DESPITE the absence of those who finished first and second in the enthralling Lexus Chase in December, today's showdown between Flemenstar and Sir Des Champs in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown could hardly be more eagerly anticipated.
For all that Tidal Bay and First Lieutenant would have added to the prestigious Grade One, the €160,000 feature still takes on definitive proportions.
Flemenstar, whose colourful handler Peter Casey has expressed a preference for a tilt at Sprinter Sacre in next month's Champion Chase over a Gold Cup bid, remains one of the brightest prospects in the business, but the manner in which he turned victory into defeat from the last fence in the Lexus raised serious questions about his stamina limitations.
If he is to defy those doubts, Andrew Lynch will need to judge the fractions to a nicety, regardless of whether he bounces out or drops in.
Should Russell (pictured above) get the one-time Gold Cup favourite home in front, he would, incredibly, become the seventh rider to oblige on a Mullins horse in the Hennessy.
Paul Townend is on Quel Esprit – the horse that delivered the champion trainer his eighth triumph in the race last year – while the 2010 hero Joncol is also in attendance.
Possibly the most intriguing contender is Tony Martin's Gigginstown Stud-owned Bog Warrior, a talented if slightly fragile jumper that Russell ignored to his cost in Grade One company last term. Rising star Bryan Cooper stands in this time.
On a tremendous card that boasts four Grade One races in all, you couldn't discount the possibility of an unlikely victory for the apparent second string. After all, we all thought that the Lexus was a two-horse race as well – and look what happened there.
1.15 Grade One Spring Juv Hurdle 2m
Ruacana was held before being gifted a Chepstow Grade One in January. Still, his presence is interesting with a view to the relative merits of the cross-channel form.
Our Conor and Blood Cotil are both smart and closely tied on form, accounting for Stocktons Wing in similar fashion to score respective graded triumphs. Diakali impressed when slamming a useful sort in a Punchestown Grade Three last time.
Verdict: Diakali appeals as being a bit special.
1.45 EBF Mares' Handicap Hurdle 2m 2f
Recent winners Curvacious, Backinthere and Ballyquin Queen have obvious chances. Norah Starr hasn't run over flights for a year, but had respectable placed efforts then.
Verdict: A freshened up Norah Starr could run well at a price.
2.15 Deloitte Novice Hurdle 2m 2f
Champagne Fever was the clear pick of these in bumpers, but hasn't progressed as expected over flights. Minsk is another classy prospect that has disappointed slightly.
Waaheb has returned from a lay-off in good shape, his second to Jezki here at Christmas the standout piece of form. Bright New Dawn, third then, is making steady progress, but may need fences to be seen at his best, likewise Legal Exit.
Buthelezi didn't look entirely straightforward when making a successful hurdle debut at Aintree, but he represents a shrewd outfit so cannot be discounted.
Verdict: Waaheb may be the most reliable option.
2.45 Dr PJ Moriarty Novice Chase 2m 5f
Boston Bob is the class act on hurdle form, but didn't convince when struggling to beat inferior opposition on his chasing debut in December. He needs to improve.
Lyreen Legend, a faller when still in contention behind Back In Focus last time, is the obvious alternative. He will have a big say if that crashing spill hasn't left a mark.
Texas Jack, well held that day, progressed to score over course and distance last time, while Lord Windermere was a staying-on second then.
Verdict: Lord Windermere could cause an upset if ridden positively.
3.20 Grade One Hennessy Gold Cup 3m
Bog Warrior would add an extra element of intrigue should he turn out. Tony Martin's charge has enjoyed three confidence-boosting hurdle wins, having crashed out at the last when held on his Down Royal reappearance over fences. He wouldn't be without a chance if his jumping holds up.
Sir Des Champs made early mistakes in the Lexus, and the way he closed late on would suggest they were costly.
In the final analysis, though, he finished a better fourth there than when five lengths behind Flemenstar in second on his first outing of the campaign at Punchestown. Since capitulating up the straight in the Lexus, despite being 100pc fit, some maintain Flemenstar will be seen to better effect here if more extreme tactics are deployed. He is entitled to another go at three miles, but stamina is rarely something that a horse can develop. Quel Esprit faces a big task on his first start since May, but he will enjoy the conditions.
Verdict: Sir Des Champs is nap material if he fences a fraction better.
3.50 Paddypower.com H'cap Hurdle 2m
Tennis Cap looked like the horse he always promised to be when hosing up on his handicap bow at Naas last month. He is 12lbs higher now, but may be value for it.
Verdict: Tennis Cap might still be ahead of the handicapper.
4.20 Smith Memorial Hunters Chase 3m
Last year's winner Salsify has twice been held by Tammys Hill this term, but, on drying ground, he may pose more of a potent threat on this galloping trick.
Tammys Hill is on an upward curve, while Oscar Delta and Mossey Joe, on its switch back from racing under rules, also warrant immense respect.
Verdict: Salsify is just preferred to Tammys Hill at this venue.
4.50 Irish National Hunt Flat Race 2m
The Nina Carberry-ridden Azorian is one to note in the market, but Lord Kilcash, third to Moyle Park and subsequent winner Blackmail first time up, has the form in the book.
Verdict: Lord Kilcash has the credentials.