There is a top-notch card at Cheltenham on Sunday where it is the final day of their November meeting, but it’s fair to say that come 14:15 most people’s eyes will be on Punchestown ahead of the eagerly-anticipated return of Faugheen in the Grade 1 Morgiana Hurdle. Willie Mullins’ top-class hurdler hasn’t been seen on the racecourse since winning the Irish Champion Hurdle in January 2016, after it was reported the following month that he was suffering from a sore suspensory. It was hoped that the 2015 Champion Hurdle winner would return to the track last season, but those plans were scuppered after he suffered a stress fracture in February.
It is reported that Faugheen has done plenty of work ahead of his first run for 665 days and, even if he is below his best form, he should still have enough to take care of his stable-companion Vroum Vroum Mag, who looks his biggest danger on form. Vroum Vroum Mag won twice last season, including the Grade 1 Christmas Hurdle over three miles at Leopardstown. She was beaten one and a half lengths by Apple Jade in the Mares’ Hurdle at the Festival in March and was disappointing when last seen in the Irish Champion Hurdle here in April. Her record fresh is very encouraging and she certainly won’t be disgraced here. The Gordon Elliott-trained Campeador is the least exposed of these, and confirmed himself a hurdler going places with a comfortable success here last month, perhaps more workmanlike than impressive in execution, but still well on top of his rivals at the finish. He’s an exciting prospect and is well worth his place in this higher grade. Jezki, who also races in the green and gold hoops of J.P. McManus, made a winning return in the Istabraq Hurdle at Tipperary last month. He was well treated by the conditions of the race and duly took advantage, though it’s worth noting that he went backwards with each subsequent run after scoring first time up last season. Swamp Fox, who is as tough and versatile as they come, makes up the line-up. He won a handicap on the Flat at Dundalk earlier this month, but he looks out of his depth here.
Tombstone makes his third start over fences earlier on the card and will be attempting to build on the promise of his Downpatrick success last time. He stepped up on his chasing debut, jumping soundly in the main and responding well to pressure before being left clear at the last (he probably would have won anyway). Tombstone has already matched the pick of his hurdling form over fences and may do better yet. Woodland Opera is also the type to do better still over fences and he has solid form claims here. He is yet to return to the level of form he showed when winning a novice handicap over two and a half miles here in April, but he is in good hands and shouldn’t be underestimated. However, Calino d’Airy looks the most progressive in this field, having won both of his starts this season, and looks the biggest danger to Tombstone. He did enjoy the run of the race at Galway last time, but he has already proven himself a much better chaser than hurdler, and looks sure to make a bold bid for the hat-trick.
The second novice chase on the card is perhaps more interesting, however, with last season’s Pertemps Final winner Presenting Percy having his second start over fences. He created a very favourable impression when making a winning debut in this sphere at Galway last month, and while the bare form might not be anything special courtesy of the steady pace, he is likely to prove at least as good a chaser as hurdler, and is one to keep on the right side of for now. Shattered Love appears his biggest danger on form, having maintained her unbeaten record over fences at Clonmel last time with another straightforward success. This is much tougher, but she will go on improving and is with the right yard to do so. Jury Duty failed to step up on his winning chase debut form when turned over at short odds in a Grade 3 at Cork this month, but he was by no means disgraced, lacking the experience and pace of the winner. He did pull clear of the remainder, though, and it remains early days with him. It would be folly to discount a Willie Mullins runner, but Arbre de Vie has been a little disappointing the last twice, and needs to bounce back, while Call The Taxie also needs mentioning after finishing a good third behind a subsequent listed winner last time.