Dunguib to lord it in Deloitte
Last season's Cheltenham festival heroes Cooldine, Dunguib and Weapon's Amnesty head a star-studded cast bound for tomorrow's Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup meeting at Leopardstown.
Jumping enthusiasts have four Grade One contests to savour at a session that invariably has a marked influence on forthcoming Cheltenham results, even if the opening Spring Juvenile Hurdle lacks strength in depth.
Unless the midweek downpour and resultant testing conditions unduly compromise their prospects, Cooldine in the 20th renewal of the Hennessy promotion and Dunguib -- which is almost unbackable for the Deloitte Novice Hurdle -- are expected to step up to the mark again after their facile Cotswolds triumphs last March.
Mind you the participation of Dunguib in his preferred pre-festival outing has to be confirmed by trainer Philip Fenton, who fears "a real grueller" could lessen his star's chances of back-to-back successes next month.
"I will walk the track beforehand, but he's running at the moment and a drying day would be a help. Just over five weeks from Cheltenham the last thing we would want to do is send him over two-and-a-quarter miles in heavy ground," explained Fenton.
Presuming the Presenting gelding turns out as planned tomorrow, we can anticipate Brian O'Connell's mount lording it over Fionnegas, Saludos and easy course maiden victor Whodoyouthink.
However, the outcome of the Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup seems much more difficult to fathom, with little between the anticipated principals on their current ratings and the favourite Cooldine yet to recapture his Cheltenham sparkle.
Before putting his RSA Chase rivals firmly in their place at Cheltenham, Cooldine beat fellow subsequent festival hero Forpadydeplasterer for the Dr PJ Moriarty Novice Chase at the corresponding fixture a year ago.
Still, the 160-rated gelding was eclipsed behind Rare Bob when signing off for that campaign at Punchestown last April and was found to be coughing when pulled up by Paul Townend in the Lexus Chase after Christmas.
Reports of a satisfactory school over a circuit of the Navan track, followed by a fairly upbeat bulletin in the interim on the horse's well-being from Willie Mullins, rightly or wrongly fuelled an ante-post plunge this week.
A forward showing from a healthy Cooldine tomorrow might suffice to please the champion trainer on this occasion, if Ruby Walsh's mount doesn't become the Closutton stable's seventh Hennessy victor.
Bearing in mind the reservations about Cooldine's match fitness and being somewhat sceptical whether the horse will relish the heavy ground, I won't be surprised if Money Trix and Joncol engage in a reprise of the battle from the final fence we witnessed behind What a Friend in the Lexus Chase.
The Money Trix camp and the Old Vic gelding's fans will take heart from the storming late challenge under Davy Russell that almost denied What A Friend the Lexus spoils on their Irish debut over the course and distance.
Conversely, I'm prepared to give Joncol a second chance to succeed at Grade One level over three miles for the first time on a couple of counts: his relative youth; normally sound jumping technique; proven liking for the mud and the lesson learned from his wayward tendency on the run-in of the Lexus.
This junior member of the field lost valuable momentum with an untidy jump at the last regulation (three out) when prematurely forging clear of the pace-setting Notre Pere, leaving young Alain Cawley struggling to bring home a tiring horse which veered right over the final obstacle and covered more ground than the English principals that went past him on the punishing climb home.
If avoiding those negative influences tomorrow, not least with the benefit of hindsight, the Galway pilot, trainer Paul Nolan and owner-breeder Kay Browne could be celebrating a repeat of their Durkan Chase victory.
In contrast, every yard of the Dr PJ Moriarty Novice Chase's interim trip might well be required for Weapon's Amnesty to improve on his short-head defeat by Pandorama in a stirring battle for supremacy over three miles here in the Knight Frank Chase over three miles in late December.
His in-form trainer Charles Byrnes and rider Davy Russell also hold a likely trump card for the Spring Juvenile Hurdle, with Pittoni, whose hat-trick ambitions over jumps have been markedly enhanced by the defection of Carlito Brigante.