Richard Forristal looks for some Cheltenham Festival pointers
With next month's Cheltenham Festival foremost in every racing fan's mind right now, Sunday's high-profile Leopardstown spread promises an array of invaluable pointers.
The five-day entries for a quality-laden programme were unveiled yesterday.
Most of the big names have stood their ground in the four Grade Ones, the highlight of which is the Hennessy Gold Cup, a race that will provide our best staying chasers with a final opportunity to declare themselves worthy of a place in the main event at Prestbury Park five weeks on Friday.
That is undoubtedly a tall order, but Quel Esprit and Jessies Dream have the potential to stamp their authority on the domestic scene, while Quito De La Roque will be given the chance to show that his Lexus Chase defeat behind Synchronised -- which is among 10 still in Sunday's three-miler -- was not his true running.
Likewise, Last Instalment and Cash And Go, both top-level winners at the Foxrock venue on their latest starts, are among a stack of novices engaged on an undercard that rarely fails to throw up its share of Cheltenham heroes.
In the middle of an Irish campaign that has at times been exhilarating, but also frustrating, nobody needs reminding of the panacea effect that one good week in the Cotswolds can trigger.
Small fields and the failure to hitherto unearth a genuine Gold Cup horse would seem far less pressing concerns if, as happened in 2011, the raiding party goes into the final day of the season's definitive festival with a double-figure yield.
Another such haul may be fanciful, but it's hardly unfathomable either, and as the annual exodus to Gloucestershire looms closer, it's worth looking at some of our main movers and shakers.
As of now, Hurricane Fly, Sizing Europe and Quevega are all worthy of their strong market-leading positions in their contests.
Hurricane Fly's delayed comeback seems trifling given his astounding triumph in the Irish Champion Hurdle at Leopardstown 10 days ago, while Sizing Europe's crushing defeat of his nemesis Big Zeb at Punchestown on Sunday was the first time that he had strung together back-to-back victories for two years.
Quevega won't be seen until Cheltenham, but that's nothing new. Willie Mullins will have her ready.
Supreme Novices' Hurdle favourite Steps To Freedom is unbeaten in three, but his form has weakened since he was last seen in November.
On Sunday, Cash And Go faces a real test, with the presence of Nicky Henderson's Captain Conan significant in terms of English form.
Boston Bob's lines look robust, though not conclusively so, while he is one of a number whose target is unconfirmed.
Last Instalment will bid to continue his progression on Sunday, when he could meet Lambro, many people's idea of a dark horse for the RSA.
First Lieutenant also falls into the latter group, while Galileo's Choice and Monksland are hurdlers that could travel under the radar.
Bog Warrior, in at Naas on Saturday as well as Sunday, may not be suited by Cheltenham's traditionally dry ground. Flemenstar and Hidden Cyclone will be notable absentees.
Maturing with age
The standout candidate here is Quel Esprit.
In two starts under Paul Townend this term, the grey has readily dispensed with inferior opposition, jumping with a general fluency that belies his previous misdemeanours.
He is in the Ryanair Chase, but there has been talk of him being an outside contender for the Gold Cup, so Sunday's Hennessy will shed some light on that theory.
His stablemates So Young, Zaidpour and Mikael D'Haguenet also warrant a mention. At the moment, all three are in the Champion and World Hurdles, neither of which would be easy.
While he will certainly be a more potent force come Cheltenham, Big Zeb's tame submission last Sunday leaves him with a lot to do now.
Rubi Light's inability to cope with Synchronised in the Lexus was fatal in terms of his prospects as a Gold Cup horse, though he remains a live Ryanair Chase hope.
The application of blinkers on Jessica Harrington's Bostons Angel for Sunday's Hennessy sums up the direction that he has gone, while his stablemate Oscars Well hasn't won in five tries since Sunday's Deloitte a year ago. At two miles, he looks limited.
Thousand Stars would be a fascinating each-way prospect if the consistent grey lines out against Big Buck's in the Ladbrokes World Hurdle. A winner of the French Champion Hurdle over three and a quarter miles in June, last year's Aintree Hurdle runner-up stole the Morgiana on his re-appearance, before running well in defeat twice more over the minimum trip at Leopardstown.
Dessie Hughes' runaway Irish Cesarewitch winner Minsk, formerly in the care of John Oxx, has the Triumph Hurdle as its stated target, and debuts at Fairyhouse on February 25. One to monitor on Sunday is On The Fringe, the Enda Bolger-trained hunter chaser that finished fourth in the Foxhunters' as a six-year-old in 2011.