Cheltenham contender Corbetts Cross has first start for Emmet Mullins in Naas Grade Two

Paul Townend hoping he has got pick right as champion jockey opts for Kemboy in ‘Bobbyjo’

Emmet Mullins’s ability to throw a racing ‘curveball’ could get underlined at Naas on Sunday where the promising novice Corbetts Cross has a first start for his new trainer.

A general 8-1 shot in ante-post betting for Cheltenham’s three-mile Albert Bartlett, Corbetts Cross lines up this weekend for the Grade Two Johnstown Novice Hurdle over a trip of less than two miles.

The horse has never run at the distance before and underlined his stamina credentials when winning impressively at Fairyhouse last time.

That was for Cork trainer Eugene O’Sullivan, but since then owner Paul Byrne has switched Corbetts Cross to his old ally.


The plan memorably created by Mullins and Byrne to win the Grand National succeeded in style last season as Noble Yeats became the first seven-year-old to win the Aintree spectacular since 1940.

Mullins’s rapid rise through the training ranks has provided ample other evidence too of his capacity to confound expectations.

The Johnstown Hurdle has some pedigree when it comes to unearthing Cheltenham festival winners. The 2009 winner Go Native proceeded to land the Supreme just a couple of weeks later.

It’s hardly renowned as an Albert Bartlett trial though, so the performance of Corbetts Cross – forced to miss a three-mile contest at Clonmel last week due to coughing – will be fascinating.

Among his handful of opponents is the mare Lily Du Berlais, who is being thrown in at the deep end for her hurdling debut.

Winner of two of her four bumper starts, she lost little in defeat when chasing home Fun Fun Fun at the Dublin Racing Festival.

Sunday’s Naas action is billed as ‘Trials Day’ and along with Saturday’s Fairyhouse programme represents pretty much the last chance to earn a Cheltenham festival ticket.

The opener at Fairyhouse sees Willie Mullins give Zenta her Irish debut in the Grade Three Winning Fair Juvenile Hurdle.

She was bought by JP McManus after winning a Listed fillies race over flights at Auteuil last autumn and is a general 20-1 shot in ante-post lists for both the Triumph Hurdle and the mares’ novices event at Cheltenham.

John McConnell gives his own two French recruits Hypotenus and Zefania their first Irish starts, although the overall power of Mullins’s juvenile team is hard to argue with.

The champion trainer runs both Kemboy and the Thyestes winner Carefully Selected in Saturday’s Grade Three Tote Bobbyjo Chase.

Paul Townend’s decision to side with Kemboy could be significant since the former top-class operator is hard to peg back if allowed an uncontested lead.

Kemboy hasn’t won in over two years but his Christmas effort behind Conflated indicated he’s still a more than capable proposition in company like this.

“Kemboy has been dropped in class with no penalties. The conditions of the race should suit him very well, hopefully the ground won’t be too slow for him,” Mullins’s son Patrick reported on Friday.

In contrast Carefully Selected, who is being targeted at the Aintree National, relishes the sort of deep going he encountered last time out.

Pencilfulloflead also ran in the Thyestes while Longhouse Poet flopped in the Galmoy Hurdle on that Gowran card and must bounce back to figure.

On his last trip to Fairyhouse Brideswell Lad ran over two miles but should be suited by going out in trip for a novice chase where drying ground will also be to his advantage.

Whether that also applies to Rebel Gold in Sunday’s Grade Three Newlands Chase mightn’t be so obvious.

However, in a race where the 155-rated Coeur Sublime is likely to start favourite, there could be value in backing Patrick Foley’s charge, who landed a valuable handicap last month.

Sunday’s most valuable pot is the €45,000 Barberstown Castle novice handicap chase, which has attracted just nine runners.

The Down Royal winner Limerick Lace tops the weights, although Barnacullia too looks a player judged by a fine effort when runner-up to Final Orders at Leopardstown last time.

An extra half mile here should be a plus as will ground officially forecast to be yielding.

Sunday’s bumper has a Cheltenham pedigree of its own, although it is some time since Hairy Molly (2008) and Pizarro (2002) used it as a springboard to festival success.

Willie Mullins will pursue a ‘Lucky 13th’ success in the Champion Bumper and has another notably strong team of contenders.

Ile Atlantique, owned by businessman and Brighton football club chairman Tony Bloom, made a winning debut at Leopardstown over Christmas

The third home that day has won since, and significant improvement is anticipated from the French-bred.

Gordon Elliott pitches both Mighty Potter’s brother, Caldwell Potter, and Stellar Story, a full brother to The Stoyteller, into this but Ile Atlantique could prove tough to beat.

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor is the racing correspondent of The Irish Times. He also writes the Tipping Point column