Hopes are high that Cheltenham will pass a 7.30 morning inspection ahead of Saturday’s ‘Festival Trials’ card, although home morale for the big dates in March may end up taking a dent.
The scale of the cross-channel challenge in taking on Ireland’s best back at Cheltenham in six weeks is underlined by how their biggest single obstacle, Willie Mullins, needs only one more victory to reach 4,000 career winners as a trainer.
The man who has transformed the face of jump racing, including a record 88 festival successes, has a half a dozen starters on Saturday to try and secure his landmark achievement.
Bronn is likely to start odds-on for the Fairyhouse opener, although it would be apt if Energumene was the one to bring it up at jump racing’s spiritual home in the Grade One Clarence House Chase.
Last weekend’s cancelled feature at Ascot has been transferred to make a bumper nine-race programme, due to start at 11.40.
The Cheltenham track was raceable on Friday, prompting an inspection deferral and contingency plans to run the meeting on Sunday being shelved.
“Frost covers will be deployed today on the new course in order to protect the ground from tonight’s forecast, where temperatures could drop to minus 2C. Therefore, there will be a further precautionary inspection at 7.30,” said clerk of the course, Jon Pullin.
If it looks positive on the logistics front, three’s a lot riding on cross-channel confidence for the festival itself still being intact by the time these trials are over.
A week ahead of Ireland’s own major trials dates at the Dublin Racing Festival, there is enough talent in the system here to allow Irish runners line up in five of the other eight contests at Cheltenham.
They include Delta Work who returns for a date around the cross-country course he so memorably won over last March.
The 2021 Grand National hero Minella Times makes his cross-country debut in this, on top of which the reigning ‘National’ champion Noble Yeats will try to book his Gold Cup place in the Cotswold Chase against the leading cross-channel hope Protoktorat.
Energumene is odds-on to do over the ‘new’ course what he managed on the ‘old’ course when smoothly landing last season’s Champion Chase.
Delta Work has weight to concede – and is unlikely to be fully wound up so close to the festival itself – but is nevertheless a warm favourite too.
Neither will it be any shock if Noble Yeats continues his remorseless rise up the ratings.
However, should other Irish hopes such as Comfort Zone in the opener, or Doctor Brown Bear in a later novice hurdle, emerge on top it will start to look ominous for the home team’s fortunes in March.
After all, odds of just 11-8 about Mullins outscoring the entire British team on his own are already available.
Next week’s Leopardstown action is Mullins’s main festival audition date but more immediately, the focus is on Energumene.
The reigning two-mile champion has a bigger field to contend with than he would have had at Ascot, although Edwardstone still looks his main threat.
Neither horse should have any problem switching to this Cheltenham track compared to the one they scored over at last year’s festival.
Despite his Tingle Creek victory in December, it appears Edwardstone’s lot to be underestimated but the fact remains Energumene is the current benchmark at this trip.
Mullins has two shots at the featured Grade Three mares’ novice hurdle at Fairyhouse although Jetara is no back number if stepping up from her jumping debut behind High Definition at Christmas
There will no more popular Fairyhouse winner though than El Capitaine should he land a later maiden hurdle.
Formerly trained by the late Andy Lynch, his son Michael saddles his first runner with a licence and El Capitaine’s Christmas run at Leopardstown puts him right in the mix for this.
Sunday’s Naas action includes Bob Olinger’s third start of the season in the Grade Three Limestone Lad Hurdle.
Heavily supported on his comeback from chasing in November’s Lismullen, the former brilliant novice found Home By The Lee too strong in the closing stages.
Bob Olinger was again well backed over three miles at Christmas but performed even worse.
Now Henry de Bromhead drops him to the minimum distance and puts to the test a speculative Champion Hurdle entry that has prompted ante-post prices of as low as 20-1.
For a horse that promised so much, Bob Olinger looks a conundrum that many punters will be happy to ignore, potentially siding with Echoes In Rain instead.
The De Bromhead team could have better luck in Sunday’s opening Grade Three contest through Amirite.
This horse had his Christmas chance memorably ruined at Leopardstown when, through no fault of her own, Rachael Blackmore got ejected by Jack Kennedy’s efforts to get back on his mount after a blunder.
As indicated by 16-1 odds for Cheltenham’s National Hunt Chase, stamina looks to be Amirite’s big asset, something that can come to the fore against Chemical Energy and Ramillies.
In other news, there is no timeline on when Kennedy will be able to return from his fractured leg. The jockey faces a race against the clock to make Cheltenham and had a consultation with his surgeon on Friday.
“Paddy Kenny was very happy with how it is progressing but the question of when he might be back never came up. It’s only been two weeks since it happened,” said Kennedy’s agent, Kevin O’Ryan.