Cossack fancied to retain his crown
A year after justifying favouritism with the sort of polished display that would ultimately define his first season in the senior ranks, Don Cossack is poised to make his reappearance in today's Grade Three Chase at Punchestown.
Twelve months ago, the handsome Sholokhov gelding had plenty to prove, having failed to win in four previous starts in 2014 to cement his reputation as a frustrating nearly horse.
This time, the opposite is true, as he now constitutes the first heavyweight winter National Hunt star to re-emerge after the summer recess.
Following his smooth triumph last year, Don Cossack won three more times on the spin, including the Grade One John Durkan Chase here in December. His only blip came at Cheltenham in March, when he didn't enjoy the rub of the green en route to finishing third in the Ryanair Chase.
Bryan Cooper missed out on his two subsequent outings, first due to suspension and then out of loyalty to the Gold Cup third, Road To Riches.
In his absence, Don Cossack left his Prestbury Park reversal behind, skating 26 lengths clear in the Melling Chase at Aintree before slamming Road To Riches and the Gold Cup runner-up Djakadam at Punchestown to complete a stunning Grade One brace.
As such, at odds of around 6/1, he now trails only Vautour in most markets for the sport's marquee event, and there is a case to be made for his representing the best value to complete the new £1m Triple Crown bonus at 40/1. Don Cossack could be one of the more likely candidates to take in the Betfair and King George VI Chases en route to the Gold Cup, and a win here would set him up nicely for Haydock.
He shouldn't have any trouble on ground that is likely to be no more or less fast than it was at the corresponding fixture in 2014. His stablemate Roi Du Mee also reappears in a race that he has won twice, but the odds-on shot's chief threat may be Cailin Annamh.
Jessica Harrington's improving mare is on a hat-trick after already claiming some high-profile scalps at Galway and Gowran Park, but this is a step up again.
Interestingly, Bright New Dawn also has its first start for Elliott under Ruby Walsh. He once looked a cracking prospect for Dessie Hughes before losing his way, so it will be fascinating to see if the switch to Elliott prompts a return to form. At his best, he would be well capable of getting in the mix.
The Don Cossack team is also responsible for The Game Changer, the market leader in the Grade Three Novices' Chase.
He has been a revelation over fences and is on a hat-trick here, while Shantou Flyer is another upwardly mobile performer since switching to the bigger obstacles.
However, Colin Bowe's game sort is dropping in trip and that might not be ideal. Fancied to have a big say is Henry de Bromhead's Sizing Platinum.
Jonathan Burke's mount has a couple of lengths to find with The Game Changer on their Roscommon clash over two miles last month, but this is over a two-furlong-longer trip. That will be to Sizing Platinum's benefit, as will the fact that he should be sharper for the outing and a two-pound pull at the weights with The Game Changer.
He had looked a smart prospect when winning at Galway in July, so he is trusted with the nap vote to confirm that impression now.
Bowe's Katie Do is fancied to atone for an early Sligo exit in the amateur riders' chase. She had previously won three handicaps on the spin so life is going to get tougher for her, but she might not be done with just yet.
Jarob is another in a rich vein of form. Andrew Lynch's charge won well over fences at Navan, having done likewise over flights at Bellewstown.
He is in off a six-pound higher mark under top-weight in the handicap hurdle, but the presence of excellent claimer Finny Maguire is a positive.