There's a huge weekend of jumps action coming up with massive meetings at Cheltenham and Punchestown. Here's Tony Keenan with the Irish take on the action on both sides of the Irish Sea
Ireland have no record to speak of in the Paddy Power - Tranquil Sea in 2009 being the only Irish-trained winner of the race since Fortria in 1962 (so long ago he's got a race named after him) - and that's unlikely to change with Marito taken out of the race at the five-day stage. He remains one to follow in any case by dint of an eye-catching run in last year's Jewson, though one has to question the seriousness of Willie Mullins' 'English Project' (he said in the summer that he intended to have more runners there pre-Festival), horses like him need to be taking their chances and it's not as if the stable aren't firing, a four-timer on Saturday evidence to the contrary.
Of those still in the race, David Pipe holds a strong hand but there are doubts about all three of his entries; Dynaste may not run and seems better away from the track (he produced a peak efforts at Aintree and Kempton last year rather than Cheltenham), Ballynagour has burst in the past and Salut Flo hasn't been seen in 611 days. Johns Spirit is very short for a horse that looked exposed last season and may have been fitter than the others last time while Champion Court needs to be a high-160s horse to win off his mark and there is plenty to suggest he isn't.
The pair to focus on may be Katenko and Conquisto. There are doubts with the former, namely a long break and a possible preference for soft ground, but connections were talking about a real Gold Cup for him last term and he remains one with significant upside, even off 157. Conquisto has had a run this term and a 4lbs hike for winning a Grade 2 handicap as competitive as the Old Roan seems fair; he impressed with both his jumping and attitude that day.
This year's Greatwood looks one of the lesser renewals with future Champion Hurdle prospects thin on the ground. As a group I want to be against the four-year-olds in this race. Aside from Our Conor, they looked a poor crop and the fact that Far West, likely tuned to the minute for the Elite on Saturday, couldn't win bodes poorly for their chances.
Ideally, a better way into the race would be to find something that was involved in the hot 2013 Supreme but River Maigue is the only available option and makes little appeal as he's already been beaten by Far West. Of the others at the front of the market, Cash And Go is too short as his second in this race last year came in a weak running and he tailed off afterwards while Pine Creek had a good, if cheeky, ride to thank for his win last time.
Tentatively, the best form-line I can find in the race is the Galway Hurdle, represented by Flaxen Flare (second) and Rawnaq (seventh), that race won by the talented mare Missunited, subsequently Group 1-placed on the flat.
Yes, Flaxen Flare is a four-year-old, but he's already proven himself in open company, is a course winner, looks on a fair mark and should come on for his run at Down Royal last time. Rawnaq was better than the bare form in Galway on ground that was too slow, losing his position at a vital time before making late ground, and there were signs of life from him on the flat last time. He brings only summer jumps form to the table but his win at Bellewstown in July was in a strong race with a host of in-form types behind.
The Morgiana should develop into a match between Hurricane Fly and Jezki and I'm firmly in the camp of the younger horse. Hurricane Fly is a superstar but there were slight signs of deterioration last term, notably in this race where - best case scenario - he was going to narrowly beat Go Native but for that one falling at the last. He's vulnerable first time up, especially as he gets on in years, and faces a potent rival here.
Jezki represents the strong Supreme form and though he wasn't at his best that day (may have lacked for fitness), he produced a peak effort over this course-and-distance Champion Novice Hurdle. That form makes him very competitive here and he's had a prep run too, jumping better than he's often done, so looks the pick at the current prices. Whether he'll uphold form with Hurricane Fly later in the season remains to be seen, but he's a bet at around 2.56/4.
Back Katenko and Conquisto in the Paddy Power.
Back Flaxen Flare and Rawnaq in the Greatwood.
Back Jezki in the Morgiana.