Game Norton to out-Fox rivals
Un De Sceaux heads a field of eight declared for the BoyleSports Champion Chase at Punchestown's first stage this evening as the Ryanair Chase hero drops back down to two miles.
The nine-year-old took his winning run to three with a superb round of jumping to claim the two-mile-five-furlong title at Cheltenham last month but his two previous wins during the winter came over two miles in the Tingle Creek and Clarence House Chase.
Willie Mullins also runs Ballycasey, whose fine campaign continued when he lifted the Grade Two Normans Grove Chase at Fairyhouse earlier this month, but in this company he rates as a 20/1 outsider.
Gordon Elliott, Mullins' rival in the race to be champion trainer, is represented by both Realt Mor and The Game Changer but the pair are really no-hopers in this elite field.
Completing the home team is the Jessica Harrington-trained Rock The World, who steps up considerably in grade after winning the Grand Annual Handicap Chase at the Cheltenham Festival.
The British challenge is led by Colin Tizzard's Fox Norton, who followed up his excellent second behind Special Tiara in the Champion Chase at Cheltenham when winning the Melling Chase at Aintree.
The Irish and British handicappers have assessed the Cheltenham and Aintree performances and currently have Fox Norton on 169 with Un De Sceaux 2lb below that.
The bookmakers want you to support tUn De Sceaux at odds-on but Fox Norton, as high as 5/1 when the final runners were issued on Sunday morning, is now around 3/1 with 10/11 offered about the favourite.
The Tom George-trained God's Own attempts to retain his crown having overturned Vatour in this race 12 months ago, and will be accompanied by stablemate Sir Valentino, who maintained his rate of improvement when third in the Champion Chase, six lengths behind Special Tara and Fox Norton.
Fox Norton will be difficult to beat today.
Elliott is keeping his fingers crossed that Cheltenham hero Labaik will again put his best foot forward in the Herald Champion Novice Hurdle.
Having twice refused to race on the Flat, the grey looked to have been reformed by a switch to the jumping game when scoring in impressive style at Punchestown and Navan in the autumn.
However, his old problems resurfaced as he failed to jump off in the Royal Bond at Fairyhouse and the Navan Novice Hurdle in December and his career looked all but over after he trailed home 100 lengths behind the winner at Naas in February.
But Elliott had never made any secret of the regard in which he holds the six-year-old and he proved his class when running out a brilliant winner of the Supreme Novices' Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival.
Elliott said: " Everyone knows at this stage, if he jumps off on terms, he has a massive engine, but he has to jump off. All we can do is hope that he's on another going day. He seems to be a great form and worked well last Wednesday."
Labaik engages in a fascinating rematch with Cheltenham runner-up Melon, one of three contenders for Mullins.
Melon was joint-favourite for the Supreme following an impressive hurdling debut at Leopardstown and Mullins believes his charge still has scope for improvement.
"I thought he did everything right in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle, he was just beaten by a better one on the day," he said.
"Our fellow hasn't had much experience over hurdles and might just have learned the game there, so hopefully he can improve a bit."
Mullins also saddles Cilaos Emery, who was a creditable fifth in Supreme, and Bunk Off Early, who disappointed when well fancied for the Festival curtain-raiser.
There are two challengers from Britain, with Colin Tizzard's Pingshou appearing to hold much stronger claims than the Neil Mulholland-trained outsider Peter The Mayo Man.
Pingshou was well beaten in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle, but was a dominant winner of the Top Novices' Hurdle at Aintree earlier this month.
Melon can turn the Cheltenham form around.
Mullins does not have a runner in the Growise Champion Novice Chase, but the powerful Gigginstown operation is responsible for four runners in the seven-horse line-up.
Elliott saddles A Toi Phil for them, but of more more interest is JLT Novices' Chase third Disko, the choice of Bryan Cooper and a short-priced favourite over Acapella Bourgeois and Anibale Fly.
Enda Bolger has won six of the last seven renewals of the opening hunters' chase.
He relies on Blue Templar and Equal Status this year, and both appear to have something to find if they are to lower the colours of the prolific pointer Treo Eile, only fifth in the race last year but looking an improved sort this term.
But Bolger knows to an ounce what it takes to win this. Equal Status could well start a short priced favourite and trounce these.
Tudor City arrives in good form ahead of the Killashee Handicap Hurdle but the choice has to be Elliott's Veinard.
He should have won at Fairyhouse but still went up 2lb for his three-length second to Thomas Hobson and Davy Russell gets to ride.
Jack Kennedy now partners Sanibel Island but there isn't anything to enthuse about this one's trailing Downpatrick effort a month ago when favourite.
With no penalty, Early Doors, a course winner here in February and now running for JP McManus, makes plenty of appeal in the €100,000 Bumper over Rapid Escape and Hollowgraphic.
3.40 Equal Status
4.55 Veinard (Nap)
5.30 Fox Norton (Dbl)
6.05 Early Doors
3.40 Trio Eile
4.20 Bunk Off Early
5.30 Un De Sceaux
6.05 Rapid Escape
6.40 Acapella Bourgeios
7.15 Musical Slave