By Johnny Ward
The wait is nearly over and let it not be misunderstood: the most important Festival for Irish racing folk takes place in the west country in England.
Cheltenham means everything to us and, while we talk up our own festivals, none matches the big one in terms of significance and emotional currency.
That said, a really busy weekend of action in Ireland – five meetings between Thursday and Sunday inclusive – has us ready for war.
Irish hopes are predictably high next week after winning 19 races at Cheltenham last year and the 8-11 available about a green success in the Prestbury Cup looks well worth taking.
Before all of that, we have Naas and Gowran, which stages the rescheduled Toals.com Bookmakers Leinster National Handicap Steeplechase.
It is hard to know how much of a hurdler Epicuris will make. A really classy beast on the level, he patently did not get home on atrocious ground at Limerick on his jumping bow at Christmas, and was beaten 19 lengths at Naas since, though it did not appear as though stamina was necessarily the problem then.
Gowran is no easy ride, either, and preference is for Three Swallowsnick, even though she is obviously risky.
She has been off since she was pulled up lame at Navan when 4-7 to make her hurdling debut a winning one in late 2016, though she is still only seven, so she has time on her side.
Her bumper form, especially that Listed win at Navan over Glens Harmony, was impressive, and we can trust Gordon Elliott to have her ready now.
The six-year-old Danse Away won a point-to-point by 30 lengths at Bandon over a year ago – but a performance in defeat takes the eye more: at Kilfeacle the previous month, he was second of 17, beaten a mere half-length by none other than the exciting On The Blind Side.
Nicky Henderson reckons On The Blind Side may be up to beating Samcro at Cheltenham, although, obviously, a lot of water has flowed under the bridge since that performance.
Danse Away seems capable of a handicap win off a rating of just 90. He has been a work in progress under Rules but his second two runs back reads really well, given how much higher-rated the winner (Sir Carno) is now.
Perhaps Danse Away did not quite stay the trip last time at Punchestown, when nicely backed.
This could be a shoot-out between Fire In His Eyes and Up For Review, who is – like Three Swallowsnick – bidding to make up for lost time.
Fire In His Eyes really should have won at Clonmel last time, given how poorly Augustin jumped at times, and Willie Mullins knows what is required from Up For Review, as he also trains Augustin.
Up For Review was an odds-on second on his chase debut at Gowran behind stablemate Some Neck and a similar effort may well suffice on Saturday.
The Irish Racing Writers Kingsfurze Novice Hurdle at Naas is an intriguing race and, like the card in general, rather difficult for bettors.
Steer Clear is one that takes the eye, however, in the Adare Manor Opportunity Maiden Hurdle – sponsored by JP McManus, who owns the steed.
Steer Clear may be one for the handicap route but his two maiden runs were promising and this is not a good race.
By Flemensfirth out of You Little Daisy, a maiden hurdle winner for trainer Padraig Roche's son Christy, his pedigree is encouraging, and his last two runs when a 21-length sixth were achieved in much stronger races. This being his third maiden start, you may be inclined to wait for another few runs to back him – you may be wrong.
Charles Byrnes scored with three successive (impressive) bumper winners last month, quite an incredible achievement, and it is no surprise that Mary B is good: she was named in honour of his late mother.
Mary B did the job smoothly at Gowran and she gets a whopping 17lbs off Colreevy here, considering her age and rider's claim. That should be enough and she too is bred to be a smart sort, being by Vinnie Roe out of Caltra Royale.
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