Fever's set to fizz in Slaney Hurdle
Extended trip at Naas looks the ideal stage for Champagne to restart party
SUNDAY'S Slaney Hurdle at Naas is a Grade One race in everything but name.
It still comes under a Grade Two banner, but with an elite roll of honour in recent years and another high-class field this coming weekend, the race remains one of the leading novice hurdles in this country.
Previous winners include Venalmar, Mikael D'Haguenet and last year's winner Monksland, and this year's field includes last season's Cheltenham Champion Bumper winner Champagne Fever.
Willie Mullins' representative was an impressive winner of his hurdling debut at Cork, but then went down to current Supreme Novices' Hurdle favourite Jezki in the Royal Bond Novice Hurdle.
Champagne Fever attempted to do it the hard way at Fairyhouse last month when setting out to make all the running, and although staying at it well he succumbed to the impressive Jezki (pictured right), who arguably has the best novice form on either side of the Irish Sea.
That race was over two miles, however, and the step up to two and a half at Naas will be a big positive for Champagne Fever.
Dessie Hughes' Minsk has been a highly talked about recruit to hurdling having been a highly held hope for the Triumph Hurdle this time last year.
His career over jumps hasn't really taken off just yet, but after winning his maiden hurdle well and running a nice race over an inadequate trip in the Royal Bond, he will be another interesting contender.
Mouse Morris' Rule The World looked a flashy sort when he opened his hurdling account at the first time of asking at Punchestown and since then he has won and been second in two novice events, the win coming at the expense of Joncol, the Grade One-winning chaser who also got an entry for Sunday's race.
As is the norm with these graded races in Ireland, the number of runners is again going to be quite small, but what this lacks in quantity it certainly makes up in quality and the leading contenders here all missed possible engagements over Christmas with good reason.
The testing two and a half miles at Naas will have certainly appealed to most of these over the two-mile Future Champions Novice Hurdle won by Jezki at Leopardstown.
And while he is now the Supreme Novices' Hurdle favourite, it is probably inevitable that if the winner of Sunday's feature is not the new Neptune favourite, he will be very prominent in the books.
At the moment, Champagne Fever is a general second favourite at 8/1 behind his stable companion and Grade One Navan Novice Hurdle winner Pont Alexandre (7/1), while Minsk is 20/1 and Rule The World is 25/1 for the Albert Bartlett but that could be all shaken up very quickly.
Whatever happens on Sunday though, there can be little doubt that Jezki is a worthy favourite for the Supreme. His form from his seven starts under National Hunt rules holds extremely strong merits and he is fast becoming one of the early Irish bankers for the Cheltenham Festival.
He now looks set to go to Leopardstown to attempt to finish off an impressive winning sequence before embarking on the Cotswolds again where he finished eighth in the Champion Bumper behind Champagne Fever last time out.
In the meantime, it's hard not to see the Champion Bumper winner returning to winning ways in the Slaney Hurdle.