The Dublin Racing Festival at Leopardstown has rapidly established itself as the best weekend of racing outside of Cheltenham, and with no less than eight Grade 1 contests spread over Saturday and Sunday, we're in for an absolute treat.
The first day gets off to a flying start, with Grade 1 races making up the first three contests, and the opening race, the Nathaniel Lacy & Partners Solicitors "50,000 Cheltenham Bonus For Stable Staff" Nov Hurdle (13:05), has a really deep and competitive look to it.
Hollow Games is just about entitled to be favourite on what he's achieved so far, though he's closely matched with Grand Jury based on their running behind Ginto in a Grade 1 contest at Naas last time.
Willie Mullins typically holds a strong hand with Whatdeawant and Bronn representing the Closutton handler. The former shaped better than the bare result when behind Hollow Games and Grand Jury in that Grade 1 at Naas, while the latter is unexposed having made just two career starts.
Hollow Games' trainer Gordon Elliott also fields Minella Crooner, who has been beaten just once so far, that coming at the hands of the potentially smart Journey With Me. He forms a strong 1-2 punch for his in-form handler.
Joseph O'Brien's Eric Bloodaxe is another to factor in, his recent win in a Grade 2 at Limerick coming in a good time, backing up the visual impression he created on the day. He doesn't have much to find with the principals here, though perhaps isn't open to quite as much progression as some.
This is a mouth-watering opener to a cracking weekend's action, though it's a trappy affair from a punting point of view. I'll be taking a watching brief here, with better opportunities presenting themselves later on the card.
Fil Dor and Vauban clash one to savour
The Grade 1 Racing TV '12 Euros Per Month This Weekend Only' Spring Juvenile Hurdle (13:35) features a fascinating clash between probably the best novice hurdler around in Fil Dor and Vauban, who was perhaps a touch unlucky not to beat Pied Piper on his Irish debut.
Fil Dor has been hugely impressive in winning his three hurdle starts to date, including when slamming Lunar Power by 7 lengths in Grade 2 company over this C&D last time. Stable companion Pied Piper cantered home at Cheltenham last week but Gordon Elliott is on record as saying this one is better than him. High praise indeed.
Vauban would likely have beaten Pied Piper on his hurdling debut at Punchestown in December were it not for some sticky jumping that was ultimately his undoing, though to his credit he closed all the way to the line to be beaten only narrowly.
Pied Piper had clearly improved when we saw him at Cheltenham last week, though Vauban is open to at least as much improvement as that one, and he will be a big threat to Fil Dor, particularly if jumping more fluently than he did last time.
It's not hard to see this pair having it between them, though I wouldn't entirely rule out Icare Allen, who looked a good prospect himself when jumping well on the way to a winning hurdling bow over this C&D in December.
Again, I think we can pass on this race for betting purposes, though it goes without saying that it's a must-watch contest, and one that I'm looking forward to immensely.
Blue Lord a confident pick in Arkle
Ferny Hollow missing out on the Grade 1 Patrick Ward & Co Solicitors Irish Arkle Novice Chase (14:10) is obviously a blow, but the race looks more competitive as a result, though I'm putting up Blue Lord as a confident selection.
Unbeaten in two starts over fences, Blue Lord beat Lifetime Ambition at Naas last time, that performance coming after a fluent chasing debut when beating El Barra at Fairyhouse in December.
A strong traveller who looks a natural over fences, he has a touch of class too, looking booked for second in the Supreme at Cheltenham last season before coming down at the last.
I think getting over the bigger obstacles has been the making of him and I'm going to be disappointed if he gets beat here, for all the opposition is tasty.
Main danger Rivere D'Etel has been beaten only be Ferny Hollow over fences, that defeat at this track on Boxing Day coming on the back of a hat-trick of wins for Gordon Elliott's charge. He's obviously a big threat, though I'm firmly in the Blue Lord camp.
Kemboy to follow up last year's Gold Cup success
Minella Indo's performance in last season's Cheltenham Gold Cup is looking increasingly like a standout over the last couple of seasons and he's hard to recommend for the Grade 1 Paddy Power Irish Gold Cup (15:15), particularly given his abject effort in the King George last time.
Frodon is sure to bounce out and make this a good test, though he's likely to have company up front, and I can see last year's winner Kemboy tracking him before being unleashed in the straight to win this race for the second successive year.
The enigmatic Asterion Forlonge is surely going to get his jumping act together one day and perhaps Saturday will be that day, though plenty has to be taken on trust if you're prepared to row in with this one.
He'd likely have been second in the King George last time but for coming down at the last and is a horse who has a ton of ability, though his tendency to get in close to his fences has proved his undoing on more than one occasion.
His stable companion Kemboy is a much safer conveyance and he'll do for me on what looks a fascinating opening day of the DRF. Hopefully we can bag a couple of winners and set ourselves up for what should be an equally exciting day of racing on Sunday.