Condon and Elliott have Cause to celebrate at Ascot
A year ago, Irish racing fans made for Leopardstown's Christmas Festival confident in the belief that a corner was about to be turned by our best staying chasers.
The Lexus Chase had gone for export four times in five years, but, in Rubi Light, Quito De La Roque and Joncol, hopes were high that the rot would be stopped.
Since War Of Attrition bounded to glory under Conor O'Dwyer in 2006, we hadn't had so much as a sniff of a Cheltenham Gold Cup and neither of the two English raiders at Leopardstown struck as being remotely likely to have a say in the March showpiece.
If only it were that simple. Under a serene AP McCoy steer, Synchronised, a dour Welsh and Midlands National winner that had been readily beaten on its four previous outings, stormed home. He was bred, owned, trained and ridden by Irishmen, yet he still managed to pulverise the nation's prospects of ending its Gold Cup drought.
That Synchronised emulated previous Lexus heroes Best Mate and Denman by going on to claim a popular victory in March was no consolation.
In the final analysis, he was a game winner of a moderate Gold Cup, and there wasn't an Irish-trained horse capable of getting close enough to be splattered by his kickback.
Roll the clock on 12 months and Flemenstar, Sir Des Champs, Hidden Cyclone and First Lieutenant represent the latest generation of domestic pretenders in the Lexus. An 11-year-old Tidal Bay, as quirky as Synchronised ever was, and Midnight Chase, an honest but limited 10-year-old beaten out of sight in March, are the English entries.
An away win just won't do. Flemenstar may or may not stay; First Lieutenant has proven quality over the trip, but might not fully blossom until the spring; Hidden Cyclone will relish the testing conditions, but has it to prove at this level; apart from the small matter of his inferiority to Flemenstar on his Punchestown reappearance, Sir Des Champs has plenty else going for him.
Thus, each of the quartet might have a convenient and possibly acceptable excuse for getting turned over.
If all four come up short to one or both of Tidal Bay and Midnight Chase, though, you'd struggle to explain that away.
In the King George VI Chase at Kempton on St Stephen's Day, Long Run will face Cue Card, Riverside Theatre, Kauto Stone, The Giant Bolster and Grands Crus as he tries to recapture the magic of old.
However, at Leopardstown two days later, the nascent talent pencilled in arguably promise far more in terms of Gold Cup potential.
Crucially, the horses that we expect most of in the Lexus are all Irish-based, which is why, in terms of tangible progress being made in the quest to reclaim the Holy Grail come March, it would be difficult to name a more significant steeplechase held on these shores throughout 2012.
Here's hoping it won't be another false dawn.
Condon and Elliott have Cause to celebrate at Ascot
Gordon Elliott's Cause Of Causes got a superb drive from a mud-sodden Davy Condon to stretch four lengths clear from the back of the last flight in the valuable Ladbrokes.com Hurdle at Ascot.
Despite failing by just a head to collar Rebel Fitz in the Galway Hurdle and also being placed in the Greatwood Hurdle at Cheltenham, Elliott's four-year-old was sent off at odds of 25/1.
Settled in by Condon, he came steadily through to overhaul Petit Robin on the run-in and eventually landed the £84,405 winner's purse with a bit to spare.
As a novice, Cause Of Causes has an array of options now, though Elliott suggested that a tilt at the Ebor at York, a race he won with Dirar in 2010, could happen in the summer.
"I've won a Christmas Hurdle and Fighting Fifth over here, but to win a big handicap at Ascot is a real feather in my cap," said Condon afterwards. "I'm so pleased, as when he was second in the Galway Hurdle, I felt he should have won."
The Nick Williams-trained Reve De Sivola, a Grade One winner at Punchestown two years ago, powered through the mud to make the most of Big Buck's absence in the Long Walk Hurdle under Richard Johnson.
Having failed to show his best form over fences, the 9/2 shot built on his reappearance second to Big Buck's at Newbury by slamming the favourite Smad Place by 14 lengths for a first win in two years.
Russell decides to swerves Leopardstown for Limerick
Champion jockey Davy Russell has eschewed the higher-profile fixture at Leopardstown to ride at Limerick on St Stephen's Day.
The Youghal man's Gigginstown Stud employer is busy at Limerick, with stylish Gowran Park maiden hurdle winner Umpact a precocious sort in the conditions race.
In the Greenmount Park Novice Chase that went to Sir Des Champs last year, Russell has opted for Far Away So Close over Tillahow, as Emmet Mullins, aboard the Grade Two winner in 2011, partners Mikael D'Haguenet for his uncle Willie this time.
At Leopardstown, the champion trainer's Drinmore Chase winner Arvika Ligeonniere drops back in trip for the two-mile Grade One, with Oscars Well among four rivals. Ruby Walsh is at Kempton, so Paul Townend rides Mullins' exuberant front-runner.
The 2011 champion jockey is also on Blood Cotil, a runaway victor on its Fairyhouse debut for Mullins, in the Q8 OILS Juvenile Hurdle. A total of eight will go to post for that Grade Two, including Dessie Hughes' improving dual winner Our Conor.
Saturday's Istabraq Hurdle, meanwhile, is likely to go ahead without Countrywide Flame, after the Triumph and Fighting Fifth Hurdle winner was declared for Kempton's Christmas Hurdle. John Quinn's charge will be ridden by Denis O'Regan, whose fellow Cork native Richie McLernon is on Jonjo O'Neill's Fairyhouse Easter Festival victor Get Me Out Of Here for JP McManus.
AP McCoy is on the Limerick owner's Nicky Henderson-trained Darlan, which was second to the Fighting Fifth runner-up Cinders And Ashes at Cheltenham in March.
Long Run out to reclaim King George crown
Although ground conditions at Kempton are officially soft to heavy, the William Hill King George VI Chase programme on St Stephen's Day is not thought to be in any danger of falling to the elements.
Long Run heads 10 runners for the Grade One, which will not feature five-time winner Kauto Star for a first time since Kicking King doubled up for Barry Geraghty in 2005.
Should the favourite oblige, he will emulate the recently retired legend, as well as its fellow Paul Nicholls-trained See More Business, Desert Orchid, Wayward Lad, Mandarin and Halloween, all of which regained their title after losing it.
Kauto Star will parade at Kempton on the day, with the Feltham Novices' Chase, a Grade One that he never ran in, now bearing his name.
Should Thursday's meeting at Chepstow survive, it will be the last fixture to be broadcast live on BBC TV, which made the controversial decision to end its 61-year association with the sport earlier in the year.
Number of the week
300,000 What Old Kilcash cost Barry Connell in euro after winning its only point-to-point at Horse and Jockey in March. He has a first start for John 'Shark' Hanlon in the bumper at Leopardstown on Wednesday.