It is difficult to judge whether the Red Mills Trial Hurdle at Gowran Park today can be best described as a race or a "rehab" clinic. With the Cheltenham Festival barely three weeks away, both Macs Joy and Harchibald are hastening to catch up for time lost to injury earlier in the season. John Murphy, meanwhile, has decided that this represents the best chance to get another run into Newmill, who fell on his return to fences the other day, before the Queen Mother Champion Chase.
Certainly Macs Joy (3.15) should win the prize in placid fashion, as he did last year, because his best rivals are taking him on simply because they have no alternative. Runner-up in the Champion Hurdle last year, he made a most encouraging comeback behind Hardy Eustace last month.
Poor old Harchibald can hardly be expected to sprint past him in these conditions. Frequently accused of waving the white flag himself, Harchibald this time can leave that to his trainer. "He would have absolutely no chance on that ground," Noel Meade said frankly. "But a race will bring him on more than a gallop."
Harchibald has played a colourful role among a vintage crop of Irish hurdlers, and it would be nice to think he could yet have the last laugh. For now, however, his problems measure the durability of the mighty Hardy Eustace - an intended runner here until his trainer prudently decided not to expose him to gruelling conditions so close to the Festival.
In their search for a champion hurdler, a thoroughly futile one of late, the British have almost all their eggs in one basket. But a lieutenant for Detroit City should be identified when Straw Bear and Afsoun meet in the Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton. Both have regrouped after their respective disasters at Kempton on Boxing Day, Afsoun having impressed at Haydock after taking a fall that day, and Straw Bear making Detroit City himself dig deep when returning from sickness at Sandown a fortnight ago. Both should be suited by the sharp track, but perhaps Afsoun (3.30), by dictating the pace, can stem Straw Bear's turn of foot. The bookmakers' insistence on making Detroit City such a short price for Cheltenham will look still more peculiar if he does.
The name of Little Brick (4.00) has been muttered a good deal in recent days and this Grand National entry is expected to make a profitable start to his British career in the Country Gentlemen's Association Chase. His stablemate Lucifer Bleu (2.30) will be hard to beat in the other handicap chase on the card.
David Pipe has meanwhile decided to give Over The Creek another chance over fences in the Reynoldstown Novices' Chase at Ascot. He looked an exciting prospect until hitting the deck at Towcester, but retains the option of returning to timber if he cannot match Gungadu (1.45) - a rival likely to find further improvement now he goes right-handed.
The energetic style of Monet's Garden (2.20) has made him a welcome addition to the chasing scene and it would be edifying to see him bounce back in the Commercial First Chase. He has been harshly discarded by many after just one disappointing run, behind Kauto Star at Kempton on Boxing Day, and it is well worth persevering with the belief that he belongs at the highest level.
Equally, it is worth noting his jockey's apparent reservations about his aptitude for right-handed tracks, while his trainer considers him better suited by fast ground. A more interesting wager, at the likely prices, could be Flying Falcon (1.10) in the Betfair Handicap Hurdle.
He has had many problems in his time, but his success at Exeter last year worked out well and this is a pointedly ambitious comeback target for his judicious trainer, Venetia Williams.
Her stable also has fine prospects in the most valuable race of the day. The Red Square Vodka Gold Cup at Haydock represents the most suitable test of G V A Ireland's stamina since he won the Midlands National last spring, but the improved effort by The Outlier (2.00) here last time suggests he will be no less appreciative of the extra distance.
Nap: Alexanderthegreat (Uttoxeter 4.30)
NB: Warlord (Ascot 2.55)