TWO of the brightest Gold Cup prospects to emerge in this country for some time go head-to-head in tomorrow's John Durkan Memorial Chase at Punchestown.
Sir Des Champs – ante-post favourite for the marquee event at Cheltenham in March until last week's Hennessy hero Bobs Worth usurped him – makes its seasonal bow for Willie Mullins in the two-and-a-half-mile Grade One.
Curiously, however, he has been second-best in the market for this contest all week, with the race-fit Flemenstar, so convincing on its Navan return, trading a fraction shorter.
Twice successful at the highest level as a novice, Flemenstar's rise up the ranks for his colourful veteran handler Peter Casey has prompted comparisons with Tom Foley's golden Danoli era. Time will tell if that notion is born of romance or substance, but Andrew Lynch's exuberant partner – unbeaten in six – is certainly a contender.
Bog Warrior, the only horse to beat Flemenstar over fences when toppling him at Navan last year, will also line out in the €80,000 feature, having enjoyed a confidence-boosting rout over flights last week.
The field is completed by last year's winner Rubi Light, a solid performer at its best over this trip in the sort of testing conditions he is guaranteed to get here.
All told, though, it is Sir Des Champs and Flemenstar that represent the brightest long-term hopes, so it will be disappointing if they don't fulfil the potential of this hugely exciting clash. In the final analysis, Sir Des Champs is favoured to prevail.
Representing the champion trainer and the omnipotent Gigginstown Stud operation, the six-year-old is something of a Goliath to Flemenstar's David, but his record is flawless. Since joining Mullins, he has clocked up a winning sequence of seven, scored twice at the Cheltenham Festival and proved he won't want for stamina by ploughing through the mud over an extended three miles here in April.
In short, we have yet to see a hole of any description in Davy Russell's mount, so it's worth taking his fitness on trust ahead of this showdown.
On a cracking undercard, Pride Ofthe Parish can also land the maiden hurdle for Mullins. Owned by Archie and Violet O'Leary, the Limerick bumper winner found only the smart Road To Riches – which is on duty at Cork – too strong on its first hurdle start, and should go one better now for the trainer's son Patrick, who is within a handful of a 100-year-old amateur riders' record of 72 winners in a year.
A superb Listed novice hurdle follows, with Mullins and Russell teaming up with the highly promising Balnaslow, so impressive on its hurdling debut here back in May. The relentless front-runner Rory O'Moore, Home Farm and Shrapnel are others with live chances, but preference is for Dermot Weld's Waaheb.
JP McManus' classy bumper performer returned from a year and a half off to make a successful jumping bow at Fairyhouse in October. While this will be much tougher, he appeals as being one of the best novice hurdlers around.
The day's nap vote goes to Dessie Hughes' Redundant Man in the bumper.
There's also decent action at Cork where, unusually given that there is a Grade One elsewhere, Ruby Walsh is on duty.
The main reason for Walsh's venture south is likely to be the presence of Tarla in the Grade Three Mares' Novice Chase. Stunning on her first stab at fences at Clonmel, the Rich Ricci-owned six-year-old has enormous potential. She has to concede weight to seven perfectly capable rivals tomorrow, but she is taken to jump and gallop them silly.
In the Grade Two Hilly Way Chase, the eight-time champion jockey rides the versatile Blazing Tempo, which is thrown in at the weights if at the top of her game.
However, John Ryan's Foildubh, third to Flemenstar at Navan, has been in great heart this term and would be deserving of a prize like this.