenham run last March and could pose a threat at decent odds with conditions ideal.
4.25 - Goffs Future Stars I.N.H. Flat Race (Grade 2, 2m)
Envoi Allen and Appreciate It have gone onto Champion Bumper success at Cheltenham in the last two seasons after winning this race and it once again draws a high-class field on paper.
Kilcruit was second at Clonmel last spring on debut and easily won at Navan in December having made the move to Willie Mullins in the off-season. He's a massive player, while his impressive C&D-winning stablemate Ramillies is also shortlisted.
Noble Yeats blew away the opposition at Thurles 10 days ago and has Derek O'Connor's assistance here, while Letsbeclearaboutit (Gavin Cromwell) and another Mullins runner, Whatdeawant, are bumper winners already with scope for better.
The manner in which CHEMICAL ENERGY dispatched the useful On Eagles Wings at Down Royal in October was mightily impressive. Jamie Codd's mount came right away from that consistent dual bumper winner, adding to his earlier success at Roscommon in doing so. Assuming Gordon Elliott's charge handles the easier ground now, he's a significant threat to all concerned.