Windermere can Lord it over fancied pair in Lexus
Leopardstown's Christmas Festival enters its weekend phase with a stellar spread that is spearheaded by a fascinating Lexus Chase rematch between the first two home in this year's Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Nicky Henderson has endured some mixed results so far this term, with Bobs Worth's tame defeat in the Betfair Chase the most alarming reversal prior to Sprinter Sacre's bizarre flop yesterday. Barry Geraghty's talented mount faces another stern test as he bids to get his season back on track in the €150,000 feature.
Sir Des Champs, his closest pursuer at Cheltenham, is among those charged with preventing the prestigious three-miler going for export for a seventh time since 2006. Intriguingly, Willie Mullins' Gigginstown Stud-owned seven-year-old also has a reputation to repair after his recent Punchestown spill, as does the same owner's out-of-form First Lieutenant, gallingly outfoxed by Tidal Bay here in 2012.
Tidal Bay's handler Paul Nicholls relies on Unioniste in his quest for a fourth Lexus win, while the latter's RSA conqueror Lord Windermere is also on duty. Jim Culloty's stable star landed this card's beginners' chase 12 months ago, but he faces a far more definitive assignment under Galway-born Dougie Costello now.
Invariably, this is a race in which the prospect of bringing Ireland's Gold Cup drought to an end the following March has expired in recent times. This year, as ever, the hope would be that one of the home team might be able to make a real statement of intent in what is an unusually open edition given the doubts surrounding the main protagonists.
Earlier, there is also the small matter of Solwhit's reappearance in the woodiesdiy.com Christmas Hurdle. Sadly, the non-appearance of Annie Power takes from the three-miler in its new Grade One guise, but it is still a tremendous boon for the Foxrock venue to have two reigning Cheltenham Festival heroes in attendance.
'point' and bumper winner Akorakor should come on for his tame hurdle bow, though it's hard to know whether his market drift that day is a good or bad thing in the context of today's race. Riverside City, Shield and Vaxalco are all improvers, while Sure Reef was fancied when he made an unfortunate early exit on his hurdle bow.
Verdict: The smart Flat racer Sure Reef can make amends on ground that he likes.
As a 'qualifier' this has always been a race to swerve for betting purposes. Empire Of Dirt, an unexposed novice with solid form, is one of the more obvious contenders, though the useful chaser Toon River is also interesting off a favourable hurdle mark.
Verdict: Toon River might be worth a speculative foray at a big price.
Very little to choose between any of these on official figures. Leah Claire is one of three that share the top-rating of 123. Placed in Listed company on the Flat in the autumn, she won on her last start over flights at Limerick in April and always runs well here. Inis Meain has been superior to her on the level, though he has been slightly disappointing over hurdles, winning just once in nine starts.
Verdict: Inish Meain can begin to fulfil his potential in favourable conditions.
Having returned from injury to plunder Grade Ones at Cheltenham and Aintree last season, Solwhit sets the standard here. The only thing he lacks is race-fitness, but he should still be able to account for most of these if he is anywhere near ready.
While Rule The World disappointed in the Hatton's Grade, he could yet leave that behind as he looked a smashing prospect before getting injured in the spring. Zaidpour chased home Jezki at Fairyhouse. He is surely Solwhit's main threat in these conditions, though it would be unwise to underestimate Mala Beach.
Conqueror of Defy Logic on his final start last term, he was a fine second to Dedigout on his Navan return. He is a five-year-old that remains open to further improvement.
Verdict: Solwhit is trusted to live up to his lofty rating on his reappearance.
Djakadam, Talbot Road, Si C'Etait Vrai and The Grey Monk appeal as more progressive prospects than the disappointing Minsk. Wexford hurdle winner The Grey Monk has long been touted as an embryonic chaser, likewise Talbot Road, which made a pleasing bow when third to Bright New Dawn at Punchestown.
Si C'Etait Vrai appeared not to get home over two and three-quarter miles in a Punchestown Grade Two behind Morning Assembly last time. However, he was a good second to the same horse previously, so the return to this trip may suit.
Verdict: Si C'Etait Vrai has nap appeal now that he reverts to a shorter distance.
Bobs Worth has something to prove after a listless comeback effort at Haydock. This track will doubtless suit his grinding style better, so today is the day we will find out if his exertions in March really have left an indelible mark.
It's impossible to call Sir Des Champs at this stage. The Gold Cup runner-up fell too early to gauge anything from his recent Punchestown run, and the fact that he took a couple of runs to hit peak form last term must be considered negative here.
Unioniste, fourth in the RSA Chase behind Lord Windermere, is on the up following his Aintree win three weeks ago, and his stable is in form. Lord Windermere, a winner and placed in good company here over inadequate trips last season, should strip fitter for his Hennessy outing. Having been badly hampered early on, he ran better there than his eighth placing suggests, so he is no back number.
RSA second Lyreen Legend looks up against it on his return, though the smart French import Rubi Ball will surely be happier here than when beaten at short odds on his Irish debut over flights at Thurles. Last year's runner-up First Lieutenant needs to leave behind a couple of below-par turns, while Foildubh is a lively outsider.
Verdict: The unexposed Lord Windermere ticks lots of boxes now that he is race-fit.
It's 980 days since On Your Eoin made a successful pointing debut, but he is clearly a horse with ability. Silver Concorde -- placed in both bumper starts -- hasn't been seen for 516 days, while King Leon's Fairyhouse third to Shaneshill is the best recent form.
Verdict: Nina Carberry is trusted to get On Your Eoin home after its lay-off.