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Flemenstar proper crowd-pleaser

THERE was a great atmosphere in Navan last Sunday and a real healthy crowd and it was all down to one thing -- good horses. There wasn't a best-dressed lady in sight, nor was there any great promotion of the fixture itself, but what there was, in bulk, was anticipation.

While Big Zeb, a former Champion Chase winner and a three-time winner of Sunday's feature Fortria Chase, was joined on the card by his stable companion Voler La Vedette and Henry de Bromhead's exciting novice Sizing Rio, we would be fooling ourselves to think any horse other than Flemenstar was the real attraction.

The Irish racing public simply love the prospect of seeing at firsthand a potential star, a potential Cheltenham winner and a potential legend.

Every season we have horses that threaten with such potential, most years at least one fulfils it, and Navan on Sunday was testament to the excitement surrounding Flemenstar.

As he eloquently jumped the last on his way to beating Big Zeb by seven lengths, the crowds were already rushing down to get a vantage point close to the number one spot in the winners' enclosure.

Flemenstar's rise in the public affection stakes has been helped greatly by the charismatic and colourful Dub that trains him, and Peter Casey joked after the race: "I want some of this gate -- look at the crowd that was here!"

And if we thought there was a healthy stream through the turnstiles on Sunday last, with even more momentum now after that win and a possible meeting with our other leading Gold Cup candidate Sir Des Champs, we can only imagine how big a crowd Punchestown is likely to attract on the second Sunday of December for the Grade One John Durkan Memorial Chase.

In recent years, crowd figures for the John Durkan day at Punchestown have averaged around 2,500, while at the height of the Celtic Tiger, and when Kicking King was in his prime, it was up around 4,000.

We are a long way from the Celtic Tiger now, but judging by the crowd at Navan on Sunday and the mouth-watering prospect of Flemenstar clashing with Sir Des Champs, we might not be a long way from seeing 3,500-plus going through the gates at the Kildare track.

Punchestown will, of course, be the centre of attention this Sunday, as it hosts its first Grade One of the winter, and, after missing previous renewals, connections will be hoping that Hurricane Fly makes the line-up for the Morgiana Hurdle.

The former Champion Hurdle winner is reported to be back stronger than ever and there is little doubt that he will attract a strong crowd with the likes of Go Native and possibly Unaccompanied opposing.

There was almost an element of surprise in people's voices as they discussed how good a crowd was at Navan on Sunday, which is a real shame and sign of just how hard it is to get a crowd up off their backsides away from online betting and live coverage in their comfortable sitting rooms.

There probably shouldn't have been a surprise where last Sunday was concerned, though.

If you want to lure crowds through the gates on a cold winter's day, there is only one way to do it: with good old National Hunt stock.

Let's hope that's a trend we will see continue this coming Sunday.