Punters can't complain about a lack of form-lines in Friday's JCB Triumph Hurdle although the nature of the juvenile championship could make for a contradictory outcome.
Willie Mullins’s number one hope Vauban ran into Gordon Elliott’s number one Pied Piper at Punchestown on New Year’s Eve and came up half a length short of his rival.
Pied Piper proceeded to win in outrageously easy fashion at Cheltenham in January while Vauban jumped straight to Grade One success at the Dublin Racing Festival. At Leopardstown the Mullins runner had three lengths in hand of Pied Piper's stable companion Fil Dor.
So a strict reading of the formbook suggests Pied Piper has a slight edge on Vauban leaving Fil Dor to be something of a third-wheel in calculations. It’s rarely that simple though and an extended two miles around Cheltenham’s ‘New Course’ could be just the sort of stamina test Fil Dor needs to turn things around.
Speed is a Vauban asset given he was a Listed winner on the flat in France. Pied Piper was a 90-rated flat horse at one point for the Queen. But the Triumph often turns into a test of grit which is something the more National Hunt bred Fil Dor looks like possessing in spades.
Ground conditions will be more testing than when he last ran into Vauban and Davy Russell knows how to win the Triumph having been last successful on a certain Tiger Roll in 2014.
The other final day Grade One, the Albert Bartlett Novice Hurdle, will be even more of a stamina test. Henry Daly's giant Hillcrest is a major home hope while Gordon Elliott will hope Ginto's late switch from the Ballymore pays off.
Ginto landed a Grade One at Naas in January with the sort of dour but authoritative performance that looks suited to the race. In contrast the Willie Mullins first-string Minella Cocooner won a Grade One at the Dublin Racing Festival in the sort of freewheeling style that might be counter-productive over three miles.
The most informative trial for this race in recent years has been Limerick's Christmas Grade Two prize. Last season's Albert Bartlett winner Vanillier was runner-up in the Limerick contest. The 2017 winner Penhill won both. So did the 2015 victor, Martello Tower.
Eric Bloodaxe briefly looked in trouble in the Limerick contest last Christmas but ultimately won with authority from Freedom To Dream. Having been runner-up to Ginto prior to that, and subsequently last behind Minella Cocooner at Leopardstown, Joseph O'Brien's runner has substantial ground to make up.
However the Leopardstown going was against him, a step up to three miles should be ideal, and in a race with a history of big-priced winners he looks an attractive each-way prospect at his best.
A good run would also encourage hopes for Freedom To Dream in the concluding Martin Pipe Handicap Hurdle. The latter's stable companion Surprise Package attempts a famous double in the McCoy County Hurdle having dotted up in last Saturday's Imperial Cup at Sandown.
Peter Fahey's charge has a 5lb penalty for what is always an ultra-competitive handicap although one that trainer Dan Skelton has had huge success in recently with three of the last six winners. The Englishman has three chances to add to that fine record although West Cork looks the clear number one hope.
West Cork landed the Greatwood here earlier in the season and his only subsequent start can be ignored as he suffered a bad overreach at Ascot.
For weeks State Man has been a ‘buzz horse’ for one of the Cheltenham handicaps and Willie Mullins has a fine race record too with five wins in the last dozen years. Conceding so much experience to some vastly experienced handicappers is a concern however.
Mullins’s Billaway has been runner-up in the St James’s Place Hunters Chase for the last two years. He once again warmed up for this race with a smooth success at Naas where the application of cheek-pieces looked to help him travel more sweetly.
They stay on him for an attempt at making it third time lucky in a heat where Winged Leader, who beat Billaway at Thurles in January, may emerge as the biggest threat.
Brian O’Connor’s Friday Tips
1.30- Fil Dor
2.10- West Cork
2.50- Eric Bloodaxe
3.30- Al Boum Photo
4.50- Mount Ida
5.30- Hollow Games (Nap)
Nap and Double- Hollow Games & Fil Dor