Plot thickens in Gold Cup puzzle
Yesterday saw 34 horses entered for this year's Cheltenham Gold Cup -- a contest that promises to fully live up to expectations as the latest thrilling instalment in what has been a golden era for jump racing's marquee event.
Even now, over two months in advance, interest is growing apace. Sure, the most fascinating dimension remains that of Kauto Star and Long Run's enthralling rivalry, but there are a myriad of immensely intriguing subplots to boot.
From an Irish perspective, eight horses have been nominated for the three-and-a-quarter-mile Grade One. The Gordon Elliott-trained Jessies Dream, yet to reappear this term and seemingly being prepared especially for the race, is the shortest priced of those at 25/1.
Elliott was clearly encouraged by the way the horse ran when just denied by Bostons Angel in the 2011 RSA Chase at Prestbury Park. The worry is that Jessies Dream, having cantered into the straight that day, failed to drive home the advantage after leading over the last.
His Cotswolds conqueror Bostons Angel also has questions to answer, and the application of blinkers for next month's Hennessy Gold Cup does little to advance his claims.
If you allow that Quito De La Roque's recent eclipse at Leopardstown can be attributed to him simply not being right, he would certainly have some appeal at up to 40/1.
Colm Murphy, who has already won both the Champion Hurdle and Champion Chase, is simply exquisite at priming horses for the big day. Should he return to his best, Quito De La Roque could win the Hennessy, and few will relish the Cheltenham climb more.
The danger at Leopardstown may be Quel Esprit. Willie Mullins' grey fenced immaculately in the RSA last March, jumping to the front as they rose out of the back straight the last time.
Sure, he then crashed out at the third-last, but that tumble might have finally taught him a lesson. He could do nothing about being brought down at Punchestown subsequently, and he has never looked like falling in either of his two facile triumphs this term.
Given that Ruby Walsh will be on Kauto Star come Gold Cup day, it might be prudent for Mullins to allow Paul Townend continue to build up his rapport with Quel Esprit next time, especially if Mullins decides to up him in class at Leopardstown.
Of course, it is not the Irish-based horses that are generating the heightened level of anticipation in the race at this early stage.
No sooner had the timeless exchanges between Kauto Star and Denman come to an end than another compelling struggle for heavyweight supremacy emerged between Kauto and Long Run. Notwithstanding that -- for whichever reason you prefer -- the two-time holder Kauto Star was operating below his best last term, Long Run was a worthy successor to the crown.
However, just as so many Epsom Derby winners fail to ever reach the same heights again, horses that win a Cheltenham Gold Cup traditionally leave their best days behind them. Best Mate won three and was an exceptional athlete, but he competed at a time when there was little in the way of meaningful opposition, allowing Henrietta Knight to wrap him up in as much cotton wool as she liked and prime him once a year come March.
Previously, L'Escargot had been the most recent repeat winner in 1971, while Kauto Star is simply the horse of a lifetime and you don't apply conventional logic to an immortal.
Right now, all the evidence suggests that Long Run is less divine. The bookies fancy that he will regain supremacy over his 12-year-old nemesis when faced with a more thorough test of stamina at Cheltenham, a notion that his connections are likewise clinging to.
Maybe that will be decisive, but the same connections were of the view after his devastating King George success just over a year ago that Kempton's speed emphasis brought out the best in him.
Besides, does anyone really expect the Cheltenham hill to be the rock on which Kauto Star perishes, especially now that Denman won't be there to bust his gut?
Ruby Walsh is too wily a fox to allow that to happen, while there is also a confidence issue in relation to Sam Waley-Cohen, who has endured a trying time since his moment of glory last year. He hasn't ridden a winner on the track since, has struggled to get Long Run fencing fluently and is picking up suspensions for sport.
When you factor in the reticent manner in which the jockey handled the media attention arising out of the bans, it does begin to look as though he may not be coping too well with the expectation that comes with such high-profile success.
Denman's jockey Sam Thomas, remember, suffered similarly in the aftermath of his Gold Cup victory.
The other captivating element to the countdown is that of Grands Crus' possible participation in the race. Novices have a pretty deplorable Gold Cup record, with Michael Hourigan's Doran's Pride's third in 1997 the pick of 20 attempts since Captain Christy took the honours in 1974.
David Pipe's charge was incredibly impressive at Kempton last time, but it was noticeable how he tended to go markedly to his left when putting himself right at fences. With time and space at a premium in a Gold Cup, that is a luxury he won't have come March 16.
Still, there is no denying that his presence would add even more spice to proceedings.