Kemboy and Melon give Willie Mullins a strong hand in his bid for an 11th victory in the Paddy Power Irish Gold Cup.
It is 22 years since Florida Pearl bagged the first of his four victories in the Leopardstown showpiece for Mullins – who has since enjoyed further success with the likes of Rule Supreme (2005), Sir Des Champs (2013) and Bellshill (2019).
Kemboy, aboard whom Ruby Walsh memorably bowed out of the saddle after defeating stablemate Al Boum Photo in the 2019 Punchestown Gold Cup, was favourite for this Grade One contest last season but had to make do with the runner-up spot behind Gordon Elliott's Delta Work.
The nine-year-old has also finished second on each of his two starts so far this term, most recently getting mowed down in the shadow of the post by A Plus Tard when bidding to win Leopardstown’s Savills Chase for a second time.
Mullins said: "Kemboy seemed back to himself at Christmas. David (Mullins) has retired since, so I wonder will anyone else get on well with him? We’ll see.
"He seems to like Leopardstown. The only worry is all the rain – I think real nice ground suits him more than any other horse."
One place behind Kemboy in the Savills Chase was his stable companion Melon, who has finished second at the Cheltenham Festival on no fewer than four occasions.
His latest effort at Leopardstown was his first attempt over three miles, and Mullins hopes more patient tactics may bring about improvement on Sunday.
Reflecting on Melon’s Savills Chase performance, Mullins added: "Unfortunately for Patrick (Mullins), the horse took off with him down the back and he ended up taking on Kemboy. He maybe didn’t want to disappoint him either.
"I think he’ll settle back off the pace and use his ability over the last two furlongs."
What a race! A Plus Tard wins a thoroughly absorbing and dramatic Savills Chase #RTEracing pic.twitter.com/LYCmiKZUZv— RTÉ Racing (@RTEracing) December 28, 2020
With the aforementioned A Plus Tard heading straight to the Cheltenham Gold Cup, his trainer Henry de Bromhead instead relies on Minella Indo in the feature event on day two of the Dublin Racing Festival.
The eight-year-old was the clear favourite for the Savills Chase following runaway victories at Wexford and Navan, but he made a bad mistake and fell at the eighth fence.
"He’s been fine since Christmas. It was his first time up against the big boys, and they were going a good gallop, and hopefully it was just lack of experience that caught him out," said De Bromhead.
"He schooled really well the other day – Rachael (Blackmore) was very happy with him. Hopefully we’ll put his last run behind us, and he’ll learn from it.
"He’s achieved a lot in quite a short space of time. He only ran four times as a novice hurdler, and two of those were Grade Ones, and he only ran three times as a novice chaser.
"He lacks experience, and the whole idea this season was to ramp it up before Christmas. We gave him those two runs, which was great, and unfortunately it went wrong at Christmas.
"I’m not sure if we’d have been going straight to the Gold Cup in Cheltenham if he’d had a clear round. But he didn’t, so we need to get back on track, and this looked the obvious race to go and do that."
Connections of Delta Work hope he too can get his season back on track, after unseating Sean Flanagan when defending his crown in the Savills Chase.
His regular partner Jack Kennedy missed that ride through injury that day, but is back in the saddle this weekend.
Trainer Gordon Elliott, who also saddles The Storyteller, told Betfair: "Unfortunately Delta Work came down relatively early on in the Savills Chase last time, so we never got a chance to see what he could do that day.
"He has been in great form since then, though, and I’m really happy with him coming into this race.
"He won both of the big Grade One chases over this course and distance last season, and Leopardstown does seem to bring out the very best in him, so I could see him running a big race.
"I know that at his best at this track he is a match for any of the top staying chasers, so don’t be at all surprised to see him bounce back. I’ll be disappointed if he’s not closely involved at the finish.
"This race wasn’t part of the plan for The Storyteller, who is on course for the Stayers Hurdle’ at Cheltenham.
"However, it’s a small field and he’s been in great form over fences this season, so we felt it was worth letting him take his chance – it wouldn’t shock me to see him run well."
Monkfish and Latest Exhibition lock horns for a third time in the Flogas Novice Chase.
The Willie Mullins-trained Monkfish defeated Paul Nolan's stable star Latest Exhibition by a neck when the pair filled the first two places in the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle at last season’s Cheltenham Festival.
The pair renewed rivalry in a Grade One novice chase at Leopardstown over Christmas – and on that occasion, Monkfish ran out a more authoritative three-length winner.
They do battle once more, with Mullins not expecting that a drop in trip from three miles to an extended two miles and five furlongs will prove a problem for his charge.
Monkfish shows his staying power to win the Grade One Neville Hotels Novice Chase at Leopardstown #RTEracing pic.twitter.com/zaJdj499Fd— RTÉ Racing (@RTEracing) December 29, 2020
"It was a good tussle with Latest Exhibition at Christmas. They have a little history together, and there’s never much between them," said the champion trainer.
"The way Monkfish jumps, I don’t think coming back in trip will bother him, and the ground will be more testing as well.
