BRITISH National Hunt racing roars back to life after a period of weather woes today (Saturday) with a bumper nine-race Festival Trials Day card at Cheltenham - but it may not be an entirely happy return for the home team as Ireland’s top trainers take serious aim at the meeting.

There were just two Irish-trained runners on this card 12 months ago, and just one in 2020 when the meeting previously took place (2021 fixture abandoned) but 12 horses representing 10 different Irish trainers will descend on the Cotswolds for the weekend’s action.

It has already been a good season for Ireland’s raiding party at Cheltenham. Half of the 14 races at Cheltenham’s opening two-day meeting of the season in October went to the visitors, while they also scooped five races across the three-day November Meeting.

Provided the meeting passes a precautionary inspection at 7.30am on raceday, Joseph O’Brien will bid to get Ireland off to a flying start in the opening JCB Triumph Trial Juvenile Hurdle (11.40) with likely favourite Comfort Zone

Delta Work, one of seven Irish-trained runners in the Glenfarclas Cross Country Handicap Chase (12.40), is another market leader for the visitors before Champion Chase star Energumene tackles the rescheduled Albert Bartlett Clarence House Chase (1.20).

His trainer Willie Mullins said: “Energumene is great and we’re looking forward to getting him out and racing at Cheltenham. It’s going to be a proper race, a proper test. Edwardstone and Editeur Du Gite are smart horses. Fingers crossed that all goes smoothly in terms of getting the meeting on. We’re hoping for the best.”

Gold Cup claims

Now Where Or When, who contests the Paddy Power Cheltenham Countdown Podcast Handicap Chase (1.50) for Stuart Crawford, and the Martin Brassil-trained Doctor Brown Bear in the Grade 2 Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle (3.35) hold outside chances, but Emmet Mullins’ Randox Grand National hero Noble Yeats rates a major player in the Paddy Power Cotswold Chase (2.25).

A clash with Betfair Chase winner Protektorat, trained by Dan Skelton, should reveal plenty about the Aintree scorer’s Boodles Cheltenham Gold Cup credentials.

“This will show us how good he really is as he will be having a proper race,” said Noble Yeats’ rider Sean Bowen. “He’s a very straightforward ride and he doesn’t do much until you ask him. Hopefully there is plenty left in the locker when I need it on Saturday.”

Meanwhile at Doncaster, John McConnell, who so often makes his presence felt when crossing the Irish Sea, looks to have a genuine contender for the Grade 2 Albert Bartlett River Don Novices’ Hurdle (2.40) with four-timer seeker Grand Soir. The dual-purpose trainer plundered the same prize last year with Mahler Mission.

British racing may be rejoicing as their jumps season returns from the freeze and ratchets up another notch, but there is still the potential to be out in the cold when it comes to keeping all prizes on home soil. Expect plenty of clues ahead of the clash that matters most in March.

Mullins on the brink of notable milestone

FRESH from winning his record ninth Goffs Thyestes Chase at Gowran Park on Thursday, Willie Mullins could be set to break further new ground when attempting to notch his 4,000th career winner this weekend.

A double at his local track earlier this week means that the 16-time champion trainer is now on 3,999 worldwide winners for his career, and he will have six opportunities to reach the landmark figure on Saturday.

Bronn has a favourite’s chance for Mullins in the opening Working With Fairyhouse Beginners Chase (12.26) at Fairyhouse - as does Energumene at Cheltenham - but connections of Ashroe Diamond would love nothing more than to add to Mullins’ haul in the Grade 3 Solerina Mares Novice Hurdle (2.11).

The Blue Blood Racing Club-owned six-year-old is the shortest-priced Irish challenger in the Ryanair-backed Jack de Bromhead Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival, available at a general 4/1. She advertised her credentials when third on her last two starts in the Royal Bond Novice Hurdle and the Future Champions Novice Hurdle.

“We go there with confidence but it’s a very competitive race and we have a lot of respect for the mares she’s taking on,” Blue Blood Racing Club manager James Fenton told The Irish Field.

“We’re happy with her at home and if she brings the form of her last two runs to Fairyhouse we’ll be confident enough that she’ll give another good account. It’s great for the members who have been involved from day one. I’m very grateful to Ashroe Stud for trusting me to buy her for them, and then to lease her back to us because we wouldn’t be in this position without them.”

Saylavee is another live player in the Solerina for Mullins, but the biggest threat to Ashroe Diamond may prove the unbeaten Halka Du Tabert, a most promising winner of a point-to-point, bumper and maiden hurdle.

Peter Molony, racing manager to owner Kenny Alexander, said: “Halka Du Tabert did it very well in her maiden hurdle at Naas and it was nice to see the runner-up Eabha Grace come out and give the form a boost when she won by 30 lengths on her next start.”

“This looks a very competitive race but it’s one we’d love to win. Honeysuckle won it in 2019 and Minella Melody in 2020, so it’s pretty close to our hearts.”