Flemenstar has yet to answer the stamina question, says Ian McClean
Last weekend we were treated to early Christmas fireworks from the two horses officially rated the best in training in either the UK or Ireland. Both Sprinter Sacre and Flemenstar succeeded in enhancing their already glittering reputations with indomitable performances at Sandown and Punchestown respectively.
With only one defeat ever over fences between them before last weekend, it appears the upward trajectory hasn't subsided yet in either case. Both had their handicap marks positively reassessed and, at 179 (Sprinter Sacre) and 173 (Flemenstar), they stand as the top-rated chasers on their respective islands.
However, whereas Sprinter Sacre has simply confirmed what we already knew and has seemingly dismantled any worthwhile opposition for the Queen Mother (1/2 favourite even at this stage) next March, Flemenstar's case is far less conclusive in spite of his imperious win on Sunday.
Flemenstar's defeat of the previously unbeaten Gold Cup favourite Sir Des Champs confirmed him as firmly in the ascent. With nearly 30 lengths back to 161-rated Rubi Light (the defending Durkan champion with an impeccable first-time-out record), this is form of the very highest order. However, in the case of the protagonists, you could argue that in the Durkan, Peter Casey's chaser had the cards stacked entirely in his favour. He had already blown away the cobwebs in the Fortria Chase at Navan, so had a fitness advantage over his main rival last Sunday.
In addition, the combination of distance and conditions (two-and-a-half miles in heavy ground) arguably represent the sweet spot for Flemenstar. The debate will continue to rage as to the stamina credentials of the son of Flemensfirth, but one thing is for sure – we don't know for sure that Flemenstar will be better at a longer trip. What we do know is that Sir Des Champs certainly will. Additionally, Sir Des Champs' aptitude for the unique demands of the Prestbury circuit are beyond question – as a 100% record from his Festival visits testifies. Flemenstar, by stark contrast, has yet to even have his passport stamped. Moreover, connections of Flemenstar were reluctant to travel their horse last year, so nervous was his disposition. That fear has abated now, but it still remains an unknown for Casey's giant.
The beauty of racing is that, like a kaleidoscope, the picture changes with every new twist. There will be plenty of twists, rest assured, between now and mid-March and the next is scheduled for the Lexus at Leopardstown over Christmas. It will feature Flemenstar's first attempt at three miles (although he has won a point-to-point) and will probably bring him together again with Sir Des Champs, even though that rival has the options of both King George and of dropping back to two miles in the Paddy Power Dial-a-Bet as Willie Mullins feels it could only sharpen his jumping.
What is most heartening from an Irish perspective is that we have a crop of young chasers with genuine pretensions to Gold Cup glory – a refreshing change from the drought we have suffered since Kicking King and War Of Attrition put back-to-back wins together in 2005-'06. Since then, we have given over to the Kauto Star/Denman era (with Imperial Commander in support). With the decline of the old guard it appeared that Long Run would become the dominant force following his win as a six-year-old in 2011.
However, for whatever reason, the Henderson horse has failed to run up to that form since, so hopes have to be high that a bright young Irish chaser (we can also include Hidden Cyclone, First Lieutenant – and Last Instalment should he return) can manage to take up the reins.