"It’s a Grade One and it’s huge prize money, we have to go there."
Monkfish is one of three Mullins-trained runners in a nine-strong field on Sunday, with Asterion Forlonge and Janidil also declared.
Asterion Forlonge won a Grade One novice hurdle at this meeting last year, but returns with plenty to prove following successive falls over fences at Limerick and Punchestown, while Janidil failed to run up to expectations in the same Limerick race in late December.
Mullins added: "I’ve wondered about different ways of riding Asterion Forlonge that might negate him going right. There’s an argument to keep him to right-handed tracks – but sometimes if you don’t ask the question, you don’t get the answer either.
"It is a Grade One, so if you miss it you can’t pick one up the following week. I think he was just going too slow last time at Punchestown.
"I was disappointed with Janidil in Limerick. I’m not sure the real heavy ground suited him – he might want a nicer surface."
Nolan is delighted with Latest Exhibition ahead of his latest big-race assignment, saying: "He had a tough race against Monkfish the last day, but we couldn’t be happier with him – he did a piece of work earlier in the week, and we were extremely happy.
"I don’t think the shorter trip will be an inconvenience to him. If he runs as well as he did at Christmas, please God he’ll put it up to everything again."
Gordon Elliott fires a twin assault, with Andy Dufresne joined by his lesser-fancied stablemate Conflated.
"Andy Dufresne is taking a big step up in class here and he is going to have to be at his very best, but I could see him running a big race," Elliott told Betfair.
"Conflated struggled behind Monkfish last time and looks to be up against it once more – but I’m not convinced he was at his best that day, and the three-mile trip might have stretched him too."
Willie Mullins has saddled seven of the last eight winners of the Chanelle Pharma Novice Hurdle – and this year has strong favourite Appreciate It joined by five stable companions.
The market leader was a hugely impressive winner over the course and distance last time, and already heads ante-post lists for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham.
Appreciate It powers away from his rivals in the Paddy Power Future Champions Novice Hurdle at Leopardstown. pic.twitter.com/l0jVJICkn1— RTÉ Racing (@RTEracing) December 27, 2020
Reflecting on his Christmas success, Mullins said: "I wasn’t sure whether he could be that good – but he was more than I thought he was, the performance he put in.
"I was thinking about going up in trip at the start of the season. If we’d been going for the two-mile-six race this weekend it wouldn’t have surprised me, which is why I was hugely taken with his last performance."
Blue Lord, N’golo, Galopin Des Champs, Mr Coldstone and Hook Up complete the Mullins sextet – while Gordon Elliott is represented by Ballyadam, Wide Receiver and Magic Tricks.
Ballyadam was rated the biggest threat to Appreciate It in December, having won the Royal Bond at Fairyhouse, but was ultimately well beaten in fourth place.
"Ballyadam did not run well here at Christmas time, so he is coming here on a retrieval mission," said Elliott.
"I’m happy enough to put a line through his run at Christmas, because he never looked happy and didn’t finish out his race at all.
"Hopefully he will do much better here, but I’m under no illusions about the task facing him because this does look like a high-quality edition of this race."
The first of four Grade Ones is the Tattersalls Ireland Spring Juvenile Hurdle, in which Gordon Elliott’s Quilixios puts his unbeaten record on the line.
"He’s a lovely horse, and I’ve been delighted with what he has shown on his two runs for us this season," said the Cullentra handler.
"He is taking a major rise in class for this, but we are lucky enough to have some good juveniles in the yard to measure him by, and I think he is up to holding his own at this level."
Willie Mullins runs three against Quilixios in Ha D’or, Saint Sam and Youmdor, and appears to hold all the aces in the concluding NH Sires Kew Gardens Irish EBF Mares INH Flat Race – with five of the 11 runners hailing from Closutton.
The trainer’s son Patrick has sided with Brandy Love over Brooklynn Glory (Barry O’Neill), Purple Mountain (Tom Hamilton), Take Tea (Derek O’Connor) and Grangee (Jody Townend).
Summing up their chances, Mullins senior said: "Brooklynn Glory has won twice and been very good both times; Purple Mountain is good, but I’m worried about the ground for her, and Take Tea was very impressive in Naas – and the second has come out and won since.
"Brandy Love was hugely impressive in Fairyhouse. Grangee probably won’t be suited by the ground, but where else do I go? She’s not the biggest mare – and 11st 7lb in this, rather than 12st 7lb in a mares’ bumper, is much better for her.
"I think Brooklynn, Take Tea and Brandy Love have been hugely impressive, but I’m as inquisitive as everyone to find out which one is best.
"I don’t think we’ve ever had a group of mares this strong before."
The big danger appears to be Hollymount – who makes her first start for Elliott, having recently been snapped up for £300,000.
Elliott said: "Hollymount came to us just last week after being bought from Stuart Crawford’s yard following an impressive bumper win at Carlisle a couple of months ago.
"She is taking a huge rise in class here and she’s a mare we are just getting to know, but I can say that she has settled in well and I could see her showing up well in what looks a top class mares’ bumper."