Fresh from a winner last week, Mark Milligan's Irish column is back and he recommends a pair to side with at Punchestown...
"The 2018 winner of this contest, Sharjah sets a tall standard for these to aim at"
The Grade 1 Unibet Morgiana Hurdle (14:05) highlights a stellar Sunday card at Punchestown, and it provides a fascinating clash of the generations. In one corner we have the established high-class hurdlers Abacadabras and Sharjah, and in the other, the up-and-coming new kids on the block Echoes In Rain and Zanahiyr.
Echoes In Rain was decidedly headstrong on her first few starts for the Willie Mullins yard having joined from France, but as she's settled down she's taken her form to a new level, completing the hat-trick with a win in the Champion Novices' Hurdle over this C&D in April.
That wasn't her best performance, however, as she was absolutely devastating in Grade 2 company at Fairyhouse prior to then, smashing up useful stable companion M C Muldoon by no less the 15 lengths.
A repeat of that sort of effort puts her squarely in the mix here.
Zanahiyr went into the Triumph hurdle as very much the one to beat, though underperformed a little there, coming in only fourth behind Quilixios. He reversed form with that one next time in the Ballymore Champion Four Year Old Hurdle at Fairyhouse and made a winning comeback in the Grade 2 WKD Hurdle at Down Royal last month.
The feeling is there is still more to come from Gordon Elliott's charge, though to my eye he already looks as though he's ready for a step up in trip and could find himself a little tapped for toe against these rivals. For my money, the Hatton's Grace over an extra half-mile at Fairyhouse in a couple of weeks would have been a better target, though it's possible he could still take in that race.
Zanahiyr's stable companion Abacadabras didn't get chance to show what he could do in the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham, coming to grief at the third, though he showed much more of what he was about when taking the Aintree Hurdle next time. He didn't quite back up that effort with a fourth to Honeysuckle at Punchestown when last seen in April but wasn't entirely disgraced.
Abacadabras took this race last year, but this renewal looks deeper and he has plenty on his plate in trying to get the better of Sharjah, who's my idea of the winner at the current prices.
The 2018 winner of this contest, Sharjah sets a tall standard for these to aim at. He won a third successive Matheson at Leopardstown in December and finished a fine second to Honeysuckle in both the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham and Punchestown's version when last seen in April.
With Patrick Mullins doing the steering, Sharjah looks sure to take plenty of stopping. And while stable companion Echoes In Rain brings an exciting profile into the race, she's not yet proven at the sort level to which Sharjah consistently operates. He'll do for me in here at what looks a fair-enough price.
Sixshooter to come out all guns blazing
There are some really good supporting races on the Punchestown card, including the Grade 2 Liam & Valerie Brennan Florida Pearl Novice Chase at 12:30.
Despite attracting just six runners, it's easy enough to make a case for most of them, with only likely outsider Dewcup readily ruled out.
Vanillier was a smart hurdle winner at 3m and finished third on chasing debut at Down Royal just over a fortnight ago, over what was an inadequate trip. That effort wasn't too bad on balance and he looks sure to be suited by stepping back up in distance here.
Run Wild Fred has been nothing if not consistent, finishing runner-up on his last four starts. His most recent effort when 14 lengths second to Cape Gentleman in a Grade 3 chase at Cork puts him in the mix here. He'll likely be thereabouts once again, though his propensity to find one too good is a little worrisome.
Run Wild Fred's stable companion Fancy Foundations was in the process of running well when departing at the third last in Grade 3 company at Tipperary last time, though it was a little too far out to suggest if he would have been involved at the business end there. The winner of that contest was Gin On Lime, who was the victor in the rather controversial two-horse race at Cheltenham on Friday.
However, my idea of the winner is useful hurdler Sixshooter, who made an impressive start to life over the bigger obstacles with a smooth success in maiden company at Galway last month.
Leading from early on, Noel Meade's six-year-old put in a fluent round of jumping save for an untidy leap three out, drawing clear from the home turn. It's hard to assess exactly how strong that form is, though both the second and third look promising sorts.
What we do have to go on, though, is the winner's time, which compares very favourably with a couple of handicap winners later on the same card. With plenty of improvement likely still in his locker, Sixshooter can take this on the way to establishing himself as on the leading early-season novice chasers.
An open mares hurdle
The listed mares hurdle at 13:30 has a rather open look to it, though it's not hard to argue that Heaven Help Us and Gauloise deserve their prominent positions in the market.
The former receives weight from her main rival and will take plenty of stopping if in the same sort of form as when taking the Coral Cup at Cheltenham in March. This is a different test, however, and I'll be sitting this race out.
Mark's 2021 P&L
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