An excellent four days of action can be expected from Leopardstown's Christmas meeting, including seven Grade 1 races where the trainer they'll all have to stop is Willie Mullins. Tony Keenan previews...
"Jezki looks the value. His last two wins have come in races that have not been run to suit him, he was very impressive at his meeting last year and I like the Supreme form. He looks a bet at around 5.04/1."
The Leopardstown Christmas meeting presents punters with something different to the last few months, namely soft ground and competitive Grade 1 races.
Many of the races that will inform outcomes over the four days have been run on ground faster than will prevail this week though that shouldn't make much difference to jumpers that are used to competing on soft.
The top level contests will contrast with what has unfolded in the likes of the Morgiana, John Durkan and Navan Novice Hurdle recently, in that the Willie Mullins stars will face proper competition, albeit some of it from within their yard, his dominance so complete that the Betfair Sportsbook offering odds on Mullins winning all seven Grade 1 races doesn't seem outlandish.
The feature on St. Stephen's Day, the Racing Post Novice Chase, lost a lot of its appeal when Felix Yonger became a non-runner, leaving Arkle favourite Champagne Fever the obvious choice to win this content.
At 160p, Timeform rate Felix Younger the best novice chaser this season though obviously he's had more opportunities to run to that mark than his stablemate. Champagne Fever is one that may prefer a stiffer test than two miles around Leopardstown provides, his best performances coinciding with stern tests of stamina, and he's long been one that can throw in a poor performance, to my eye three of his 11 career runs have been below-par.
Unfortunately however, the 'clash' will have to wait for another day with Mullins choosing to rely on Champagne Fever to bag the prize this time.
Friday's Paddy Power Chase is typically tough but Home Farm must have a leading chance if making it to the post this time; he looks well-treated and went like an improved horse on his return, travelling like the wrath of god over an insufficient two miles; that said, the bad scope prior to the December Gold Cup is a concern.
Sraid Padraig is the other interesting one. Like Home Farm, he prepped over an insufficient trip, winning a 2m1f handicap from a pair of in-form rivals on his seasonal return, and if connections were campaigning him correctly last term he is sure to improve for the step up in trip. The concern is that run may have been his high water mark for the season as the wheels came off after a good return in 2012/13, but at around 23.022/1 he is the price to take a chance. Furthermore, his trainer has a good record in the race and his owner loves one readied for this meeting.
Sizing Europe won the Dial-A-Bet Chase last year but he is worth opposing in this year's renewal, seemingly finally on the downgrade.
Arvika Ligeonniere is the obvious alternative but he looks better right-handed; from five chase runs that way around, he has five impressive wins, while his left-handed chasing record is an unimpressive win at this meeting last year, a fall in the Irish Arkle and pulled up in the Cheltenham Arkle.
Kid Cassidy will need the ride of rides to win so Twinlight looks the play and I rate him the best bet of Christmas. He's the price he is (currently 9.08/1) due to the presence of Arvika but has proved nigh on unbeatable in two miles chases, winning six of his seven completed starts and failing by a head when needing the run in the other. His win in the Hilly Way was impressive and he looks a Grade 1 horse at the point.
The feature of the entire meeting, the Lexus, is tough to call. Bobs Worth, Sir Des Champs and First Lieutenant are well clear on form but have questions to answer.
Bobs Worth wants further and has to overcome a poor seasonal return, Sir Des Champs fell last time while First Lieutenant has been out of form this autumn. Probably the one with fewest doubts is Sir Des Champs; he's run to at least 170 in his last four completed starts, is better left-handed and seems more effective over the bare three miles than Bobs Worth. He rates the most likely winner.
The final day's card looks much improved from recent years with the featured Ryanair Hurdle a proper race.
Hurricane Fly is too short at odds-on; he was singularly unimpressive on his return and looked to win a poor Champion Hurdle last spring. These are his optimum conditions but he faces strong opposition at home for the first time in an age on Sunday.
The form of Our Conor has been boosted in recent weeks, the four-year-olds a strong crop, but his recent absence is a concern and he hadn't improved on the flat when last seen. Jezki looks the value. His last two wins have come in races that have not been run to suit him, he was very impressive at his meeting last year and I like the Supreme form. He looks a bet at around 5.04/1.
In the final Grade 1 of the meeting, the Topaz Novice Chase, Ballycasey looks a false favourite. His reputation outstrips the reality of his performances to date, beaten the only time he's tried Grade 1 company, albeit there were extenuating circumstances. The three miles here is a slight concern too given the speed he showed last time and it is unlikely he will be effective over every trip.
This has long been a race for a slogger and Morning Assembly is just that. Seemingly better than Ballycasey over hurdles, his recent Punchestown win has worked out and he is the one to beat with improvement likely up in trip.
His biggest danger could be Carlingford Lough. He's not got the profile of a graded winner coming out of handicaps but his connections have history of getting to graduate successfully and the step up in distance will help him after a good run in the Drinmore.
Back Home Farm and Sraid Padraig in the Paddy Power Chase
Back Twinlight in the Dial-A-Bet Chase
Back Sir Des Champs in the Lexus Chase
Back Jezki in the Ryanair Hurdle
Back Morning Assembly and Carlingford Lough in the Topaz Novice Chase