The overriding theme at the beginning of this jumps season has been one of change. It was quite clear even before the retirement of Kauto Star that a new generation of young chasers was coming and this suspicion has been confirmed through the first heavyweight bouts of the season.
Stablemates Kauto Stone and Silviniaco Conti, both only six and both having their second season over fences in Britain, were impressive in their respective races, while Cue Card, also just a six-year-old, produced a taking display on his seasonal debut in the Haldon Gold Cup at Exeter last week.
Yet you'd struggle to name a novice chaser more impressive than Peter Casey's Flemenstar last year and he kicks off his season today in the Grade Two Fortria Chase at Navan. The son of Flemensfirth won five of his six starts over fences last season, which included two Grade One events by a combined winning margin of 30 lengths.
The seven-year-old is a short favourite to begin his campaign with a win today but his trainer has already warned that his charge is not yet operating at 100 per cent and for that reason it may well be worth backing Big Zeb to get one back for the older brigade.
Colm Murphy's horse, now entering his eighth season, disappointed in the Champion Chase at Cheltenham and in the equivalent event back at Punchestown, but he has won the last three renewals of this race, each on his seasonal debut, and in contrast to Flemenstar, was reported to be working really well this week.
It's a bit of a surprise to see Realt Dubh make a quick return to action after a gruelling test of his stamina on his first attempt at three miles at Down Royal last week and for that reason he may be best watched here. He and Flemenstar are the two to concentrate on for the long term of this season but Big Zeb, a six-time Grade One winner over this distance, may prove a tough nut to crack on this occasion.
Colm Murphy also holds a leading chance with Voler La Vedette in the Grade Two Lismullen Hurdle earlier on the card. The eight-year-old mare performed admirably last season with a first Grade One win in the Hatton's Grace Hurdle before going on to find only Big Buck's too good in the World Hurdle at Cheltenham, and then bumping into her old rival Quevega in the Irish equivalent race at Punchestown.
She won this race on her seasonal debut last year and should be able to do so again today at the expense of the Willie Mullins-trained So Young.
Interestingly, the favourite has won seven out of the eight previous renewals of the Grade Three 'For Auction' Novice Hurdle, and that mantle is taken up by Sizing Rio today. The son of Heron Island holds all the same connections as stablemate Sizing Europe and was a really impressive winner at Fairyhouse on his previous run, where he beat Cops And Robbers -- which reopposes today -- by 18 lengths.
He should be able continue the trend of winning favourites here but an alternative is Captain Arceus, a course-and-distance winner on his seasonal debut in September and which is trained by the in-form Dessie Hughes.