With Cheltenham just days away most of the focus at Sunday’s Leopardstown meeting was on the after race action of several leading candidates.
Of major interest was the announcement that Willie Mullins’s brilliant unbeaten mare Annie Power will contest the World Hurdle instead of the Champion or Mares hurdle.
The move ended months of speculation for the daughter of Shirocco - but with the benefit of hindsight it was a foregone conclusion.
Mullins already has the reigning champion Hurricane Fly for the blue riband contest. Since Quevega will be attempting to win an unprecedented sixth Mares Hurdle, the only option for Annie Power was the three miler.
She has crossed the water three times this term and has been hugely impressive, especially in beating the well-regarded Zarkandar, who she will encounter along with Big Bucks.
Big Bucks, who was practically invincible at this level until injury ruled him out of last year’s race, made a satisfactory return to action last month even though he had to settle for second place.
The vibes coming from the Paul Nicholls stable about the 11-year-old are very positive. He is regarded as the trainer’s best chance of getting on the scoresheet at the Cotswolds.
With Mullins using Sunday’s meeting to work most of his Cheltenham-bound string one that certainly caught the eye was Champagne Fever, who heads the market for the Arkle Chase on the opening day.
Partnered by Ruby Walsh, he gave a fine exhibition of jumping and will be the week’s banker for many.
Dessie Hughes has been sending out good sounds about his Champion Hurdle hope Our Conor in recent days. The-five-year-old had a nice blow with Gold Cup candidate Lyreen Legend and looked in the pink of condition.
Willie Mullins has been sweeping all before him this season but his luck finally ran out when he saddled three favourites, two of them at odds-on. but drew a blank as all three were turned over
The first to go under was Shamsikhan, who could finish no nearer than fourth in the opening two mile and four maiden hurdle.
The five-year-old hasn’t been seen since a promising first effort over the minor obstacles at Listowel back in September, but the vibes suggested that he was ready to do himself justice.
This opinion wasn’t too far off the mark, as he was just over three lengths off the winner Is Love Alive. A consistent enough, if luckless, animal Is Love Alive has failed to trouble the judge in four previous efforts and as a consequence he went to post a 20/1 chance.
Never too far off the pace, the son of Presenting took a definite advantage after the second last flight and battled well to beat the well-backed Emperor Of Exmoor by three-parts of a length.
Winning trainer Paulo Nolan reported that his charge is a big chasing type that needs time. Better ground would also be a considerable help.
Thousand Stars has been a great servant to the Mullins yard, amassing more that €750,000 in prize money. However, he looks as though his best days are behind him as he failed to cope with the late surge of Sailors Warn in the two mile and two conditions hurdle.
Starting at a shade of odds-on, Thousand Stars was sent to the front right from the drop of the flag by Ruby Walsh but he was never able to put sufficient daylight between himself and the rest of the field. Barry Geraghty, aboard Sailors Warn, looked poised to pick him off from early in the home straight.
The inevitable happened going to the final flight and although not exactly fluent Sailors Warn had enough up his sleeve to land the spoils by a comfortable length.
Winning handler Edward O’Grady was as gracious as ever when he reflected that if the real Thousand Stars turned up then he would have finished second.
Aminabad looked a nice prospect when he made a winning debut at the venue the previous month. However a 7lb winners penalty proved to be his undoing as he failed to land the odds in the concluding bumper under Patrick Mullins.
Victory went to the well- backed Off The Mark in the JP McManus colours. Making his racecourse debut, the son of High Chaparral was always lying handy in the hands of Padraig Roche.
After tracking Aminabad into the straight, High Chaparral took the lead a furlong or so out before running all the way to the line, where he had a length and three-parts to spare over the Ted Walsh-trained outsider Never Never.
On the face of things this looked a decent performance by the winner. He will now be aimed at the four-year-old bumper at Limerick before going hurdling later as the season moves on.
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