Sprinter Sacre's debut one to catch at Punchestown
What promises to be an exhilarating five-day climax to the jumps season gets under way at Punchestown with an eagerly awaited Irish debut for Sprinter Sacre.
As opening salvos go, the hallowed Kildare venue's executive couldn't have hoped for more. The Nicky Henderson-trained equine superstar is already a steeplechasing sensation of colossal proportions, and the task facing his four rivals in the two-mile Boylesports.com Champion Chase will be a futile one if nothing untoward occurs.
Utterly superlative in slamming Henry de Bromhead's Sizing Europe by 19 lengths in the Queen Mother Champion Chase at Cheltenham prior to devouring Cue Card and Flemenstar at Aintree, Barry Geraghty's mount has simply excelled in nine unbeaten starts over fences, the last six of which have all come at Grade One level.
Once again, Sizing Europe, last year's venerable winner of the €200,000 showpiece, is the chief threat, if you could class anything as such.
3.40 Kildare Hunt Club Fr Sean Breen Memorial Chase (3m)
Zest For Life won this in 2010 and was third last year. He ran well to be placed behind Mossey Joe at Cork, so could be the one to beat for banks king Enda Bolger. Bolger's Near Perfection is a triple 'pointing' winner that struggled in a hunter chase at Christmas, while Send For Paddy defied his 12 years to win in the north last time.
Verdict: Zest For Life's form over this unique course stands out in a poor race.
4.20 Grade One Evening Herald Champion Novice Hurdle (2m)
Champagne Fever and Jezki face off for a third time over hurdles. On soft ground at Cheltenham, Champagne Fever excelled from the front again, and his form was thoroughly franked by the narrow runner-up My Tent Or Yours' Aintree rout.
Verdict: Rule The World to cause a minor upset for champion jockey Davy Russell.
4.55 Bragbet.com Handicap Hurdle (2m)
Last year's Philip Hobbs-trained winner Snap Tie may find this tough off an 11lb higher mark, having laboured on his only start this term at Cheltenham in November.
Tennis Cap's winning run came to an end with a fine second to Ted Veale at Cheltenham, but he was lifeless at Fairyhouse last time. Stablemate Tasitiocht may be a more potent threat on her handicap bow off a nice mark, while Shrapnel and Sitcom are recent winners at either end of the experience spectrum.
Verdict: In a wide-open contest, Sizing Machine has the potential to improve.
5.30 Grade One Boylesports.com Champion Chase (2m)
This is all about Sprinter Sacre. If he is close to his best and enjoys average luck in running, he will win with his head in his chest. While this will almost certainly be the deepest ground he has ever encountered, he made light of heavy going when hosing up at Cheltenham in January, and boasts a cushion of 22lbs on official ratings over Sizing Europe.
Verdict: Sprinter Sacre can live up to his billing as an equine superstar.
6.05 Goffs Land Rover Bumper (2m)
Moyle Park joined the champion trainer after being acquired by Rich Ricci for £250,000, having won a decent Leopardstown bumper in December.
Verdict: Moyle Park is hard to oppose for his new connections.
6.40 Grade One Growise Champion Novice Chase (3m 1f)
English raider Harry Topper is interesting, having skipped Cheltenham after falling at Kelso. He had previously looked to be going places when unbeaten in three over fences, and is a thorough mud-lover that could have a big say here.
Back In Focus will also be in his element. For all that labour, his last-gasp triumph over Tofino Bay in Cheltenham's four-miler means he is still unbeaten over fences.
Verdict: With Ruby Walsh up, Back In Focus is napped on ground that suits.
7.15 Finlay Motor Group INH Flat Race (2m)
Very Wood got off the mark in style at Oldcastle point-to-point. A son of coming sire Martaline, Gordon Elliott's Gigginstown Stud runner could figure prominently.
Verdict: The Jane Mangan-ridden Very Wood is just preferred to Western Boy.