Right Road to build on Ulster glory
All the critical pieces remain in place after the five-day entries for the second half of Leopardstown's elite Christmas Festival were unveiled, and there could also be a few treats in store at the Limerick equivalent.
Gigginstown Stud's talented trio of last year's Down Royal Festival JNwine.com Champion Chase winner Road To Riches, Don Poli and Sir Des Champs were among 14 left in Monday's glamour Lexus Chase at the Foxrock venue.
The same firm's Alpha Des Obeaux could clash with Mags Mullins' Barry Connell-owned Cheltenham Festival hero Martello Tower in the Squared Financial Hurdle.
Just seven remain in the three-mile Grade One, with Willie Mullins giving both Sir Des Champs and Arctic Fire the option of contesting the €85,000 event.
Arctic Fire is far more likely to contest the Ryanair Hurdle alongside stable-mate Nichols Canyon a day later.
There will be an emphasis on quality over quantity in the two-mile showpiece, with Henry De Bromhead's Fighting Fifth Hurdle victor Identity Thief and Dermot Weld's Cheltenham Festival winner Windsor Park both expected to participate.
Mullins' Outlander and Gordon Elliott's Free Expression feature alongside the latter's precocious stable-mate No More Heroes in the Neville Hotels Novices' Chase. Either or both could tackle the Grade One, but they also hold an engagement in Limerick's Shannon Airport-sponsored Grade Two equivalent on St Stephen's Day.
The Munster venue inevitably plays second fiddle to its higher profile sister festival in Dublin. However, it has attracted an increasing share of quality individuals in recent years, and track manager Conor O'Neill is hopeful that it will do once again.
"Obviously trainers don't like to commit early but they have been very supportive in recent years," O'Neill said yesterday. "JP McManus won the novice chase last year with the Enda Bolger-trained Gilgamboa, and he has Free Expression in this time, so I would hope that he might run.
"Willie Mullins, who has won it twice since 2011, including with the Gold Cup second Sir Des Champs, has four entered, including Outlander. "
Heavy rainfall has plagued the south-west of the country in recent weeks. Limerick has had its share, but O'Neill has no fears about getting through the four days. "The ground is heavy, but I am confident that we won't have any problems," he declared.
As well as Gilgamboa, Cheltenham Festival hero Martello Tower and Gitane Du Berlais were others to go on to Grade One success after winning at Limerick a year ago.
Martello Tower beat Outlander in the featured Grade Three Hurdle on day four of the meeting in 2014, while Kitten Rock, My Hometown and Whistle Dixie were other smart performers to strut their stuff there.
O'Neill, who is overseeing his second Christmas Festival, feels conditions are set fair for a successful fixture. "The place is in fantastic shape," he said. "Our hospitality is sold out on St Stephen's Day and we are well ahead of where we expected to be in terms of ticket sales.
"At the moment, although we will probably get rain overnight, the weather on racing days looks quite clear and bright, which would be ideal. If it holds up, I'd like to think we could get 40,000 people in here over the four days - that is the target."
Martello Tower, beaten just twice in nine completed starts, will be having his first outing since Cheltenham in March at Leopardstown on Monday.
Mullins yesterday sounded cautiously optimistic about the seven-year-old's prospects.
"I'm happy with him," she confirmed. "He runs well fresh, but he'll probably need it."
Meanwhile, John Ferguson, currently sitting in fifth place in the National Hunt trainers' championship, is to relinquish his licence in April to take up a new role with Godolphin.
Ferguson has made a real success of taking Godolphin horses from the Flat and turning them into jumpers, but due to Sheikh Mohammed's decision to amalgamate the Darley breeding operation and Godolphin's racing arm as part of a "streamlined" business, that will now come to an end.
Long-standing bloodstock advisor to Sheikh Mohammed, Ferguson is to become chief executive and racing manager.
The best of Ferguson's horses will join Charlie Appleby, with Ferguson's staff at Bloomfields in Newmarket also offered the chance to join Godolphin.
However, Appleby was quick to stress he would not be taking out a dual licence. "I won't be training any jumpers," said Appleby. "The best of John's horses will come back to race on the Flat, some of them still have pretty lofty ratings."
Down Royal's traditional Boxing Day card is a competitive affair, first race 12.30pm.