THE PUNTER'S EYE: Fourhorses to back as top class jumps racing returns
The 12:45 at Down Royal on Saturday presents APPARITION with an opportunity to collect his second win in as many starts for Joseph O'Brien. The likely favourite is ESPOIR D'ALLEN under Barry Geraghty after an impressive debut win at Punchestown on October 18. However, APPARITION has done little wrong and has the benefit of vastly more racecourse experience over Geraghty's mount. Although making just his third start over hurdles, APPARITION has some decent form on the flat to his name. Over timber, he was third, five lengths behind MASTERSTONEMASON at Gowran in September, and improved on that by winning at Thurles on October 12. Three of the seven horses here will be racing over hurdles for the first time, and that has to be in APPARITION's favour. ESPOIR D'ALLEN is the main danger having also beaten MASTERSTONEMASON on debut, but the vote goes to Joseph O'Brien's runner who is battle-hardened.
With CONEYGREE withdrawn from the JNwine.com Champion Chase at Down Royal on Saturday, Irish National winner OUR DUKE is expected to be the odds-on favourite. One of the most highly rated chasers in training, OUR DUKE romped to a 14-length win at Fairyhouse earlier this year, but the seven-year-old still has to improve to tackle the top three-milers. He won't face the cream of the crop on Saturday, but the vastly improved ROAD TO RESPECT (10/3) can have a say, and the Noel Meade runner gets the nod in this 14:30 contest. ROAD TO RESPECT was a revelation late last season, winning his three most recent races, including at Cheltenham. He beat the field by six lengths after cruising up the hill in the Cotswolds, and followed that by beating the highly thought of YORKHILL at the Punchestown festival. He returned and warmed up for this with a one-length success over this trip against KILCARRY BRIDGE last month. Four of Sunday's rivals were behind him that day and this looks a horse on an upward curve with a huge 2018 ahead.
Looking to Cork on Sunday, Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott face off in the 13:40 with CRACKING SMART the likely favourite for the Meath handler. Willie Mullins has a strong hand with two contenders, FABULOUS SAGA and ROBIN DES FORET. ROBIN DES FORET beat FABULOUS SAGA by seven lengths recently, but it is worth noting that Ruby Walsh has chosen to ride FABULOUS SAGA. Before that defeat, he had won two races with extreme ease, both by more than 20 lengths. Ruby's decision to ride FABULOUS SAGA suggests that he is the first string and is still very highly regarded. CRACKING SMART has less experience and hasn't faced any stand-out opponents yet, but comes here on the back of a win and therefore has to be feared.
Finally in the Cork National at 15:15 on Sunday, look no further than A SIZING NETWORK (13/2). Jessica Harrington and Robbie Power dominated late last season and they can continue their winning combination here. After a string of three seconds, A SIZING NETWORK upped his game and won two on the bounce, including a nine-length victory over STATIC JACK at Punchestown last month. With the likes of last year's winner RAZ DE MAREE, RACING PULSE and KINGS SONG in the field, he will have to improve again to take this. At seven years old, I think A SIZING NETWORK looks a good staying chaser in the making and he can make it a hat-trick of wins here.