In a week in which the entries came out for a seemingly wide-open David Nicholson Mares' Hurdle, David Ord shares his early shortlist for the race.
When the entries dropped earlier in the week for the three championship hurdles at the Cheltenham Festival one thing stuck out - just how open is the Close Brothers Mares' this year?
It has to be said Willie Mullins has taken his eye off the ball when it comes to this race. He did after all – thanks in large parts to the remarkable Quevega – train nine of the first 11 winners of the showpiece.
But since 2018 – zilch.
This year has an intriguing bunch of entries and Stormy Ireland is the shortest-priced of his eight-strong party having won the Relkeel at the track on New Year’s Day. She was seemingly fortunate having been left clear by the final flight fall of Brewin’upastorm but she’s been back on song – back at Closutton.
She has an obvious chance – as does Henry De Bromhead’s Tellmesomethinggirl – winner of the Dawn Run Mares’ Novices Hurdle during the trainer’s annus mirabillis last March.
She came out the best horse at the weights when third behind Royal Kahala in Irish EBF Mares' Hurdle at Leopardstown at Christmas, beaten a neck and a length when trying to concede the winner and runner-up Heaven Help Us five and eight pounds respectively.
But it’s two other Mullins entries that intrigue me – one potentially stepping up in trip – the other down.
Let’s start with he former, Echoes In Rain. She was thriving in the spring last year, landing the Grade One two-mile novice hurdle at Punchestown.
Connections thought her upward trajectory might carry her into the Unibet Champion Hurdle picture this term and while she has an entry, the jury is out at the moment.
She was too keen for her good in the Unibet Morgiana on her reappearance, put a line through that, but while better behind Sharjah in the Matheson next time, there still wasn’t enough to convince she’s ready to shake-up Honeysuckle et al in March.
Now that freegoing nature is the issue if connections do opt to go up in trip for the mares’ races but she’s bred to stay and if she drops the bit, the ability is there to make a mockery of current quotes of 33/1.
But arguably of more interest is Burning Victory, the forgotten winner of a 2020 JCB Triumph which will always be remembered for Goshen’s heartbreaking final flight mishap.
She’s only raced twice over timber since and off for over a year, blundered away her chance when seventh behind Stormy Ireland in the mares’ hurdle at Punchestown last spring.
But she was brought back to the boil on the flat afterwards, winning a couple of valuable handicaps in France before going down all guns blazing when trying to give Buzz three pounds in the Cesarewitch at Newmarket.
She switched back to hurdles over Christmas and while never a threat to either Klassical Dream or Flooring Porter, was clear of the likes of Grand Roi and Abacadabras when third in the big staying prize at Leopardstown. In terms of Timeform performance ratings it was within four pounds of her Triumph run and with the potential to build on it.
It’s hard to believe she won’t be effective back at two-and-a-half miles and she’s interesting at a double-figure price.
The admirable – and bang in-form - Martello Sky is the shortest-priced of the home team but Indefatigable is twice the price and was conceding her rival five pounds when beaten a neck in a Cheltenham handicap in December.
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Then there’s Molly Ollys Wishes who produced a weight-adjusted Timeform performance of 160+ when running Miranda and Marie’s Rock ragged at Wetherby before the wheels came off behind Buzz at Ascot next time. She’s not out of this if back on-song in March - or at least no 33/1 chance.
No it's intriguing alright and 12/1 Burning Victory just about makes most appeal.