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Mick Fitzgerald: I’m playing with Fire at 5/1 in the Champion Hurdle at Punchestown

County Hurdle winner Arctic Fire was upstaged by Faugheen for long enough and deserves his place in the spotlight on Friday

It’s a Friday at the Punchestown Festival ahead of a bank holiday weekend – so let’s try to get the party started early.

Punchestown 3.40pm

I’m going for ‘youth’ over experience in the opening 2m 4f Hunter Chase with the 12-year-old Enniskillen turning out for the second time this week after winning on Tuesday.

He justified heavy market support that day and the second, Treo Eile, won here on Thursday. He’s my pick against the reigning champ Shin A Vee who hasn’t raced since winning this contest 12 months ago and is 14-years-old now.

While this has been Shin A Vee’s target – it might be a bridge too far on his first run back.

Punchestown 4.20pm

This 2m 5f Chase may be a handicap, but it looks like a graded race in all but name, as most of the leading players are at at the top of the handicap.

I fancied Paul Nicholls’ Le Prezien for the 2m Grand Annual Chase at Cheltenham but he finished eighth – despite being heavily-backed into favourite on the day. He should be more at home over this longer trip as he’ll get more time to get himself together at his fences.

Henry de Bromhead’s Balko Des Flos arguably carries some of the best form into the contest having finished third to Our Duke and Disko at Leopardstown in February.

Both have won an Irish Grand National and the Grade 1 Novice Chase here on Tuesday respectively, so that’s a big positive. However, Balko Des Flos tipped up at Cheltenham behind Yorkhill and I’m reluctant to side with him this time on the back of that fall.

The one I really like is WOODLAND OPERA trained by Jessica Harrington. He hasn’t been too busy this season, is a course winner at last year’s festival and has had a wind operation.

He finished third to Great Field at Leopardstown in March before winning a beginners’ chase at Fairyhouse earlier this month. The form of his Leopardstown race was boosted on Thursday with both Great Field and Don’t Touch It winning here.

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Punchestown 4.55pm

The Mares handicap steeplechase can see Gordon Elliott add a few more quid to the kitty in his quest for the trainers’ championship with Definite Ruby.

She won a handicap hurdle at this track in January and actually won this race last year on similar ground and a similar weight – she’s just 4lb higher than 12 months ago.

Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh team up with Retour En France (a winner at Fairyhouse in February) while one that should also be in the mix is Elusive Ivy, who was just a head third behind Don’t Touch It (winner yesterday) to Hurricane Ben at Fairyhouse.

Arctic’s On Fire

The feature race of the day and one of the highlights of the week is the 2m Grade One Champion Hurdle 5.30pm.

It could be key to where the trainers’ title ends up. Willie Mullins has five runners in it, while Gordon Elliott saddles Tombstone and Supreme Novice Hurdle winner Labaik. He’s the unknown quantity in many ways, but you can’t trust him given he refused to race, again, earlier this week.

On Cheltenham Champion Hurdle form, Petit Mouchoir, just deserves to be the favourite.

Ruby Walsh has plumped for last year’s winner Vroum Vroum Mag, whose only defeats since joining the Mullins’ team have come this season, when twice second to Apple’s Jade.

The one I like is Arctic Fire. He made a winning reappearance after 14 months off to win the ultra-competitive County Hurdle at Cheltenham and was second to Faugheen here in the 2015 renewal.

He’s had plenty of good runs in Grade One contests against his illustrious stablemate and deserves to be in the spotlight for once now.

Punchestown, 6.05pm

The Champion Novice Hurdle over 2m 4f is a tricky-looking contest with the unbeaten Finian’s Oscar travelling over after his Aintree win.

He’s a relatively fresh horse having missed Cheltenham and the Tizzard/Potts/Power combo is flying at the moment.

However, Gordon Elliott’s thinks a lot of Death Duty. He’s too good a horse to run here if his trainer didn’t think he had recovered 100 per cent from his Cheltenham fall.

He won at Naas earlier this season where Augusta Kate fell at the last when looking to challenge him. While she underperformed at Cheltenham also, she did win at Fairyhouse, so the form stacks up.

Ruby Walsh had the choice of three Mullins’ runners and has gone for Cheltenham winner Let’s Dance but both Bacardys – who won well at Leopardstown in February and Neptune Novice Hurdle fifth Kemboy shouldn’t be discounted.

Punchestwon 6.40pm

Enda Bolger seems very happy with On The Fringe and a lot of punters will be backing him with their heart rather than their head. He’s looking for his fourth win on the bounce – and sixth overall – in this contest. But he has disappointed so far this season.

A couple of the others like Sir Des Champs (second in the 2013 Gold Cup) and Home Farm were decent performers on their day, but time may be catching up with them now.

One who could be a bit of value is Philip Hobbs’ Mendip Express if he can rediscover some of his old sparkle. He was third to On the Fringe in this contest last year and could be a bit of each-way value again.

Punchestown 7.10pm 

Riven Light’s pedigree screams Flat speed and the better ground here in this 2m Novices Hurdle could be a nice opportunity to get his head in front.

Ruby Walsh has picked him over Montalbano, who wears a hood, even though he finished ahead of Riven Light when they chased home stable-mate Bleu Berry at Fairyhouse. I’ll side with Ruby on this occasion to deliver.

Punchestown 7.45pm

The 2m 2f NH Flat race closes the card and Patrick Mullins is an eye-catching booking on David Pipe’s Warthog. Mullins jnr is in a battle royale with Jamie Codd for the amateur title.

Jamie rides Its All Guesswork for Gordon Elliott and with little stand-out form to go on – that could be a fitting winner in the finale.

Good luck!

What do you think?