Flemenstar and Sir Des Champs, due to clash for a third time this season in next month's Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown, spearhead the 12 Irish-trained entries unveiled for Cheltenham's blue riband event on March 15.
Willie Mullins' Gigginstown Stud-owned Sir Des Champs, a dual Festival winner, has come up short behind Flemenstar in two sluggish starts this term, yet he remains the 5/1 second favourite to land the most sought-after prize in the Cotswolds.
His Peter Casey-trained nemesis – a triple Grade One winner at up to two and a half miles – is as big as 12/1 to end the raiders' Cheltenham Gold Cup drought that stretches back to War Of Attrition's 2006 triumph for Mouse Morris and Conor O'Dwyer.
Casey's bold jumper failed to hold on to the lead from the last fence when third in the Lexus over three miles last time. His owner Stephen Curran said yesterday that he would be putting him in all of the three feature chases at Cheltenham, but reasserted his belief that the three-and-a-quarter-mile Gold Cup trip would be within reach.
"He's a big, long-striding horse and in hindsight we should have gone on a mile out," he suggested of Andrew Lynch's mount in the Lexus. "If we had done that, he'd have put a lot of the horses in trouble with his jumping, which is his biggest asset. The ground was also hard work that day, so that was another reason. I think he'll definitely stay (in the Gold Cup). He's still only a baby and has a great future."
Sir Des Champs' owner Michael O'Leary, whose Gigginstown Stud colours were carried to glory by War Of Attrition, also has the Morris-trained Lexus runner-up First Lieutenant, as well as Tony Martin's recent dual hurdle winner Bog Warrior. In all, there are five potential Gigginstown starters among the 40 entries.
Morris' China Rock – also Hennessy-bound on February 9 – has been put in, but the Fethard handler has suggested the Ryanair Chase over two miles and five furlongs may be more suitable. Henry de Bromhead's former two-mile champion Sizing Europe has also been given the chance to line out against the 2011 hero Long Run and fellow Nicky Henderson-trained market leader Bobs Worth.
The Jewson Novices' Chase has proved popular with Irish trainers and Tom Taaffe has identified it as the most suitable option for the progressive Argocat. Sir Des Champs and Davy Russell took the two-mile-five-furlong Grade Two in tremendous style last year, 12 months after Paul Nolan and AP McCoy combined to secure the inaugural edition with Noble Prince.
Jessica Harrington's former high-class hurdler Oscars Well is the lowest-priced Irish contender for this year's event at 10/1. Argocat, a ready Limerick winner in testing ground for a second time in three starts in a Grade Two last time, is 20/1 in a place and not even quoted in most firms' ante-post lists.
"The obvious race is the Jewson, that's what he has been aimed at all along," Taaffe said of his five-year-old which, like Noble Prince and Hurricane Fly, is by Montjeu. "But he'll also have entries in two other races so we can see where we are with the ground."
With nine winners, the Straffan-based Gold Cup-winning handler has already bettered his final tallies for the past three campaigns. His resurgence has yet to throw up a horse that might return him to the dizzy heights reached by Kicking King, but his Festival prowess with lower-grade animals is well established, after Finger Onthe Pulse and Ninetieth Minute plundered handicaps there in 2008 and 2009 respectively.