Conditions could help Melon finally end his Group One duck
City Island can maintain his impressive record over flights in novice hurdle
Barry Geraghty riding Buveur D’Air (left) wins the The Champion Hurdle from Melon at Cheltenham last year. Melon was runner-up again this March, this time to Espoir D’Allen. Photograph: Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images
Melon has been a “nearly horse” for much of his career although Friday’s Punchestown festival feature looks a promising opportunity for him to finally break his Grade One duck.
It admittedly isn’t immediately obvious since Willie Mullins’ enigmatic runner is the only one of the seven-strong €300,000 Betdaq Champion Hurdle field not to have won at the top level.
In comparison to the 10-time Grade One heroine Apple’s Jade, the former dual-Champion Hurdle winner Buveur d’Air, and last year’s winner Supasundae, Melon’s dozen starts for Mullins have mostly been a case so near yet so far.
Runner-up in the last two Champion Hurdles at Cheltenham, as well as the 2017 Supreme at the festival, Melon fell in this race at the third last a year ago and managed to do the same in last month’s Aintree Hurdle.
That race ultimately saw Supasundae grind out a gutsy win over Buveur d’Air over two and a half miles on soft going which is a different proposition to two miles around here.
It’s that prospect, allied to a potential repeat of a remarkable effort at Cheltenham in March, that may be worth forgiving Melon’s profile which pales even in comparison to his stable companion Wicklow Brave, winner of this race in 2017.
Anyone suspecting Melon’s new pace-forcing tactic at Cheltenham might have been to guarantee a strong tempo for his stable-mate Laurina were quickly disabused of such a notion. She was done with down the hill as Melon kept up the gallop in fine style.
Ultimately Espoir d’Allen’s patient policy paid off as he swept through but he was the only one to get past Melon who maintained his gallop to the line. Similar tactics never felt like paying off at Aintree but, provided Melon has recovered from that effort, he could thrive in these conditions.
The remarkable Apple’s Jade is likely to want the lead too and her Irish Champion Hurdle defeat of Supasundae in February is perhaps the outstanding piece of form here. Whether that form has tailed off in the Spring is a legitimate concern considering her two runs since.
Supasundae confounded trip sceptics in this race last year which might make him more of a factor than Buveur d’Air who bids to become the first cross-channel winner since Punjabi in 2008.
Plenty will be disappointed if City Island can’t maintain his record of passing the post first in all his starts over flights to date when lining up in the Alanna Homes Champion Novice Hurdle.
The only official blot on City Island’s copybook is a failed drugs test after scoring at Galway in the summer which allowed him ‘win’ a second maiden.
His rapid progress through the ranks since was confirmed in smooth fashion at Cheltenham and that suggests Martin Brassil’s star can cope with a five-strong challenge from Willie Mullins’s team.
“He bounced back after Cheltenham and seems to have taken his race very well,” Brassil reported on Thursday. “It was good to see Champ [runner up at Cheltenham] coming out to win at Aintree. The form of most of City Island’s races seem to be working out well.”
The biggest threat might come from Battleoverdoyen who started favourite for that Ballymore Hurdle but never seemed to travel at all and was pulled up. Gigginstown’s giant novice could be much more potent threat on home ground.
Last year’s winner of the €100,000 EMS Novice Handicap Chase was none other than Wednesday’s Gold Cup hero Kemboy who carried topweight of 11.10 to success.
Real Steel is going to have to do the same to win and, while he might not ultimately emerge as being in the Kemboy class, slightly easier ground conditions can help him land this.
The final card of Dundalk’s controversial Spring programme is run off on Friday night with just 61 runners over its seven races.
Beau Warrior completed five track wins in a row earlier this year and Sheisdiesel bids to do the same in a fillies handicap.