Dulcote to pass acid test
Some valuable clues regarding the likely outcome of key races during next month's Cheltenham Festival should emanate from tomorrow's Hennessy Gold Cup meeting that promises to provide jumping enthusiasts with another memorable occasion at Leopardstown.
The 21st renewal of the Hennessy promotion and three supporting Grade One events, equally divided between chases and hurdles, have attracted five runners from Britain between them, headed by the Paul Nicholls-trained Pride Of Dulcote, which assumed the mantle of undisputed ante-post Hennessy favourite after the enforced withdrawal through injury of Noel Meade's Lexus Chase hero Pandorama.
Both this well-touted Cadoudal gelding and youthful partner Nick Scholfield are newcomers to this early February showpiece in which Nicholls triumphed with Neptune Collonges two years ago, unlike 2008 victor The Listener and fellow grey Money Trix.
Fifth on his comeback from injury and a gallant runner-up to Pandorama over this route after Christmas, this proven pair renew rivalry yet again with last year's Hennessy principals Joncol and Cooldine.
Whether the old guard of English challengers, or indeed the seven-strong home defence, will prove vulnerable to the relatively unexposed Pride Of Dulcote, the Newbury conqueror of the over-hyped Punchestowns last time out, is the major imponderable now.
Nicholls saddles yet another French import Indian Daudaie for the opening Tote Spring Juvenile Hurdle just eight days after a useful third to Local Hero on his British debut at Cheltenham, as debut winners Unaccompanied and Louisville Lip step up in grade too.
But the Deloitte Novice Hurdle and the Dr PJ Moriarty Novice Chase are purely domestic affairs in which the destination of honours will largely depend on how well the Willie Mullins pair Zaidpour and Mikael D'Haguenet perform after failing to justify odds-on favouritism in shorter races here in late December.
Hennessy Gold Cup (3.45)
How the favourite Pride Of Dulcote adapts to by far his sternest test on only his third outing over fences could be the most relevant of the many imponderables in this acid test of what is in all probability the second strata of staying chasers among the current crop.
Last year's winner Joncol and the trio of English raiders won't be unduly bothered by the distinct prospect of the ground becoming a good bit softer over the weekend, whereas China Rock, Kempes and Cooldine have shown their best form on a sounder surface.
Money Trix invariably lacks the tactical pace to stay with the leaders when the tempo hots up and then finds the punishing climb to the finish at this track playing to his strengths, in contrast to bold-jumping The Listener, which often makes the running.
Don't be surprised, therefore, if The Listener brings them along at a sensible gallop and perhaps tees up the race for fellow raider Pride Of Dulcote which, barring accidents, has what it takes to triumph over Joncol and Money Trix.
Verdict: Trust in Pride Of Dulcote
Dr PJ Moriarty Novice Chase (2.40)
There's a similar scenario here as favourite Mikael D'Haguenet, like Pride Of Dulcote sidelined by injury for a season, attempts to get his career back on track after falling when set to defeat Jessies Dream at Fairyhouse and then failing to fire here behind Realt Dubh.
Whether the latter contest came too soon after his unfortunate final-fence exit at Fairyhouse for this French import to do himself justice, only tomorrow's resumption over what should be a more suitable longer trip may reveal.
At the likely cramped odds-on offer, it's a risk backing Paul Townend's mount to make it third time lucky this season, though the horse reportedly schooled well over Punchestown's big fences last Sunday.
Magnanimity stepped up to the mark again over the course and distance four weeks ago when turning over Jessies Dream and should give his followers a good run. Bostons Angel, likewise, is proven here, though over three miles, and the other pair look outclassed.
Verdict: Don't desert Mikael D'Haguenet yet
Deloitte Novice Hurdle (2.10)
This race affords Zaidpour the chance to compensate for his post-Christmas neck defeat by First Lieutenant.
Almost unbackable that day, Zaidpour only got into top gear after the final flight in what turned out to be, essentially, a tactical affair over two miles so there can be no excuses now, with both the extra quarter mile and probability of a true-run race to help his cause.
Stable companion Cottrelsbooley invariably sets off a decent gallop and the hard-pulling Shot From The Hip is likely to be close to the pace.
Oscars Well continues to progress nicely through the ranks but might be more suited going two and a half miles, whereas the underfoot conditions won't be in Old McDonald's favour. In the circumstances, it might be best to give the promising Zaidpour a chance to redeem himself.
Verdict: Go with Zaidpour
Tote Spring Juvenile Hurdle (1.05)
The ratings were turned upside down when Sailors Warn opened his account over this course and distance after Christmas on his third start over jumps and it will be interesting to see how he fares against regulars Fearless Falcon and Toner d'Oudairies.
English challengers Indian Daudaie and Pena Dorada do not appear out of the ordinary at this stage of their development, but it's anyone's guess how the fluent Punchestown and Thurles maiden winners Unaccompanied and Louisville Lip will progress in time.
Verdict: Sailors Warn is the percentage call