First Lieutenant set to land with big prizepot
First Lieutenant can fly home for Ryanair boss Michael O'Leary in the €140,000 JNwine.com Champion Chase, today's Down Royal Festival feature.
The horse finished runner-up, just a length behind winner Kauto Stone, in last year's race.
However last term First Lieutenant was making his seasonal debut for trainer Mouse Morris but this year has already had an outing at Punchestown when finishing a close third in a race in which an O'Leary-owned trio filled the first three places.
The big chestnut competed for the remainder of last season at the top level, finishing runner-up in the Ryanair Chase at the Cheltenham Festival to the high-class Cue Card before winning the Grade One Chase at the Aintree Festival.
Kauto Stone has won his only two races at the Maze, both first time out, landing the Novice Chase in 2011 prior to filling his half-brother Kauto Star's shoes by producing an excellent effort when stepping up to Grade One level to collect the JNwine.com Champion Chase for the fourth time for trainer Paul Nicholls.
Nick Scholfield travels over today to partner the Nicholls pair of runners, replacing stable jockey Daryl Jacob who was triumphant last year.
The Gordon Elliott-trained Roi Du Mee, another O'Leary horse which runs under his Gigginstown Stud banner, also has major claims having finished second in the Punchestown race, with his stable companion Toner D'Oudairies winning the Grade Three Chase, run just short of today's three mile test.
The majority of horses in today's showcase chase have linked form lines with the first three home last year renewing rivalry while Roi Du Mee had to settle for second behind Kauto Stone in the Novice feature two years ago.
Sizing Europe has twice finished runner-up in today's feature, including behind the great Kauto Star in 2010, but after winning the Gowran Park Champion Chase for the third time has headed the ante post market at 5/2.
Henry De Bromhead's stable star, winner of the Champion Chase at Cheltenham two years ago, has never won over three miles during his 20 racecourse victories.
I have doubts about his status over the three miles and if the forecast rain arrives the favourite – as last year – could be missing from the field of runners.
Quito De La Roque won the race in 2011, beating Sizing Europe in testing conditions under an inspired ride from Davy Russell, and rain will be to his advantage.
Prince De Beauchene represents champion Irish trainer Willie Mullins and is the mount of Ruby Walsh but concluded last season by filling second behind Roi Du Mee at Fairyhouse in February although is another favoured by soft ground.
Mount Benbulben gives Meath trainer Elliott a double hand in the first Grade One chase of the season but to date has not lived up to his high reputation.
First Lieutenant gets a confident vote to reverse placings with Kauto Stone and, along with Roi Du Mee, the trio can fight out the finish to the very valuable feature.
Rolling Aces aims to give Nicholls his sixth straight victory in the Powers Irish Whiskey Chase at Down Royal today.
"He had a good season last year winning two chases and just got beat in the Racing Plus Case at Kempton which was his first big race. We didn't run him again after that and always had it in mind to go to Down Royal for the intermediate chase," said Nicholls.
"We've won it with some nice horses and that's an ideal target for him. It's a good race to start the season off and we'll progress from there with him.
"I'm not sure how far he will stay but two and a half is a good starting point and then we'll see."
Gigginstown Stud have three in the field, with retained rider Russell siding with the Dessie Hughes-trained Tofino Bay.
Hughes said: "It sounds like a hot race, so we'll see how we go.
"The ground probably won't be as soft as we'd like and the trip is probably on the short side, but there aren't many races we can run in.
"He's in good form and this is a nice place to start the season."
Toner D'Oudairies and Dedigout will be partnered by Bryan Cooper and Robbie Power respectively, while Ruby Walsh takes the ride on the Noel Meade-trained Texas Jack.