Timeform chief correspondent Jamie Lynch picks out five important dates coming up in February...
"But for our benefit, and for his, let’s call it the Samcro race..."
There are few things that flick the frustration switch more than when you're on the plane but on the ground, leaving you restlessly motionless and uncomforted by the captain's pledge to try to 'make up the time' in mid-air. And how do they do that? Fly faster? The truth is rather less glamorous in that they cut corners or bypass waypoints.
But the reason for starting with all this is that, for the first time I can remember, Cheltenham has been delayed. Not the event itself, of course, but it feels like the ardent approach has been grounded for a while, the fierceness of the fever yet to bite, and the explanation is the new kid on the block who has to be seen and heard before celebration, cogitation and contemplation about Cheltenham can really take flight: the inaugural Dublin Racing Festival.
Once the two-day tear up has taken place, the Cheltenham craze will make up the time and the punters will make up their minds, armed with all the essential evidence that Leopardstown will lay on the table via 15 clue-charged races including seven Grade 1s. Combining three traditional stand-alone meetings at the track, its timing is perfect as a platform for Cheltenham, and the fuel for its first fire is provided by a number of racing's brightest flames, some of which were extinguished when last seen, only adding to the importance of this February Festival. So let's look at some of the power players and what power they've got, or not.
1. GOLDEN CYGNET NOVICE HURDLE - February 3rd
In fact, the Golden Cygnet part has been scandalously reduced to brackets, as this Grade 1's official title is now the Nathaniel Lacy & Partners Novice Hurdle. But for our benefit, and for his, let's call it the Samcro race.
Absence makes the hype grow stronger. We haven't seen him since November, but the legend of Samcro continues to grow, so much so that he's spoken of in almost solemn and semi-religious tones, referred to as 'the one'. It's not what he's done but the way that he does it, that's what's made this cult.
What we know is that he can run fast with ease, as told by the marriage of what both our eyes and the clock tell us; what we don't know are his limits, for ability or for stamina, Gordon Elliot seemingly confident about the latter as he's selecting the 2¾m option for him at the Dublin Festival (rather than the 2m Deloitte), plugged into his Cheltenham target of the 2m 5f Ballymore. We're always looking ahead with this horse. Leopardstown will give us a good idea as to what strength of telescope we'll need.
2. IRISH CHAMPION HURDLE - February 3rd
From one horse who has it all ahead of him to another whose best days are behind him. Or are they? The Irish Champion Hurdle will answer that question for Faugheen. The Ryanair Hurdle didn't invalidate the Morgiana as they were completely disconnected apart from his timeline, something wrong with him at Leopardstown, simply said but not so simply explained, by either the speculators on the outside or his management team on the inside, hence he's still heading along the track, one derailment not constituting a demise.
But everything is on the line in the Irish Champion Hurdle, if indeed he goes. It's the make-or-break day for Faugheen and the make-or-break day for the division, otherwise Buveur d'Air will be the Manchester City of the premier league hurdlers.
3. IRISH GOLD CUP - February 4th
There's still a hole to be punched through the Gold Cup market, and maybe the Irish version will produce a knock-out performance. Despite winning the Christmas (Lexus) Chase, Road To Respect isn't quite yet in the heavyweight category, but one or both of Coney Island and Our Duke could still be a title contender, Our Duke going the distance last season but Coney Island making the better comeback.
It's hard to quantify those two, and also appearing on The Unrateables is Killultagh Vic, who missed the whole of last term and returned with a boing if not a bang by winning over hurdles, but the destinations inputted into his SatNav by Willie Mullins are a significant statement of faith. There are more questions than apparent answers in the Irish Gold Cup, but the same is true of the Gold Cup itself, and that's why the stakes are so high at Leopardstown for the clutch of concealed chasers.
Our Duke was runner-up in the Flogas in 2016, and the tale of that race this year is the fall - and hopefully rise - of Monalee and Al Boum Photo. They both came down over Christmas, Monalee at the tenth in a Grade 1 when evens and Al Boum Photo at the last in a Grade 2 when in full command. Might Bite showed last season that a Christmas fall is no barrier to a Cheltenham win, and Monalee, in particular of the pair, still has the look and ingredients of a top-notch novice.
4. DUBLIN CHASE - February 3rd
There was only one way for Yorkhill to go after a Christmas crisis over three miles, though coming all the way back to two means he's messing with Min, in theory at least, but in practice it's highly unlikely that Will Mullins will pit two of his game-changers against each other pre-Cheltenham. The problem is that, with time pressing, both need this race more than this race needs them, for Yorkhill to kickstart his campaign and for Min to course-correct after doing more wrong than right last time when the stewards had no option but to take a Grade 1 away from him. There's a big decision to make, maybe so big that Willie might just have to let them both rip, in which case we'll have the biggest treat of the weekend.
5. SPRING JUVENILE HURDLE - February 4th
It's hard to recall a season where there were so many classy juveniles around, the five stabdouts all unbeaten so far, so something's gotta give when the Irish pair go head-to-head in the Spring. Espoir d'Allen has barely come off the bridle to sweep up four races for Gavin Cromwell, but he's never faced anything of the dynamism of Stormy Ireland, who was basically in a different race to the rest for her breathtaking debut for Willie Mullins at Fairyhouse, coming home 58 lengths clear.
It's difficult to match them up because we've no idea how good they are, safe to say we're talking an elite level, but the fillies' allowance gives Stormy Ireland an advantage of sorts. That said, the way that Stormy Ireland tore off at Fairyhouse, in a one-dimensional hint, might be music to the ears of Espoir d'Allen, who looks like he'd love the thrill of the chase of such a hare. This is the duel in the crown of the Dublin Festival.
In the high-value Coral Hurdle at the Festival, Duca de Thaix stands out on various counts, for his connections, his profile and his style in taking down a Grade 3 on just his second start in Ireland. He brings the unexposed element that's needed for these races, and if Jack Kennedy is declared on him then his current price could crash.