Irish Cheltenham Gold Cup contenders and pretenders
On Saturday, two of the three remaining Irish-trained horses with legitimate claims on the Cheltenham Gold Cup will go toe-to- toe in the Hennessy edition at Leopardstown.
Flemenstar and Sir Des Champs never met before December, yet they are destined to cross swords for a third time in this country's most prestigious Grade One chase.
The €160,000 three-miler should facilitate another exciting encounter, and the evidence of the duo's Lexus skirmish over course and distance left the impression that Sir Des Champs, representing the all-conquering Willie Mullins, might be poised to outpoint the pride of Peter Casey's modest Tubbertown stable for a first time.
Still, for all that the Hennessy promises to be an occasion to savour, it will also inevitably be viewed as a trial for the blue riband equivalent in the Cotswolds in just over five weeks, even in the absence of First Lieutenant.
With four Grade Ones on the card, Saturday's exchanges in south Co Dublin have the potential to throw up a stack of other valuable Prestbury Park clues to boot.
Here, we evaluate the Cheltenham prospects of the leading Irish players.
Mouse Morris saddled War Of Attrition to a famous Gold Cup coup on the back of two straight defeats, so it would be folly to write off First Lieutenant – first and second at the last two Festivals – in next month's showpiece.
That said, First Lieutenant hasn't got his head in front in eight starts since November 2011. He also still has the option of the Ryanair Chase, as do Sir Des Champs, Flemenstar and Sizing Europe.
Sir Des Champs will be bidding for three-in-a-row at the Festival regardless of his target, but looks guaranteed to appreciate the Gold Cup trip.
Flemenstar doesn't, and the Ryanair may not appeal. Given his flamboyance and class, he would give Sprinter Sacre plenty to think about in the Champion Chase.
Sizing Europe could too, though it would be more understandable should the 11-year-old be diverted to the middle distance alternative. In the right races, all four would have the potential for glory.
China Rock, Rubi Light, Quel Esprit and Realt Dubh will struggle at championship level.
Hurricane Fly leads the way again, with three polished victories lending substance to Mullins' assertion that he's in a far better place this term.
However, prior to his tame Cheltenham defeat last March, he was no less impressive in the Irish Champion Hurdle than he was this time.
Mick Winters' good ground-loving Galway Hurdle hero Rebel Fitz is a dark horse of note, with Noel Meade's progressive Monksland worthy of immense respect in the World Hurdle. Three miles on good ground should be right up his street.
Of course, Quevega tends to just have to turn up for the Mares' Hurdle, which doesn't really fall into the category of 'championship event' in even the loosest interpretation of the phrase.
For all his ability, the sketchy-jumping Bog Warrior – in his element in the mud – doesn't appeal as Cheltenham material. He and Solwhit are World Hurdle options, but the latter would have far more appeal at Aintree.
A division in which we have plenty depth, with Jezki, Pont Alexandre and Ballycasey heading the markets for the three older horses' Grade Ones.
In terms of form, the claims of Jezki and Pont Alexandre are the most robust. Ballycasey is harder to evaluate, but he could do no more than he has in recording two stylish victories at low-key outposts.
Cause Of Causes, Un Atout, Rule The World and Rock Critic all have plenty going for them.
Don Cossack, Champagne Fever and Minsk haven't developed over flights. Mozoltov, Road To Riches and Defy Logic have, but, like many of the juveniles, may need testing going.
Back In Focus, unbeaten in three over fences, has a touch of the slows about him, but the RSA Chase often goes the way of modest sorts that simply jump and gallop relentlessly.
Lord Windermere should not be underestimated, as he has quality, is unexposed and would relish the step up in trip in the RSA. Tom Taaffe's Jewson-bound Argocat, so impressive at Limerick, is going in the right direction at the right time.
Boston Bob is pencilled in for Leopardstown on Saturday. Were he to convince here, he would fall into the contender category, but last year's Cheltenham runner-up wasn't convincing on his Navan fencing bow.
Aupcharlie has developed a knack of losing races he should win and Cheltenham's trappy undulations won't play to Arvika Ligeonniere's strengths. A similar comment applies to Benefficient, Lyreen Legend, and Tofino Bay, while Oscars Well just hasn't taken that well to fences.