Ireland ready for greatest show on turf

THERE are two noticeable powerhouses dominating Irish racing this season - Willie Mullins and Michael O'Leary's Gigginstown House Stud.

Conveniently, they are set to combine in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, the first race of the Cheltenham Festival, with Midnight Game, who has progressed nicely in winning his last two starts since finishing fourth in the Royal Bond at Fairyhouse.

Dermot Weld has not had much luck at the Festival of late, but Galileo’s Choice has been well supported recently.

Gigginstown are also be represented in the Supreme by the Charles Byrnes-trained Trifolium, who showed a nice turn of foot when winning at Punchestown, but many will be cheering home Jessica Harrington’s Steps To Freedom.

A smart bumper performer for Gordon Elliott, the switch of stables did him no harm at all as he won his first three novice hurdles but has not been seen since November.

Hopes of the Irish conquering red-hot favourite Sprinter Sacre in the Arkle appear slim, with Mullins’ Blackstairmountain possibly the biggest threat.

The rest of the opening day could, however, be dominated by the Irish raiders.

It will be a long week for the visitors if Hurricane Fly is beaten in defence of his Champion Hurdle crown. The exceptional eight-year-old won a red-hot renewal last season, and with Peddlers Cross, Oscar Whisky and Menorah out of the picture this year, confidence is high he can emulate Hardy Eustace and Istabraq.

The cross-country race has, since time immemorial, been an Irish benefit, with this season’s renewal unlikely to buck that trend.

Enda Bolger has dominated since its inception, but Mullins is now targeting this kind of race and his Scotsirish was unlucky when carried out at the course in December.

With Uncle Junior another in with a chance, and Bolger’s grand old veteran Garde Champetre still in the hunt, it will be a surprise if there is not an Irish winner here, and last year’s hero Sizing Australia is firmly on course for a repeat.

But arguably the Irish banker of the whole week is represented by Mullins in the David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle. Quevega has won the last three renewals and has proved away from Cheltenham she is not far off one of the best hurdlers around. Some punters may go home after the first day if she is turned over.

Soll, also trained by Ireland’s champion trainer, is prominent in the betting for the four-mile National Hunt Chase on Wednesday, but it is Henry de Bromhead who sends out the big hope on the second day.

Sizing Europe has won at successive Festivals in the Arkle and the Queen Mother, and after slamming his main market rival Big Zeb in the Tied Cottage, the 10-year-old would look a good bet to complete back-to-back wins in the two-mile event.

Gigginstown’s First Lieutenant, winner of the Neptune 12 months ago, is well fancied to run a big race in the RSA Chase, while the Mullins-trained Boston Bob is vying for favouritism in this year’s Neptune, although he is also in the Albert Bartlett.

Mullins will, as usual, be mob-handed in the Champion Bumper, with the likes of Champagne Fever and Pique Sous leading his charge – although Moscow Mannon, from the small Brian Hamilton yard, and Noel Meade’s Fickle Fortune are others to note.

Thursday’s Jewson Novices’ Chase, won last year by Noble Prince for Ireland, could again be heading that way as it looks the likely port of call for Sir Des Champs, trained by Mullins and owned by Gigginstown.

A Festival winner last year, there is no telling how good he is as he remains unbeaten over fences.

The Ryanair Chase also represents a good chance of an Irish winner with the aforementioned Noble Prince and Rubi Light almost guaranteed to be on the premises.

Which horse Mullins chooses to take on Big Buck’s in the World Hurdle - Thousand Stars, Mourad, So Young, Zaidpour and Mikael D’Haguenet are all in the frame – will be interesting, although any of his team face a massive task.

Triumph Hurdle hopes on Friday, meanwhile, could rest on Weld’s Hisaabaat, a Grade One winner on Hennessy day at Leopardstown and seemingly improving, while the runner-up that day, Shadow Catcher, is also a player.

Mount Benbulben is not without a chance in the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle.

Irish hopes in the Foxhunter Chase may pivot around Salsify, but the biggest prize of them all, the Gold Cup, could be out of reach.

Long Run and Kauto Star have looked head and shoulders above their contemporaries this season. And with Quito De La Roque absent, it is left to the Mullins-trained Quel Esprit to carry the fight.

He won the Hennessy in good style, but that form would still leave him with plenty to find. However, bigger shocks have occurred, especially at Cheltenham, and Mullins was of the opinion afterwards there was still more to come ahead of the Gold Cup.

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