this is traditionally one of the most informative weekends of the National Hunt season as horses of all ages and abilities put their Cheltenham Festival credentials on the line on both sides of the Irish Sea
This year is no exception with the eaglerly-anticipated protagonists ranging from the legendary two-time Champion Hurdle hero Hurricane Fly to David Pipe’s exciting novice chase prospect Kings Palace.
First the Willie Mullins-trained Hurricane Fly, who will be seeking a 20th Grade One victory in tomorrow’s StanJames.com Morgiana Hurdle at Punchestown.
However, there were signs last Spring that perhaps his advancing years were beginning to catch up with him as he managed only fourth in the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham and was runner-up at the Punchestown Festival, with Jezki triumphant on both occasions.
With the score two-all, the star duo will again lock horns on their seasonal reappearance, with Mullins in no doubt the fire still burns brightly inside his dethroned champion, who has won the Morgiana for the last two years.
He said: “We’re looking forward to it. He’s such a game horse and such a character that you try and respect that. Myself and the owners discussed whether we’d go racing with him this year, but I’m sure that he still has Grade One ability.
“Some people were wondering if he’d retire, but he’s not an old horse by any means and he still has lots of ability. Until he shows us on the track that his heart is not in it, we keep going. I’m happy with him and he hasn’t given us any bad day. We’re just looking forward to a nice season ahead with him and, hopefully, he can recapture some of his best form.”
The Jessica Harrington-trained Jezki dominated from the front on their most recent meeting at Punchestown and Mullins will leave it up to big-race jockey Ruby Walsh to decide how he wants to play his hand.
“I think Ruby will be running that (tactics) though his mind. With only five runners, there’s not a lot you can do, but Ruby will make up his own mind,” said Mullins.
“We hear Jezki is better than ever – there’s a lot of mind games going on – but our fellow is well and I think he’s fitter than he was for this race last year. It’s all to play for.”
There is a fascinating renewal of the Cheltenham Club Novices’ Chase today when the aforementioned Kings Palace makes his chase debut under Tom Scudamore.
The horse has not raced since March when he fell heavily at the last flight of the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle when well beaten.
However, Scudamore has been schooling the horse over fences and holds Kings Palace in the highest of regards.
Part-owner Harry Drew said: “We don’t know what to expect really, after his last run. There are only five runners but they are all classy. The other four have had a run and won, but because of that we get 5lb off them all.
“We’re just hoping for a nice clear round and while he doesn’t need a run, I think he’ll naturally improve for it. Apparently his schooling has gone well at home and I’ve seen a video, he looks very brave at his fences.
“His jumping improved with racing last season and I wouldn’t be surprised if that was the case again. We wouldn’t swap him for any of the others, anyway.”