Rachael Blackmore and Henry De Bromhead have the two big race favourites for this weekend's Dublin Racing Festival in Leopardstown but also have both Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott breathing down their necks.
Honeysuckle in Saturday's Chanelle Pharma Irish Champion Hurdle and Minella Indo in Sunday's Paddy Power Irish Gold Cup hold out the potential for a massive feature race double at Irish jump racing's €1.8 million shop-window event.
However, they will have to overcome strength in depth from the sport’s two biggest operations.
Honeysuckle's unbeaten record will be threatened by up to three Mullins rivals – including the course specialist Sharjah – as well as Elliot's pair of Abacadabras and Petit Mouchoir after half a dozen entries were left in the Champion Hurdle at Tuesday's forfeit stage.
Only five are left in the €200,000 Gold Cup with Mullins (Kemboy and Melon) and Elliott (Delta Work and The Storyteller) set to be doubly represented against Minella Indo.
As expected both the dual-Cheltenham Gold Cup hero Al Boum Photo and racing's most exciting young talent, Enovi Allen, skip a weekend featuring eight Grade One races overall.
Nevertheless, the 15 races up for grabs during Saturday and Sunday contain much of the cream of Ireland’s National Hunt talent and the two big races in particular underline how much of it is concentrated in few hands.
Immediate bookmaker reaction was to make Honeysuckle a general 5-4 shot to repeat last year’s success in the big hurdle. Minella Indo is 7-4 to rejuvenate his Cheltenham Gold Cup credentials after crashing out at the eighth fence in the Savills Chase over Christmas.
To do so he will have to overcome last year’s winner Delta Work as well as the Mullins pair who were behind A Plus Tard in the Savills.
“It was his first run since out of novice company, his first time up against the big boys. They were going a good gallop and hopefully the fall was just lack of experience,” De Bromhead reflected on Tuesday. “He lacks experience and the whole idea this season was to ramp it up coming to Christmas so we gave him those two runs and he was great.
“Unfortunately it went wrong at Christmas. I’m not sure if we would have been going to the Irish Gold Cup now if he’d had a clear round but he didn’t so we need to get back on track and this looks the obvious race to go and do that,” he added.
Honeysuckle, winner of her sole start this season in the Hatton's Grace, will try to emulate illustrious names such as Hurricane Fly and Istabraq by successfully defending the Irish Champion Hurdle crown.
The complexion of much of the rest of the Grade One action looks to be dominated by Mullins. The champion trainer shapes as having five favourites in the six other Grade One prizes while his great rival Elliott has the likely market leader for the Tatts Spring Hurdle in Quilixios.
The hottest favourite of all is Chacun Pour Soi, already a general 1-2 shot to repeat his 2020 success in the Ladbrokes Dublin Chase. His stable companions Energumene (Ward & Co Arkle,) Monkfish (Flogas Novice Chase) and Appreciate It for a novice hurdle are also odds-on in some lists.
The course winner Gaillard Du Mesnil tops the betting for the Lacy Solicitors Novice Hurdle, the opening contest of the weekend.
Over the previous three Dublin Racing Festivals, Mullins has won 14 of the 45 races up for grabs.
Unlike 2019, when just four ran in the Gold Cup due to quick ground conditions, the going looks like being testing. The terrain on the controversial chase course on Tuesday was “soft” with further showers expected later in the week.
However, a total of 34mms of rain over the weekend, and a further 16mms overnight, is unlikely to be significantly added to over the coming days according to clerk of the course Lorcan Wyer.
“I think the bulk of the rain is behind us and it will be showery during the week. It’s meant to get cooler at the weekend but we don’t believe it’s going to get so low that it’s going to be a problem,” he added.
In other news, an Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board report on Sunday’s chaotic race start at Naas is expected later this week.
The IHRB’s chief executive is investigating the start of a handicap hurdle in which one horse ducked, unseating his rider and badly interfering with two other horses, before the tape was released and the race run. The Naas stewards allowed the result stand.
It saw one of the hampered horses, Aarons Day, run a remarkable race to finish runner-up despite losing up to 30 lengths at the start.
Ahead of the investigation report, an IHRB spokesman couldn’t comment on queries as to why the Naas stewards didn’t either void the race or declare horses as non-runners.
Aarons Day has been raised 4lbs in official ratings by the handicapper after his effort on Sunday.