It may not exactly be the sunny south right now, but Cork’s Sunday programme looks to have the brightest chance of beating the freezing weather conditions this weekend.
Officials at the Mallow track reckon there’s a “good chance” of going ahead with their biggest National Hunt card of the year which features Energumene’s eagerly awaited return to action in the €100,000 Bar One Hilly Way Chase.
Inspections will take place at noon on Saturday for both Cork and Punchestown which is due to host the return of the Gold Cup favourite Galopin Des Champs in the Grade One John Durkan Chase.
However, the mood music around Punchestown appears nowhere near as encouraging with snow still lying on the track and leaving it unraceable on Friday.
“We had snow unfortunately last night and enough of it has stuck,” explained Punchestown’s racing manager Richie Galway.
“The ground underneath actually isn’t frozen. The snow is acting as an insulator. But daytime temperatures are not rising above freezing and we need an appreciable thaw. We will know for pretty certain after we inspect on Saturday,” he added.
Under pressure to run the Durkan as quickly as possible due to the proximity of Christmas, focus could turn to trying to run the card on Tuesday, although the cold snap is forecast to continue through this weekend and well into next week.
It claimed its first weekend victim on Friday when the Navan meeting scheduled for Saturday was cancelled.
Clerk of the course Paddy Graffin said: “Due to the very low temperatures last night there is frost in the ground on the bypass lines of the hurdle course and on the chase course.
“Unfortunately, we are currently unfit to race and with no thaw or sufficient increase in temperatures forecast we have had to cancel tomorrow’s meeting.”
It means racing’s focus on Sunday could turn entirely to Cork where the two-mile champion chaser Energumene brings undoubted star quality as he tries to win the Hilly Way back-to-back.
“We are raceable today, the forecast is to get down to minus one tonight and I’d be very surprised if we’re not raceable tomorrow,” said Cork’s manager Andrew Hogan.
“It is forecast to get colder on Saturday night, down to minus two or three. But the fact we’re coming into it without being in any way frozen, and expecting it to thaw out fully tomorrow, that gives us a good chance.
“We have frost covers on the front and back of fences, we’re racing on fresh ground, so we’re optimistic,” he added.
No one’s more likely to be pushing for a Punchestown green light than jockey Seán O’Keeffe.
He guided Energumene to Hilly Way victory last year and with Paul Townend due to team up with Galopin Des Champs, O’Keeffe is pencilled in for the spin again.
Mother Nature could intervene, however, and Townend said on Friday: “If Punchestown was called off, I would do my best to go down there for the ride.”
It’s not just Energumene either as O’Keeffe is pencilled in for four Willie Mullins rides at Cork as things stand, including the exciting Mercurey in a maiden hurdle.
There’s no disputing Energumene’s status as star attraction though.
On the back of last season’s Hilly Way, he lost out in a memorable clash with Shishkin at Ascot in January before getting his own back with a vengeance at Cheltenham.
That filled in the single major gap in Mullins’s big-race CV and the horse confirmed his status as the one to beat over the minimum trip with a resounding success at Punchestown.
His grip on the Champion Chase market tightened on Friday with news his stable companion Ferny Hollow is out for the season, while a heady official rating of 176 leaves him clear of four rivals in this Hilly Way.
Master McShee provided one of the feelgood stories of last season with his Grade One Christmas victory at Limerick for Waterford trainer Paddy Corkery.
A pair of defeats by Galopin Des Champs afterwards was hardly a disgrace and Master McShee brings his own hefty fan club to proceedings as a rare example of top-flight ‘little guy’ success.
However, he is coming out of novice class, drops back to two miles and is a massive 19lbs ‘wrong’ on ratings with his big rival.
There are also a handful of runners in the preceding Grade Two mares’ novice chase and the clash of Dinoblue and Impervious looks intriguing.
Both won well on their first starts over fences, and both were high class over flights.
Blood Destiny is a French recruit to the Mullins team having finished runner-up on his only start to date at Auteuil in April.
He lines up in the opening juvenile hurdle which sees the latest Joseph O’Brien three-year-old start his jumping career.
Realism, a full brother to the 2017 Irish Oaks runner-up Rain Goddess, didn’t win in four starts on the flat for Aidan O’Brien but was good enough to run third to Luxembourg in the Royal Whip last summer.