It's rarely easy to predict with any confidence just how potent the Irish delegation might be on the eve of the Cheltenham Festival, let alone do so three weeks in advance.
Only last year, fresh from a record haul of 13 in 2011 and with a raft of exciting novices and a pair of odds-on favourites in two of the three marquee Grade Ones, expectations were high. We ended up totalling just five winners, our worst tally since 2007, and failed, albeit narrowly, to plunder any one of the Champion Hurdle, Champion Chase or Gold Cup.
The barometer of expectation has been recalibrated since, though Willie Mullins, responsible for three of last year's quintet, is again the focal point for Irish prospects. Of his novices, the likes of Pont Alexandre, Ballycasey, Un Atout, Champagne Fever, Mozoltov and Boston Bob may all be as good or better than they have looked this far. Then again, they may not be.
Many of their respective victories this term have come at odds-on in poorly contested events on borderline raceable ground conditions. It's true that the going has been similarly testing in Britain this winter and there does appear to be real depth to our novice hurdling division.
Still, many felt that the Jessica Harrington-trained Jezki would be 'banker' material in the Supreme, only for My Tent Or Yours to emerge. All of a sudden, Jezki apparently isn't even considered the best two-mile novice hurdler in JP McManus's string.
Our Conor is another non-Mullins novice set to carry its share of the burden. Dessie Hughes' four-year-old is our clear Triumph Hurdle pick, but the way he thrives in the mud would be a concern if the Prestbury Park turf rides much drier than everywhere else has done all winter.
On the other hand, such reservations are balanced by the week's enormous potential. For starters, the glass-half-full perspective would predict a yield of at least a couple of successes in the various novice contests, and Quevega remains unlikely to face an opponent of any significant worth in her bid to equal Golden Miller's record of five Festival firsts.
The handicaps will throw up the usual share of contenders, likewise the Foxhunters', the bumper and the cross-country race. Then there are the championship events.
When Brave Inca, Newmill and War Of Attrition all triumphed in 2006, it was the first time that the Champion Hurdle-Champion Chase-Gold Cup treble had been annexed by Irish-trained horses. Golden Cross also fell short by an agonising head under Johnny Murtagh in the World Hurdle that year. Unbelievably, it is 18 years since Dorans Pride's Stayers' win, but Monksland, Solwhit and Bog Warrior are all players with Big Buck's out.
With Sprinter Sacre present and Flemenstar absent, the Champion Chase could be a non-event. Nonetheless, few would be better equipped than Sizing Europe to take advantage if anything untoward should befall the Queen Mother favourite.
With hindsight, Hurricane Fly's wellbeing seems far more assured this time ahead of his bid to become the first horse to regain the Champion Hurdle in 38 years. In the Gold Cup, Mouse Morris may saddle Lexus runner-up First Lieutenant, a horse that saves its best for Cheltenham in March. He and Sizing Europe have the Ryanair as an alternative.
Sir Des Champs is another that excels in the Cotswolds in the spring, and the Hennessy Gold Cup hero undoubtedly has a serious chance of securing jump racing's most prestigious trophy. By the time Mullins-trained star steps out onto the hallowed turf halfway through the final day, though, we'll already have a verdict on the week for the raiders.
Here's hoping he isn't running for any more than his place among the immortals.
Champion Hurdle still an option for Steps and Fitz
Mick Winters reports that last year's Galway Hurdle hero Rebel Fitz is still being considered for a tilt at the Stan James Champion Hurdle. The Kanturk handler took the excitable eight-year-old to Prestbury Park for a dry run last month and had hoped to give him his first start since October in Saturday's Red Mills Hurdle, only to scratch him due to the heavy going.
"You don't wish anything bad on a horse, but, if Hurricane Fly couldn't go to Cheltenham, we might just be on the boat," he said of Rebel Fitz, a top-priced 50/1 for the big race. "There is a valuable race in Cork the week after Cheltenham we could go for instead and there is always Punchestown and Aintree later on."
Jessica Harrington, meanwhile, has suggested that Steps To Freedom, a ready winner at Dundalk on Friday on its first start since September, could also still take its place in the Grade One if the ground dries up sufficiently.
Doyle reveals long-term ambition for Lookoutnow
Eoin Doyle nominated next year's Thyestes Chase as the long-term target for Lookoutnow after the front-running eight-year-old won for a fourth time in five starts at Gowran Park on Saturday.
Having hacked up in a chase at the venue last month, Mikey Butler's mount had to work slightly harder in exploiting a lower mark over flights this time, but the 2/1 favourite still had a couple of lengths to spare over Gates Of Rome at the line.
"He did it well again, but I think we will put him away now until the autumn," the Mooncoin handler said. "He could be a contender for next year's Thyestes as he stays and gallops."
There was further local joy when Kymin's Way took division one of the mares' bumper for the father and son team of Ronnie and Johnny O'Neill, who are based less than 30 kilometres away in Kells. In the second division, Moses McCabe saddled his first winner for two years when the 'Bon' O'Neill-ridden Vic Dancer repelled Romantic Fashion by a short head.
Caviar still a possible
for Royal Ascot menu
A return to Royal Ascot next summer is being considered by the connections of Black Caviar, after the super sprinter broke the track record at Flemington on Saturday morning, her first start since narrowly sparing her rider Luke Nolen's blushes in the Diamond Jubilee Stakes last June.
Dropping back to five furlongs for a first time in 12 months, the seven-year-old, which was sent off at odds of 1/10, readily stretched her unbeaten run to 23 in the Grade One.
In light of the way that she nearly got caught over six furlongs when Nolen prematurely powered down at Ascot, trainer Peter Moody revealed that the King's Stand, over five, is the race they will target this time.
2 The number of Cheltenham Festival winners that Willie Mullins requires next month to join Tom Dreaper as the leading Irish trainer at the meeting. Dreaper's final tally stands at 26, so it seems inevitable that he will soon be overtaken by the reigning champion trainer.
Mullins' all-conquering campaign continued at Gowran Park on Saturday, when Djakadam (4/7 fav) and So Young (11/4) combined to bring his total for the season to 150, five shy of Aidan O'Brien's 1996 record. Paul Townend partnered Djakadam to a bloodless victory in the maiden hurdle, with David Casey steering So Young to a fine six-length win over the Townend-ridden odds-on shot Zaidpour in the featured Red Mills Hurdle.
Upping the ante
A month ago, we suggested that Davy Russell represented value at 16/1 to be crowned leading rider at next month's Cheltenham Festival. Little has happened in the meantime to change that. Indeed, Sir Des Champs is among a handful of his likely mounts that have enhanced their profile, so it's only fair to point out that he can now be backed at up to 20/1.
As Russell said himself on the excellent TG4 documentary 'Jump Boys' when mulling over his (costly) decision to remain loyal to First Lieutenant for a second time in a row last season – may as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb!
@pughp2p – Black Caviar's fractions today: 1000m in 55.42, last 800m 41.80, last 600m 31.53, last 400m 21.22, last 200m 11.05. Course record. Freak
– Point-to-point expert Richard Pugh breaks down Black Caviar's stunning reappearance win in Australia.
• Tomorrow's Navan card, rescheduled from Sunday, is subject to an inspection at 7.30am today, though track officials expressed themselves confident the meeting will go ahead.