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Gordon Elliott has a strong hand as he bids for a third successive win in the Tara Handicap Hurdle at Navan on Sunday.
The Cullentra maestro has saddled Automated and Diamond Cauchois to land this 50,000 euro handicap in the last two years and this time has four chances, with top-weight De Plotting Shed joined by stablemates Ball D’Arc, Squouateur, Dinaria Des Obeaux and Stooshie.
Champion trainer Willie Mullins last claimed the prize with Zaidpour in 2011 and fires a twin assault, with Paul Townend partnering Orion D’Aubrelle and Ruby Walsh taking the ride on Calie Du Mesnil.
Watch Niall Hannity's interview with Gordon Elliott as the trainer discusses a number of his leading lights
Orion D’Aubrelle returns to the smaller obstacles following a spell over fences, while Calie Du Mesnil makes her handicap debut on the back of finishing second in a Listed novice hurdle at Limerick.
Patrick Mullins, assistant to his father, said: “Orion D’Aubrelle ran a good race in a handicap hurdle at the Punchestown Festival.
“He has been fencing since then, but we thought this looked a good opportunity for him.
“He’ll like the galloping track and there’s some good prize-money on offer, so we thought it was worth a shot.
“Calie Du Mesnil is a novice having her first run in a handicap. She’s towards the bottom of the weights and we thought we’d let her take her chance.”
Jessica Harrington’s Walk To Freedom will be well fancied to follow up his comprehensive course victory in the Proudstown Handicap Hurdle three weeks ago, while other contenders in a 22-strong field include the Mags Mullins-trained Salty Boy and Paul Nolan’s Rooster Byron.
The latter racked up a hat-trick in the spring and made a pleasing return when third at Cork last month.
Nolan said: “He ran very well on his first run back in Cork and we’ve been happy with him since.
“He likes a bit of cut in the ground and I hope all the rain that’s forecast arrives – the more testing the better for him.
“He’ll strip fitter for his run and I’d hope he’ll run well as long as the ground is right.”
Easy Game for Mullins:
Easy Game bids to provide Willie Mullins with a seventh victory in the Navan Novice Hurdle on Sunday.
Subsequent Cheltenham Festival hero Mikael D’Haguenet became the champion trainer’s first winner of the Grade Two contest a decade ago and he has since struck gold with Boston Bob (2011), Pont Alexandre (2012), Briar Hill (2013), Bellshill (2015) and last year’s winner Next Destination.
Easy Game has won three of his five starts since arriving in Ireland, most recently claiming a narrow success in the Grade Three “Monksfield” Novice Hurdle three weeks ago.
The four-year-old renews rivalry with the second and third, Magnium and Choungaya, and the trainer’s son and assistant Patrick Mullins is keeping his fingers crossed Easy Game can confirm the form.
He said: “Easy Game finished very strongly the last day – I thought Ruby (Walsh) gave him a fantastic ride.
“He was only a narrow winner, so it’s hard to be confident he’ll confirm the form with the second and third, but we hope there’s some improvement there.”
Mullins has a second string to his bow in Getareason, who was last seen finishing fourth behind stablemate Robin De Carlow in a Listed heat at Cork.
“Getareason has been a little bit frustrating. He’s a horse with a lot of ability, but he has thrown in a couple of below-par runs,” Mullins added.
“We’re hoping he can bounce back from Cork and get back to the sort of form he was showing in Listowel, when he looked like he was going to win until making a bad mistake at the last.”
Gordon Elliott has saddled No More Heroes (2014) and Death Duty (2016) to claim this prize and has three chances this year.
Course and distance winner Defi Bleu is joined by Monbeg Worldwide – who registered successive wins at Fairyhouse in November – and Satoshi.
Joseph O’Brien fires a twin assault with Choungaya and Rhinestone declared.
Jessica Harrington’s Magnium and Colin Bowe’s mare Western Victory complete the nine-strong field.
The latter steps up in class after beating several subsequent winners – including Aintree bumper winner Getaway Katie Mai – at Galway in October.
Bowe said: “The Galway form has been well boosted and we’ve been happy with her since.
“We’re probably putting her in at the deep end, but we want to go where the ground is safe. If she could be placed we’d be delighted.”
Expensive new recruit in opener:
It promises to be another big day for Elliott at his local track.
The Gigginstown House Stud-owned Battleoverdoyen was bought for £235,000 after winning his point-to-point and following an impressive bumper success, he is likely to be a warm order in the opening maiden hurdle.
Look out for Envoi Allen in finale:
The card concludes with a Listed bumper – the ‘Future Champions’ Flat Race, in which Elliott’s impressive Fairyhouse winner Envoi Allen is the star attraction.
The four-year-old was a £400,000 purchase after winning his point-to-point and carries the colours of Cheveley Park Stud.
Cheveley Park’s managing director, Chris Richardson, said: “He made a good impression at Fairyhouse. I haven’t seen him for a while, but I gather he’s in good form and we’re looking forward to seeing him run again.
“I believe Gordon’s thinking is to give him one more run and then put him away. Hopefully he’s an exciting horse.”