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Aidan Howard believes Winter Escape is at the top of his game ahead of the Poplar Square Chase at Naas on Saturday.
The JP McManus-owned eight-year-old had subsequent Cheltenham Festival winner A Plus Tard in behind when landing a Grade Three at Punchestown in January, but his form tailed off in the spring — pulling up on his final start of the campaign at the Punchestown Festival.
He made his reappearance over hurdles at Tipperary last month and while he was ultimately well-beaten in third place, Howard believes the outing has left him spot-on for this weekend’s assignment.
“He seems to have come out of Tipperary very well and we’re hoping for a good run,” said the Curragh-based trainer.
“I think he’s back to the sort of form he was in before Punchestown last season. He beat A Plus Tard in a novice chase in Punchestown earlier in the year, so if he’s back to that sort of form, he should run well.
“I think two miles over fences will suit him well and I think he’ll be fine with the soft ground. It’s the first chase of the day, so at least it will be fresh ground and there aren’t many runners.”
Winter Escape is one of five runners in the Naas feature, with the field headed by Henry de Bromhead’s Grade One-winning novice Ornua.
Willie Mullins saddles Cilaos Emery, who was considered a major contender for the Arkle Trophy at the Cheltenham Festival following an impressive chasing debut at Gowran Park, but was subsequently ruled out for the remainder of the season with injury.
Speaking in a stable tour on www.attheraces.com, the champion trainer said: “He is a bit unfortunate, as he won his only start over fences last season, then pulled a muscle that kept him out for the rest of the season, so he won’t be able to run in novice chases this season.
“He will lack a bit of experience, but we’ll look to get him started and see how he goes. He looks like one for the minimum trip for the time being.”
Gordon Elliott’s Duca De Thaix and Kildorrey from Ted Walsh’s yard are the other contenders.
The preceding Fishery Lane Hurdle also carries Grade Three status and has attracted seven runners.
Joseph O’Brien’s Gardens Of Babylon, the Mullins-trained Quartz Du Rheu and Gavin Cromwell’s Arvene all carry the colours of McManus, while Mullins has a second string to his bow in Tiger Tap Tap.
He said of the latter: “He’s in good form here. He’s very much a hurdling type, he won’t be going chasing.
“He’s still a maiden over hurdles, so he should be up to winning a few races this year given the level of form he showed in juvenile hurdles last season.”
De Bromhead runs Havingagoodtime, Elliott is represented by recent Wexford scorer Surin and John Halley’s Blackhillsofdakota completes the line-up.
The opening Irish Stallion Owners EBF Maiden Hurdle sees top-class bumper performers Blackbow and Embittered do battle.
The Mullins-trained Blackbow has not been seen in competitive action since filling the runner-up spot behind stablemate Tornado Flyer in the 2018 Punchestown Champion Bumper, while O’Brien’s Embittered was fourth in the race earlier this year on his most recent appearance.
Mullins said: “Blackbow is back and in good form. I wouldn’t like to be too bullish about what trip he’ll end up being best over, so we’ll just get him started and assess him based on what he does on the racecourse.”
Tornado Flyer also features on the card as he makes his fencing debut in the Mongey Communications Beginners Chase.
He is unlikely to have things all his own way, however, with O’Brien’s Tower Bridge and Elliott’s Cracking Smart among his rivals.