Nichols Canyon poised to defend his Ryanair Hurdle crown

Locally based owner Barry Connell bids for success in novice chase with Martello Tower

With Faugheen maintaining a near-garboesque presence on the sidelines the only horse ever to beat him, Nichols Canyon, can once again fill the role of Grade One substitute in the final day highlight of Leopardstown's Christmas festival.

Faugheen's absence inevitably introduces an element of Hamlet without the prince to the €100,000 Ryanair Hurdle and it is Nichols Canyon's lot that there's an element of being without the princess too as another of his stable companions, Annie Power, is also yet to appear this season.

All of which is very unfair indeed on a horse that is a seven-time Grade One winner himself, including the Ryanair a year ago, and in last month’s Morgiana when stepping in for his more lauded stablemates to win by a dozen lengths.

It can't be forgotten either that in the 2015 Morgiana Nichols Canyon pulled off the singular achievement of beating Faugheen who then proceeded to put in a superb Irish Champion Hurdle-winning performance officially rated superior to anything Hurricane Fly ever achieved on figures.

In contrast, such spectacular performances haven’t characterised the career of a horse who remains down the pecking order of Willie Mullins’s top runners yet more often than not keeps managing to emerge with the goods when it counts.

That capacity could be tested to the full in Thursday’s feature.

His four opponents face a task against Nichols Canyon on both form and ratings. But other circumstances are hardly in favour of a horse who ultimately could line up over the three miles of the World Hurdle at Cheltenham in March.

Fluent jumping

On yielding ground over two miles, his famously fluent jumping will have to be spot on in order to bring that stamina fully into play in the closing stages.

He did after all have to grind out last year's success over Identity Thief on much softer conditions.

In his favour is that the Leopardstown course won’t be at its tightest around the inner until next month’s action and even though fog obscured much of his Morgiana win, there was actually something of a flourish about the way Nichols Canyon ultimately powered clear of Jer’s Girl.

Another obvious plus is Ruby Walsh's legendary judgement of pace which ultimately may leave Petit Mouchoir & Co struggling when the going gets tough.

The Neville Hotels Novice Chase has a pedigree of establishing the identity of Ireland's top staying novice chaser and the latest renewal looks notably competitive.

Coney Island takes the tried-and-trusted route here from winning the Drinmore earlier this month while the Gigginstown team is predictably well represented and Jessica Harrington pitches Our Duke straight into top-flight company after winning well at Navan.

There's a touch of Nichols Canyon about Martello Tower's capacity to grind out an impressive profile without doing anything flamboyant and at the end of this three miles that may prove decisive for his locally based owner, Barry Connell.

The 2015 Albert Bartlett winner was predictably caught for toe on his fencing debut but stepped up on that to win narrowly at Fairyhouse over two and a half. Now that he steps up again to three, there should be even more to come even if ground conditions might be quicker than ideal.

Ruby Walsh has opted for Briar Hill in the Grade One novice and is on Let's Dance in the Grade Three mares hurdle where another four year old, Slowmotion, has to concede weight all-round.

That could prove a tough task against Let's Dance who spent last season mixing it with the top juveniles before winning her maiden and returning to action with a good win at Punchestown over a decent performer in Shattered Love.

Walsh came in for some criticism when the former top bumper performer Battleford could finish only fourth on his jumping debut at Navan. But stepped up to two and a half miles, and with that run under his belt, it looks like it could be a different Battleford story this time.

I Knew Well is up 8lbs for winning at Fairyhouse but that may not be enough to stop Tom Taaffe's runner who should appreciate ground conditions more than most.

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