The top-flight pair of Apple's Jade and Death Duty could lead Michael O'Leary's Grade One squad into Winter Festival action at Fairyhouse although the Ryanair boss's Gigginstown Stud team insist its chances of landing a top-flight hat-trick on Sunday are "zero to none".
Just 22 entries remain across Sunday’s three Grade One highlights after Tuesday’s forfeit stage. Nine of them are owned by Gigginstown.
Apple’s Jade, who also has the option of Saturday’s Fighting Fifth at Newcastle, is the sole O’Leary hope remaining in the featured €100,000 Bar One Racing Hatton’s Grace Hurdle, a race the star mare won in dramatic fashion a year ago.
However O’Leary has five of the eight left in the €85,000 Drinmore Novice Chase and three of the seven remaining in a Royal Bond Novice Hurdle that could emerge as a face-off against the champion owner’s great rival, JP McManus.
He also has three left in the Royal Bond – led by the unbeaten Red Jack – and the only potential intruder on the O'Leary-McManus battle is champion trainer Willie Mullins who has left in his Listowel winner, Makitorix.
Mullins's Stayers Hurdle hero Nichols Canyon features among seven left in the Hatton's Grace for which last season's Coral Cup winner Supasundae remains a possible.
The last horse to successfully defend the Hatton’s Grace crown was Solerina when she completed a hat-trick in 2005 and it could be the country’s current top mare Apple’s Jade who bridges that gap, especially on the back of an impressive return to action in the Lismullen Hurdle.
“She usually gets beat the first day and comes on from it so hopefully she can come forward again,” said the Gigginstown spokesman, Eddie O’Leary.
“It hasn’t been decided for definite if she goes to Fairyhouse or the Fighting Fifth; we’re keeping our options open.”
However the hugely promising Death Duty is definitely on course for the Drinmore, a race won by Gigginstown on four previous occasions, while the impressive For Auction Novice Hurdle winner Mengli Khan is set to try and break new ground for O’Leary who has never before scored in the Royal Bond.
“We never have horses fast enough for it usually. However this [Mengli Khan] is a smart horse. Hopefully they’ll go a fast pace because it looks like being a very good race.
“Death Duty will tell us on Sunday where he ranks against horses that have won the Drinmore for us in the past. He’ll do the talking and we won’t do the talking for him,” Eddie O’Leary added.
No one has completed a clean sweep of all three Grade One prizes at the first major top-flight fixture of the jumps season and O’Leary doesn’t expect that to change on Sunday despite the concentration of Gigginstown firepower.
“Zero to none!” he said when asked about their hat-trick chances. “We’d love to win just one of them.”
O'Leary also said on Tuesday there has been no falling out with the champion amateur jockey Jamie Codd and the Gigginstown team will continue to use his services when required.
Codd has ridden some of Gigginstown’s best bumper horses in recent seasons, including the hugely impressive Samcroin in his first two racecourse appearances.
However Lisa O’Neill has been riding the majority of O’Leary’s bumper runners this season and will be on board Caltex at Punchestown on Wednesday.
“Hopefully Jamie will ride a lot of point-to-pointers for us. There’s no falling out. He can ride any point-to-pointer of ours he wants,” O’Leary said.
“Lisa is on the bumper horses. She’s very good, she has a very valuable claim, she’s in the yard [Gordon Elliott’s] and she’s smart. Jamie can ride all the point -to-pointers he wants and if Lisa is unavailable we’ll use Jamie as well,” he added.
Ground conditions at Fairyhouse are currently “soft to heavy” and there are no weather fears ahead of weekend dates that have been severely disrupted in the past.
Testing going shouldn’t be an issue for Nichols Canyon who landed the Stayers crown at Cheltenham last March. He is in line to make his first start of the new campaign on Sunday.
“He’s a Stayers Hurdle winner and we didn’t go back to two miles because we don’t want to be revving him up as we’re making a stayer out of him,” said Patrick Mullins.
Nichols Canyon may be joined in Sunday’s two-and-a-half mile contest by his stable companions, Cilaos Emery and Augusta Kate.