Getabird leads into battle a three-strong team for Willie Mullins as the Irish champion trainer bids to extend his tremendous record in the Sky Bet Moscow Flyer Novice Hurdle at Punchestown on Saturday.
Mullins has saddled six of the last nine winners of the Grade Two contest. Mikael D’Haguenet (2009), Vautour (2014) and Douvan (2015) all went on to claim Cheltenham Festival glory later in the season, while 2016 scorer Min found only Altior too strong in that year’s Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.
Getabird, who like the four previous winners mentioned carries the colours of Rich Ricci, was a leading contender for last season’s Champion Bumper until injury ruled him out for the second half of the season and he made an impressive start to his hurdling career at this track a month ago.
With Ruby Walsh and Danny Mullins sidelined by injury and Paul Townend suspended, the trainer’s son Patrick Mullins takes the ride and is excited by the opportunity.
He told Press Association Sport: “It’s great to get the ride. I’m two from two on him in bumpers and he was impressive on his first run over hurdles.
“This race has a good record of producing Cheltenham winners and it fits in well, timing wise. If you happen to miss Christmas you can come here and then head on to Cheltenham.
“Getabird won a point-to-point, so he has jumping experience and he might be a horse you’d step up in trip on drier ground in the spring.”
Mullins also saddles Carter McKay (David Mullins), who has not been seen since making a winning hurdling debut at Gowran in November, and Makitorix (Rachael Blackmore), who has struggled on his last two starts.
Mullins jnr added: “Getabird and Carter McKay were both at the top of our list as bumper horses last year and they’ve both won their maiden hurdles well, so they’re two live chances.
“Makitorix has been disappointing the last twice, but both runs were just too bad to be true.
“We have no real reason for why he ran so badly in Leopardstown the last day, but his work at home is very good and we’re hoping he’ll show on the track what he does at home.”
The biggest threat to the Mullins trio is Gordon Elliott’s Mengli Khan, who was seriously impressive when completing a hat-trick in the Royal Bond.
However, the five-year-old has questions to answer after running out through the wings of the second-last hurdle at Leopardstown over the festive period.
Mengli Khan is one of three Gigginstown House Stud representatives along with stablemate Hardline and the in-form High School Days from Henry de Bromhead’s stable.
Elliott told Betfair: “Mengli Khan shocked everyone when running out two out at Leopardstown last month, it was completely out of character for him to do something like that and I hope we never see the likes of it from him again.
“Prior to that he had been having a fantastic season with Grade One and Grade Three wins behind him. His main danger would be the impressive Getabird. However, our lad has the graded experience so I feel has the upper hand if everything goes smoothly.
“Hardline has improved a lot recently and wasn’t disgraced when stepping into graded company on his last two runs, finishing third on both occasions. He has run twice now against Mengli Khan and while he’s not quite in his league, I still expect a decent run and I certainly wouldn’t be surprised to see him finish close, especially now with a good few runs behind him this season.”
Gigginstown manager Eddie O’Leary said: “We’re hoping what happened to Mengli Khan in Leopardstown was just a one-off. There was maybe a shadow on the hurdle and we’re hoping he won’t do it again.
“He has to give weight to them all on Saturday, so it will be a very good performance if he does manage to win.
“High School Days is rapidly improving and Hardline is entitled to take his chance.”
The Tom Mullins-trained outsider Top Othe Ra completes the line-up.