The highlight at Punchestown on Saturday is the Grade 2 Moscow Flyer Novice Hurdle, run over a distance of two miles. Established in 2003, it has already developed a highly respectable pedigree.
Kicking King won the inaugural event which was then known as the Byrne Group Novice Hurdle, before going on to finish second in the Supreme at the Cheltenham Festival. It was the launch of a stunning career culminating in a Gold Cup victory in 2005.
It will come as no surprise to learn that Willie Mullins has dominated the race in recent times. Four wins in the last six have come from some of the champion trainer’s finest. Two in particular were Mikael D’Haguenet and last year’s winner Vautour, who both carried the famous Ricci silks.
The former went on to win the Neptune at The Festival, while Vautour thrashed all-comers in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle last March. Tomorrow’s contest is set to showcase the talents of the latest Ricci owned equine machine, with Douvan an intended runner. He was mightily impressive at Gowran Park in November when slamming the talented Sizing John by a dozen lengths.
As always with Team Mullins, the horse’s festival target remains a mystery, but an impressive performance tomorrow will see him strengthen at the head of the Supreme and Neptune markets. He’s set to face a number of strong challengers including Alpha Des Obeaux, Rock On The Moor and possibly another Mullins inmate Nichols Canyon.
While several of Ireland’s top novice hurdlers look to impress, over at Warwick the Grade 2 Neptune Investment Management Novices’ Hurdle is also likely to reveal contenders for the spring festival events. Run over a distance of 2m5f this is another race with a rich history, formerly known as the Leamington Novices Hurdle and first run in 2002.
Classified for the Martin Pipe team won on that occasion and went to the Cheltenham Festival as favourite for the Neptune, then called the Royal and SunAlliance, in which he finished fourth. No Refuge won the renewal of 2005 before going on to success at Cheltenham in the SunAlliance in a race that had the 200/1 Snoopy Loopy back in ninth. Remember him?
Carruthers thrashed Nenuphar Collonges in the 2008 event, yet it was the latter that found success two months later at Cheltenham when both stepped-up in trip for the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle. And in 2012 Cotton Mill was successful for John Ferguson, just getting home ahead of Ambion Wood.
Two months later at Cheltenham, he was in the process of running the race of his life, when still alongside Simonsig in the Neptune he inexplicably veered left at the second last, unseating the unfortunate Denis O’Regan.
Two years ago Warwick played host to a new star, when The New One romped home with Sam Twiston-Davies motionless on top. His potential was there for all to see, and it was no surprise when he backed that performance up in March with a stunning win in the Neptune.
Last year’s race attracted another quality field and again was won in stunning fashion. Deputy Dan stayed on powerfully to thrash Masters Hill and Splash Of Ginge. He too went to the Cheltenham Festival with connections hoping for a huge run, and he didn’t disappoint, finishing a stunning second in the Albert Bartlett.
The likelihood is that Saturday’s winner will again head to the end of season festivals as a much fancied contender. But more than that, he or she will be adding their name to an illustrious roll of honour.
Shantou Bob is likely to be well fancied after his previous narrow defeat to the Challow Novices’ Hurdle runner-up Vyta Du Roc. That form looks very strong and another high-profile win for trainer Warren Greatrex would be well deserved. Philip Hobbs could run Alisier D’Irlande who was slightly disappointing on his debut under rules. The ex-Irish pointer comes with a big reputation and is owned by Roger Brookhouse.
Out Sam looks an intended runner for Nicky Henderson. He was last seen beating Thomas Brown at Newbury, and that form was given a boost on New Year’s Day at Cheltenham.
Another Henderson inmate is set to get the party started later today, when Josses Hill goes over fences at Doncaster. Unfortunate to bump into Ptit Zig on his chasing debut, his trainer will be hopeful of a ‘big run’ this time from one of his potential stars.
So another exciting and informative weekend lies ahead with quality racing on both sides of the Irish Sea. Cheltenham looms large on the horizon, but there are plenty of prestigious pots to be won on the way.