Gold Cup rivals set to clash on Leopardstown's cracking card
Lord Windermere will renew hostilities with his narrow Cheltenham Gold Cup victim On His Own when he completes preparations for his title defence in the Hennessy Gold Cup on Sunday's hugely exciting Leopardstown card.
The corresponding 2014 programme, which hosts a quartet of Grade Ones, was the source of no less than four winners at the subsequent four-day Cotswolds gala in March.
In the 2014 edition of the €150,000 feature, Jim Culloty's dual Festival hero Lord Windermere suffered the worst beating of his career when thrashed 26 lengths by Last Instalment, a listless display that he eclipsed by edging out On His Own in dramatic style en route to glory a month later.
That was the nine-year-old's first triumph since he and Davy Russell had claimed the RSA Chase at Prestbury Park a year earlier, and he has reverted somewhat to type since. In two outings this term, Lord Windermere has failed to land a serious blow, staying on for third behind Don Cossack over an inadequate trip in the John Durkan Chase, before being beaten nearly 12 lengths in seventh by Road To Riches in the Lexus Chase at Christmas.
Culloty and Russell have conceded they were hoping for better in the Lexus after an encouraging turn in the Durkan, citing the deep ground and the horse's poor Leopardstown record (1-7) as the cause of his indifferent turn.
Despite that ratio, a formula that climaxed with the ultimate victory last year will not be abandoned, as Culloty strives to see his gelding recapture some form ahead of his primary target. No reigning Gold Cup winner has won the Hennessy-sponsored three-miler since the brilliant Jodami claimed the second of his three victories in 1994.
Master Oats and Imperial Call did journey to Leopardstown for the marquee event after their memorable respective successes at Cheltenham. In 1996, it was Fergie Sutherland's rising star that thwarted Master Oats, and a year later Imperial Call was third behind the gallant duo of Danoli and Jodami.
Last year, Lord Windermere became the first horse since Imperial Call to claim the Cheltenham Gold Cup after taking in the Hennessy, and there is no doubt that the diamond in the Foxrock venue's crown went out of fashion a little in the intervening period. However, Culloty's son of Oscar now has the chance to reinvigorate it further by emulating Jodami and providing another link to that bygone era.
In the Lexus, it was Willie Mullins' On His Own that pushed Road To Riches hardest in second. Despite that, the layers make his stablemate Boston Bob - second in the Durkan and fourth in the Lexus - as low as 9/4 favourite to give the insatiable champion trainer an incredible 10th Hennessy win.
John Kiely's progressive JP McManus-owned Carlingford Lough was a fair fifth in the Lexus on his return, and he vies for second favouritism with On His Own at odds of up to 4/1.
Ted Walsh's similarly improving Foxrock is as low as 5/1 after claiming a valuable handicap at the track last month, with Lord Windermere a 6/1 shot. The Mouse Morris-trained 2014 third First Lieutenant is 14/1, with Roi Du Mee, Home Farm and Texas Jack all priced at double-figure odds.
While 14/1 is the shortest any of the nine entries are for the big race in March, we saw last year just how open the division is, so you never know what might unfold.
In the Deloitte Novices' Hurdle that Vautour hacked up in before securing the 2014 Supreme Novices' Hurdle, Mullins can draw from Grade One winners Nichols Canyon and Mckinley, as well as the precocious Alvisio Ville, Black Hercules and Sempre Medici.
Of the 12 entries, Gigginstown Stud have five to choose from, including Henry De Bromhead's Identity Thief and Mouse Morris' Alpha Des Obeaux, with Dermot Weld's Champion Bumper victor Silver Concorde also engaged.
The Dr PJ Moriarty Novices' Chase, now sponsored by Flogas, promises to be equally gripping. Again, Mullins will be to the fore, as his Drinmore Chase winner Valseur Lido is thought to be a likely starter, with fellow Gigginstown-owned Grade One scorer Don Poli also among his four contenders. Noel Meade's Apache Stronghold, second to Don Poli at Christmas, is an intended starter, as is Liz Doyle's smart course winner, Le Vent D'Antan.
The Gala Retail Juvenile Hurdle that produced Gordon Elliott's Triumph Hurdle winner Tiger Roll will get things underway, with the likes of Mullins' Kalkir and Elliott's Vercingetorix among 10 entries for the Grade One.
In the Raymond Smith Memorial Hunters' Chase, won last year by Tammys Hill en route to Cheltenham success, Rodger Sweeney's returning dual Festival winner Salsify, Mullins' Prince De Beauchene and Enda Bolger's On The Fringe are all entered.