There’s a cracking weekend of National Hunt racing ahead, with a top line-up on Saturday at Cheltenham backed by a meeting of real quality at Punchestown on Sunday. It’s the latter we are going to focus on, with a decent field assembled for what should be an eye-catching day of racing.

Many fine chasers and stayers will be making their season’s bow in Ireland, and the Morgiana Hurdle is an excellent statement of intent for the campaign ahead.

This Grade 1 contest is run over two miles and has proven to be an intriguing glimpse at future Champion Hurdle contenders; even with the Cheltenham Festival still some four months or so away.

Nichols Canyon is the defending champion and will be looking to make it three Morgiana Hurdle titles in a row – a feat achieved by Hurricane Fly between 2012-14. Indeed, this is a renewal with plenty of examples of repeat winners, with Limestone Lad winning a trio of titles between 1999 and 2002, and Solwhit going back to back in 2009-10.

So that’s the key narrative for punters to follow in, but then there is a glittering cast of supporting acts all ready to take the spoils. Here’s a quick look at the key Punchestown players:

Faugheen (4/6)

Here’s a fun fact: the sole defeat of Faugheen’s stellar career came in this very race in 2015.

On that occasion the Willie Mullins charge, a 1/6 jolly with the bookmakers, was bested by half-a-length by the 7/1 Nichols Canyon, who simply ran on stronger in the final straight.

That gave Mullins the 1-2-3 with Wicklow Brave coming in third, and it is a race that the Irishman has dominated in recent times.

As for Faugheen, well, are you willing to back an odds-on shout that hasn’t run competitively since January 2016?

Injury has sidelined the nine-year-old for the best part of two years, and while there can be no doubting his credentials it just makes no sense for punters to follow in with their hard-earned on a rusty runner in a high quality field.

If Faugheen wins then great; watch out for him this season. But there are other options to explore in this field.

Campeador (4/1)

Gordon Elliott will be looking to break Mullins’ shackles on the Morgiana Hurdle trophy, and the best of his hopes according to the bookies is Campeador.

It’s a slightly curious decision on the part of the sportsbooks given that the five-year-old hasn’t really delivered much so far in his young career. Fourth on debut to stablemate Apples Jade, the French stallion fell in his next two starts.

So the market movements are based solely on his last outing: a length-and-a-bit victory at Punchestown back in October. That was a listed race and Campeador was listed as the 11/8 favourite, so we simply cannot share the bookies’ enthusiasm that this is a horse ready to make a significant step up in class here.

Jezki (5/1)

After more than 18 months away from racing, Jezki returned in 2017 as an experienced nine-year-old looking for a moment of sun in the autumn of his career.

A decent start was followed by a tepid run in the Stayers’ Chase at Cheltenham, where he finished 8/12, and most pundits thought that would be the end of JP McManus’ steed’s career on the track.

But he’s been dusted down for the new National Hunt campaign, and won last time out at Tipperary in the Grade 3 Istabraq Hurdle.

That was a comfortable victory that offered plenty of food for though as to Jezki’s immediate future, but for us the 5/1 quoted is simply too short in a field containing more obvious winning candidates.

Nichols Canyon (10/1)

The two-time Morgiana champion is looking for a hat-trick on Sunday, and from a betting perspective is a safe pair of hands given his continued excellent form at Punchestown.

That pair of triumphs in this renewal have been backed by victory in the Tattersalls Ireland Champion Novice Hurdle and a narrow head defeat in the Champion Stayers’ Hurdle earlier this year, and few around know this course as well as Ruby Walsh.

Nichols Canyon won at Cheltenham in March in their version of the Stayers’ Hurdle, and while his best work tends to come at the longer 23f mark it’s hard to cast doubt on the seven-year-old’s credentials here.

For our money, he is the pick of the bunch and a sound each way investment.

Apples Jade (20/1)

We’re struggling to grasp why Gordon Elliott’s other runner in this field is such a lofty price.

Apples Jade has won seven times in an eleven-race career, with three of those triumphs coming in her last trio of outings – including a two-length victory over the handy Jer’s Girl on her seasonal debut at the weekend. And who could forget her triumph in the Mares’ Hurdle at Cheltenham over Limini and Vroum Vroum Mag?

Is the Morgiana Hurdle too soon for her after blowing away the cobwebs on Sunday? Possibly, but the continuity can also be construed as a positive thing.

She’s won on two of her three starts at Punchestown, including the Grade 1 E.B.F Mares’ Champion Hurdle in April, and while generally more exposed to 20f races in recent times she is still a proven winner at the 16f mark.

This 20/1 mark will tumble in the coming days should Elliott give the indication she will run at Punchestown, so perhaps an ante-post flutter is worth the gamble.