Perennial bridesmaid Melon bids to secure a long overdue big-race victory in the Red Mills Chase at Gowran Park on Saturday.
A Cheltenham Festival runner-up on no less than four occasions, the 10-year-old has not managed to get his head in front since winning at Leopardstown in December 2019 – his only chase success to date.
Since that victory Melon has been campaigned exclusively at Grade One level and has been placed on multiple occasions – most recently finishing fourth in Leopardstown’s Savills Chase over Christmas.
Dropping back in trip and class for this weekend’s two-and-a-half-mile feature, Willie Mullins’ charge has upwards of 7lb in hand over his rivals on the ratings and connections are confident he will prove hard to beat.
Patrick Mullins, assistant to his father, said: “This looks an ideal opportunity for Melon, stepping out of Grade One class and getting allowances.
“It’s probably his ideal trip and a local track, so everything is in his favour and we’d be expecting him to finally get his head in front.
“It’s been a while but he’s been dining at the top table and running well for the most part, going agonisingly close on a few occasions, so this looks a nice opportunity for him.”
Mick Winters is looking forward to saddling stable star Chatham Street Lad, who makes his first competitive appearance since suffering an injury when third in the Betfair Chase at Haydock in November.
“He’s going down there with plenty of work in him, but sometimes it takes a run for him to get fit,” said the Cork-based trainer.
“We were terribly fortunate (with the injury). He had eight inches of skin that had to be stitched back and for there to be no problem afterwards was a relief.
“We went to surgery down the road (from Haydock). They said that if any bit of dirt or mud or anything had been inside when he was stitched he was in trouble, but they washed it out well.
“We had no choice but to give him time after that, but he was really lucky. Maybe it was because I went to mass that weekend!
“If we come out of Saturday with a good, solid run, we’ll be happy, and we’ll consider the options then. We’ll consider the Ryanair Chase at Cheltenham and maybe the Topham at Aintree over the Grand National fences, but the Red Mills Chase is a big race and we’ll be looking for a good run.”
Noel Meade’s Daly Tiger, the Gordon Elliott-trained Hardline and Sizing Pottsie from Jessica Harrington’s yard complete the field.
Elliott is triple-handed in the Grade Three Red Mills Trial Hurdle, with potential Champion Hurdle contender Teahupoo his chief contender.
The Masked Marvel gelding has beaten last season’s Triumph Hurdle winner Quilixios on his last two starts – and Henry de Bromhead’s youngster is once again in opposition.
Elliott, who also runs Felix Desjy and The Tide Turns, said: “Teahupoo is in good form and the Red Mills Hurdle is the natural progression into senior company for him.
“He did it well at Limerick over Christmas on testing ground and we couldn’t have been happier. I’d hope he’d be better on better ground and this is a lovely race to target at this stage of the season.
“This race should give us a good guide as to what direction we take for major spring festivals.”
The Mullins-trained Saldier won the Galway Hurdle and a Grade Three at Tipperary last year, but has since been well-beaten at Fairyhouse and Leopardstown. He is fitted with blinkers for the first time.
“On ratings, he should be involved but I just wonder if he would like nicer ground and if the soft ground at Gowran will play to his strengths,” said Patrick Mullins.
“We’d be more hopeful than confident going into the race with him because of that. But if he were to handle it, he should be competitive.”
Joseph O’Brien’s Darasso won the Gowran feature in 2019 and has been placed in the last two renewals. He bids to regain his crown.
O’Brien said: “Darasso is in good nick. He won the race a few years ago and he’s been holding his form well this season.
“He handles soft ground. He’s a good, solid horse and hopefully he runs his race again. It is a very hot race.
“I would say that it’s less likely he will go to Cheltenham afterwards and more likely that we will stick to something at home, but we will see how we got on here.”