Arctic Fire looks to open account at Aintree in Hurricane Fly’s absence
Willie Mullins’s six-year-old has been placed in a succession of top races
Nina Carberry and On The Fringe celebrate their victory in the The Foxhunter Chase at Cheltenham with owner JP McManus. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Arctic Fire gets the chance to step out of his illustrious stablemate Hurricane Fly’s shadow when he goes for glory in the Doom Bar Aintree Hurdle at the Liverpool course on Thursday.
With the 22-times Grade One winner being saved by trainer Willie Mullins for Punchestown, Arctic Fire attempts to open his account at the highest level after a string of valiant efforts.
The progressive six-year-old has been placed in a succession of top races and after twice finishing behind Hurricane Fly in both the Ryanair and Irish Champion Hurdles at Leopardstown he had the great horse back in third when runner-up to another stable companion, Faugheen, in the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham.
“He’s been in good form since Cheltenham so we decided to let him take his chance,” said Mullins.
“I just felt we should keep Hurricane Fly for Punchestown as he’s always good there.
“It’s his first time over the trip (two and a half miles), but the way he was coming up that hill at Cheltenham, you would be hoping he’ll stay. We’ll find out on Thursday.
“I still can’t see a rib on him. He’s an exceptional horse and I still think there is a lot of improvement in him.”
While it is no certainty the step up to two and a half miles will suit, jockey Ruby Walsh is optimistic he will stay.
“The trip is an unknown but the way he came home at Cheltenham you would have to be hopeful,” said Walsh.
“He’s improving and Willie always thought he was a Champion Hurdle horse.”
Jezki was behind Arctic Fire when fourth in defence of his crown at Cheltenham and connections admit it looks a tall order for the Jessica Harrington-trained seven-year-old.
“He seems in good form. Jessie’s happy with him,” said Frank Berry, racing manager to owner JP McManus.
“He has a bit of ground to make up on Arctic Fire. It will be very hard to turn the tables round, but we’ll hope for the best.
“Arctic Fire is the one to beat and is sure to be hard to turn over.”
Harry Fry is hoping it will be third time lucky in this race for Rock On Ruby, who has been placed in the last two years.
Two years ago he was third to Oscar Whisky and 12 months later he was touched off by The New One, who misses this year’s race after a setback.
“Obviously we were forced to bypass Cheltenham, but the distance of this race is perfect for us,” said Fry.
“He’s run very well in it in the past, not least last year when he was denied a head by The New One.
“He seems to be right back on his ‘A’ game. I couldn’t be happier with him at home. He’ll love the ground and we go there full of confidence.
“It’s a very tough race, as you’d expect for a Grade One. It will be fascinating and I’m looking forward to it.”
The 10-year-old turned Cheltenham’s Foxhunter Chase into a procession as he romped to a 17-length victory and connections will be hoping for more of the same over the Grand National fences.
“He’s come out of the race at Cheltenham well, and he’ll love the track and love the fences,” said Bolger.
“There will be 30 runners so you’ll need a lot of luck, but he’s going there with a good chance.”
Frank Berry, racing manager to owner JP McManus, is also hoping fortune smiles on their horse against so much opposition.
“He is in good form and has come out of the race at Cheltenham very well,” he said. “Enda’s very happy with him. It’s a big field so we’ll need a bit of luck for sure. Hopefully Cheltenham didn’t take too much out of him.”
Warne won the race last year but was then beaten 22 lengths when third to On The Fringe at Punchestown in early May.
He only returned to competitive action when successful in a point-to-point last month.
Not surprisingly, his trainer Brian Hamilton expects On The Fringe to be a tough nut to crack.
“He’s back for more. He hasn’t had the same run through this year. He’s not had the same preparation, but I think he’s well there at the minute,” said the Co Down handler.
“He’ll need to be on his game to beat On The Fringe, never mind the other horses.
“When the proper On The Fringe turns up, he’s very hard to beat. The only thing we seem to have going for us is that he handles the track well.
“We’re hoping that will be a plus, but he will need to be at his best. The preparation hasn’t gone as smoothly, but at least we’re heading in the right direction and his work is back to what it was before he won the race last year. Everything is okay with him at the minute.”