On a weekend that promises a pair of enthralling equine duels, Irish eyes will be trained on the mouth-watering set-to between aspiring Cheltenham Gold Cup contenders Sir Des Champs and Flemenstar at Punchestown on Sunday.
At Sandown a day earlier, Paul Nicholls' Sanctuaire is due to be pitted against the mighty Nicky Henderson-trained Sprinter Sacre in the Tingle Creek Chase. However, if bookmakers' odds are a reliable gauge of which race will be harder fought, Sunday's John Durkan Memorial Chase will be the more informative Grade One.
Sprinter Sacre is 1/2 favourite to re-affirm his status at the head of the Champion Chase betting. The layers are much less definitive about Punchestown's 'Gold Cup trial', as Peter Casey's race-fit Flemenstar heads the market at evens, though he hardened in places to odds-on last night.
The Dublin handler's son and assistant Francis reports that last season's leading novice had come out of his reappearance win at Navan in fine fettle.
"Flemenstar is in good order," he revealed. "We couldn't have been happier with him at Navan, so it's all systems go for Sunday."
Willie Mullins' Sir Des Champs – usurped at the head of the ante-post Gold Cup betting by Hennessy Gold Cup hero Bobs Worth – remains the shorter-priced of the duo to record a third successive Festival win in March. The perceived wisdom is that the lack of a recent run will count against him on Sunday – a dangerous assumption given Mullins' renowned capabilities.
Sir Des Champs – a facile Grade One winner at the Kildare venue in horrible conditions when last seen in April – is now unbeaten in seven starts for Mullins. With last year's victor Rubi Light also engaged, the €80,000 contest is one to savour in its own right – not least when you factor in the modest €10 admission fee. Other potential starters include Bog Warrior and Quito De La Roque, which may instead go to Aintree a day earlier.
Intriguingly, all of the above also feature in a stellar 27-strong entry for the Lexus Chase on December 28, the highlight of Leopardstown's four-day Christmas Festival which was officially launched at Noel Meade's Navan yard yesterday.
Significantly, the first three home in Saturday's Hennessy – Bobs Worth, Tidal Bay and First Lieutenant – are among the possibles for the three-mile Grade One. Other entries include Jonjo O'Neill's veteran Albertas Run, Paul Nicholls' Down Royal winner Cristal Bonus and David Bridgwater's Gold Cup runner-up The Giant Bolster.
Sizing Europe, which has the track's two-mile equivalent and the King George at Kempton as alternative options, could yet lead the home defence, along with Hidden Cyclone and the long-absent pair Weapons Amnesty and Pandorama.
Successful on its penultimate start in the 2010 Lexus, Meade's Pandorama has not run since incurring an injury in the 2011 Gold Cup. "He's back in work and hopefully he'll be ready to return in the Lexus," Meade reported of the nine-year-old.
Dessie Hughes, meanwhile, has stated that his Munster and Cork National winner Raz De Maree is unlikely to try for a hat-trick in the Welsh edition at Chepstow over Christmas if the weights go up. Tidal Bay currently has 11st 12lb, with Mullins' Quel Esprit next in line off 11st 5lb, leaving Raz De Maree with 10st 8lb.
Hughes – whose In Compliance is the only Irish entry in Saturday's Becher Chase at Aintree – also revealed that last Saturday's Hennessy disappointment Magnanimity might undergo a wind operation to help his breathing. He added that Minsk is set to be upped in trip to two and a half miles for the Slaney Hurdle at Naas on January 6.