Ireland’s Graded action this weekend begins at Naas, with the Grade 3 Poplar Square Chase on Saturday, which sees Footpad make his seasonal reappearance. A perfect five from five over fences as a novice last season, including four Grade 1 wins, Footpad is shaping into a serious challenger to Altior for top honours in the two mile division this term, and considering he made a winning reappearance last season, he should be too classy for this field after a break. This is highly likely to develop into a match race, and his main opponent, the British raider Saint Calvados will be no pushover. He was a very smart novice chaser in his own right last term, winning a Grade 2 at Warwick. He was unable to lay a glove on Footpad in the Arkle, though he seemed amiss that day, and whilst the ground is unlikely to be testing enough for him to be seen to best effect, he is likely to ensure it is a stiff test from the front.
Thirty-five minutes later is the Grade 3 Fishery Lane Hurdle, which features three smart juvenile hurdlers from last term; Espoir d’Allen, Mr Adjudicator and Saldier. The latter two, both from the Willie Mullins yard, have had two previous meetings on the racetrack, finishing second and fifth respectively in the Triumph Hurdle at Cheltenham. Saldier reversed the form when winning the Champion four-year-old Hurdle at Punchestown six weeks later, but preference is for Mr Adjudicator, who has shown narrowly the best form so far and showed fairly useful form on less testing conditions on the Flat, meaning the forecast good ground should hold no fears. Espoir d’Allen was one of the most promising juveniles in the division last season prior to disappointing when losing his unbeaten record at Leopardstown in February, clearly not at his best on the day, and can make his presence felt if ready to go after a break.
On Sunday, Navan hosts a seven-race card, which features no less than three Graded contests, beginning with the second race, the Grade 3 For Auction Novice Hurdle. Gordon Elliott has won each of the last two renewals of this, and he is likely to make a bold bid to do so once again with Felix Desjy. A smart bumper performer last season, Felix Desjy made a flawless start over timber at Galway last month, asserting after the last to score by ten lengths. He looks sure to go on to bigger things and is respected, but preference is for the Willie Mullins-trained Quick Grabim, who is more experienced over hurdles than his rival, and despite taking a little while to get the hang of things in this sphere, he got off the mark at the third time of asking in impressive fashion at Listowel in September, before running away with a Grade 3 contest at Tipperary the following month. With more to come, he gets the vote to follow up.
That race is followed on the card by the Grade 2 Lismullen Hurdle, which sees multiple Grade 1-winning mare Apple’s Jade make her seasonal reappearance. Her shock defeat in the Mares’ Hurdle last March, followed by a below-par run at Punchestown six weeks later, means that her crown has wobbled slightly, but she is difficult to oppose in this company, considering that she made a winning reappearance in the same race last year, and has a firm form edge on both of her main competitors; fellow Gigginstown runner Identity Thief and the veteran Jezki.
Navan’s Graded action is rounded off with the Grade 2 Fortria Chase, in which five are due to go to post. In terms of Timeform’s weight-adjusted ratings, the two to focus on are Doctor Phoenix and Ballyoisin, who are 10 lb and 8 lb clear of the remainder respectively. Doctor Phoenix was a rapid improver last term, taking a Grade 3 contest at Naas in February, before having valid excuses in each of his three next starts in better company, shaping as if still in form when fifth in a Grade 1 at Punchestown in April, but preference is for Ballyoisin, another improver, who was a commanding winner of a Grade 3 contest at Killarney in May, before following up in similarly emphatic style at Punchestown a month later. He took advantage of his much lower hurdling mark when scoring at Listowel in September, and with race fitness on his side, he can extend his winning sequence to four back over fences.
Back Mr Adjudicator at 2/1 for the Fishery Lane Hurdle at Naas on Saturday
Back Quick Grabim at 5/4 for the Grade 3 For Auction Novice Hurdle at Navan on Sunday