Stage set for clash


Dermot Weld is hoping his star jumper Stage Affair can make it third time lucky when he takes on the mighty Istabraq at Leopardstown tomorrow week.

Weld has elected to give Stage Affair his first start of the season in the AIB December Festival Hurdle rather than begin a steeplechasing career.

"The plan is to run in the Istabraq race. I just think it would be good if the horse had a race over hurdles before he went chasing in the New Year. He hasn't run since last May," Weld said yesterday.

Stage Affair has twice come off worst against Istabraq, going down by four lengths in last January's AIG Champion Hurdle and then running fifth in the Smurfit Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham.

The Michael Smurfit-owned horse is now set to start over fences at the end of January. It's yet to be confirmed if Tony McCoy can resume his partnership with Stage Affair at Christmas.

Question marks also remain over the participation of Limestone Lad in the Woodies DIY Christmas Hurdle on the same day as Istabraq and Stage Affair return.

Limestone Lad has had his back examined by a chiropractor who has recommended the horse misses his Christmas engagement. Michael Bowe has suggested it may be only a minor muscle spasm that is affecting Limestone Lad but as of yesterday no decision about a Leopardstown appearance had been taken.

A total of 24 horses remain in the lucrative handicap chase and the Tony Martin-trained Davids Lad now has another horse sharing the ante-post favouritism.

The sponsors make both Davids Lad and the Christy Roche-trained, J P McManus-owned Shannon Gale their 5 to 1 joint favourites. Clash Of The Gales is 8 to 1 while Promalee and Lyreen Wonder are each 10 to 1.

Ground conditions at the Foxrock track are currently described as "very heavy" but no one is pushing any panic buttons about the going just yet.

"There was a lot of rain last night but at least the forecast is encouraging. We're expecting it to pick up and be reasonably good on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. If that forecast is correct we should be OK. We're not in a panic yet and a bit of wind and sunshine in the next couple of days would be a huge help," the Leopardstown spokesman Tom Burke said yesterday.

Just nine horses have been left in the first day festival highlight, the Denny Gold Medal Novice Chase, including Knife Edge, Balla Sola, Well Ridden and the Neville Callaghan-trained Bold King from Britain.

The Paddy Power-sponsored second day will also include a possible clash between the star novice Bust Out and Ned Kelly in the Future Champions' Novice Hurdle and the Dial A Bet Chest includes the Ted Walsh-trained entries Papillon and Rince Ri.

There is already anticipation of the third day feature, the Ericsson Chase, and Cashmans go Native Upmanship as their 11 to 8 favourite. Next on 6 to 4 is Alexander Banquet while Nick Dundee is a 5 to 2 chance. Others quoted are Dorans Pride (14) and Micko's Dream on 22 to 1.