Pont Alexandre to seal the love affair

Mullins can also strike again in Bumper

[/BYLINE1][BYLINE2]At Cheltenham

It's easy to paint Pont Alexandre's tilt at the Neptune Hurdle in romantic terms. Willie Mullins after all has admitted to love-at-first-sight when he saw the Neptune Hurdle 'banker' in France last summer. And a lot of punters might feel the same way if the favourite obliges today.

In many ways, Pont Alexandre exemplifies the Mullins modus operandi, the one that sees him tower over Irish racing right now.

The Cholet track in the north-west of France has been equated in Irish terms to Downpatrick, so when Pont Alexandre made a winning debut there last May, it can hardly have set racing’s grapevine buzzing too much.


Shortly afterwards though, Mullins included Pont Alexandre's stable during his annual Gallic shopping expeditions and fell in love with the strapping horse as soon as he was pulled out of his box.

[CROSSHEAD]Quick call
[/CROSSHEAD]A quick call to the American owner Rich Ricci, the famous "fatcatinthehat" of Barclays Bank renown, resulted in a purchase price believed to be close on ¤300,000, a tasty price but one which might have been even more had Pont Alexandre shown his prowess at the showpiece Auteuil track in Paris.

The fact Pont Alexandre is that bit different was underlined when Mullins broke the habit of a lifetime and gave him his Irish debut in a Grade One. The run-in to that Navan Hurdle was all about Do Cossack. Ever since, though, Pont Alexandre has been the undoubted number one novice in Ireland.

The rest of Mullins’s hugely-powerful team of youngsters, never mind all other Irish festival hopefuls, have steered a path around the certainty that Pont Alexandre lines up in the Neptune.

Just nine are prepared to take him on, and they include Sizing Gold, a distant runner-up to Pont Alexandre on the hotpot’s only other career start at Leopardstown in January. That took place in a blizzard, and even making all into the teeth of a gale that day couldn’t prevent Pont Alexandre making a deep impression.

Cheltenham history is littered with the detritus of hugely-hyped Irish novices expected to sluice up here only to flop expensively. Pont Alexandre can, once again, prove to be exceptional.

It says something about the rejigged Cheltenham programme the outstanding Dynaste skips the Grade One RSA in favour of tomorrow's Grade Two Jewson but at least the result is a better chance for the four Irish contenders.

Boston Bob is a Grade One scorer in the Moriarty but Ruby Walsh prefers Unioniste and in what looks set to be a slog, there can be value in siding with another of the Irish hopefuls, Lyreen Legend.

Stamina is this one's strong suit, so much so Dessie Hughes had been considering a tilt at the preceding four-miler. Lyreen Legend was just over a length off Boston Bob at the end of that tight Moriarty finish last month and managed it off a less than smooth preparation. With expected improvement, and at much greater odds than Boston Bob, he can prove a value option.

Back In Focus is another Grade One novice lining up in the National Hunt Chase and he boasts credentials that are hard to quibble with.

Slight preference though is for Derek O'Connor's mount Rival d'Estruval , off the track since early-December when successful at Kelso, but likely to relish an extreme stamina test. Patrick Mullins has twice teamed up with his father to land the Weatherbys Champion Bumper, last year with Champagne Fever, and on Cousin Vinny, during Mullins Snr's run of seven wins in the Grade One finale.

Union Dues has arrived under the radar but looks the sort of tough individual who might provide Ireland's champion trainer with an eighth win. Joseph O'Brien's appearance on Shield, and indeed Richard Hughes on Sgt Reckless, adds another layer of intrigue here but no one knows better than the Mullins what is required.

Ruby Walsh's decision to side with Saphir Du Rheu in the Fred Winter is hard to ignore when considering the pick he had while Meister Eckhart likes the track and arrives fresh at the Coral Cup after just one run since last year's festival.

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor is the racing correspondent of The Irish Times. He also writes the Tipping Point column