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China holds rock solid appeal in showpiece

Last year's runner-up Cooldine has joined original ante-post favourite Pride Of Dulcote and David Pipe's Madison Du Berlais on the absentee list for this afternoon's delayed Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown -- and could be on the sidelines for the rest of the season.

A rare wind infirmity, only diagnosed on Thursday, left his champion trainer Willie Mullins with no option but to withdraw the 2009 RSA Chase hero at the Cheltenham Festival, which was due to carry the same Cork county colours as four-time Hennessy victor Florida Pearl.

Now the Closutton handler relies solely on year-younger Kempes under David Casey, most recently victorious for the stable with Rule Supreme in 2005, in a bid to land the yard's seventh triumph in the 21st renewal of the prestige Hennessy promotion being staged six days late.

The advance going for this traditional highlight of the winter schedule at the Dublin course, which was waterlogged last Sunday, was amended early yesterday afternoon to heavy, soft to heavy in places.

Those conditions underfoot should be ideal for surviving English raiders Money Trix and 2008 winner The Listener, which were second and fifth respectively to Pandorama over this route in the Lexus Chase after Christmas.

But last year's scorer Joncol, which likewise is very much at home with the emphasis on stamina, and China Rock, in the hands of Pandorama's regular partner Paul Carberry, hopefully won't give best without offering stern resistance in the centrepiece of a card that invariably delights jumping fans.

The three other Grade One races down for decision today also appear quite competitive, even if the many followers of the flourishing Mullins-Paul Townend partnership are bound to be trading at cramped odds once more as London-based Susannah Ricci's French imports Mikael D'Haguenet and Zaidpour in turn attempt to atone for below-par efforts here after Christmas behind Realt Dubh and First Lieutenant.

The opening Tote Spring Juvenile Hurdle, for which Paul Nicholls, perhaps significantly, saddles the well-regarded Indian Daudaie, and the Raymond Smith Memorial Hunters Chase might provide some significant pointers too towards Cheltenham fare next month.

Hennessy Gold Cup, 3.15

Televised live on Channel 4 now, this 21st anniversary affair pits veteran English mudlarks Money Trix and The Listener against a home defence that has been weakened by the enforced absences of Cooldine and decisive Lexus Chase winner Pandorama, in particular.

While advancing years haven't proved a barrier to success in this top-flight contest in the recent past, Joncol, China Rock, Kempes and perhaps, extra competitor Glencove Marina, between them might frustrate the renewed ambitions of the regular Irish raiders.

It's no surprise at this juncture that the towering Joncol will start favourite to repeat last year's victory, which he recorded following a keen duel with Cooldine after Money Trix failed to make an impact, but was later discovered to have sustained a minor injury.

Seasonal debutant Money Trix and Joncol were unable to pose a real threat to Pandorama in the Lexus Chase, in which Kempes unseated Tony McCoy after a blunder two out, whereas China Rock was far from disgraced when a close third to Kauto Star at Down Royal in early November.

Verdict: China Rock appeals each-way.

Tote Spring Juvenile Hurdle, 1.10

Though no match for unbeaten Local Hero on his English debut at Cheltenham recently, Indian Daudaie, which had decent runs also in his native France, can provide a guide to the corresponding British form as he tackles impressive domestic debut winners Unaccompanied and Louisville Lip.

Sailors Warn had Fearless Falcon, Toner D'Oudairies and Kalann behind when opening his jumping account in style over this route after Christmas and any repeat of that much-improved performance would make him a key player this time.

Verdict: Indian Daudaie looks worth a bet.

Dr P J Moriarty Novice Chase, 1.45

Willie Mullins, who has won the past three renewals has greatly strengthened his hand this time by declaring November's runaway Limerick winner Quel Esprit as well as Mikael D'Haguenet, which reportedly gave every satisfaction when schooled around Punchestown recently.

Bostons Angel, over three miles after Christmas, and Magnanimity, more recently at this distance, demonstrated admirable battling qualities when recording surprise victories here and those sterling displays may have left a legacy which the market principals could exploit.

Verdict: Mikael D'Haguenet to outpace Quel Esprit.

Deloitte Novice Hurdle, 2.45

The same 10 runners as listed last Sunday have survived for what is usually a key Cheltenham trial that went to Dunguib 12 months ago. We have another hopot this time, despite the shock defeat Zaidpour suffered over the minimum trip here 45 days ago.

Contained narrowly then by First Lieutenant following a rather sluggish performance, Zaidpour is said by connections to be coming here in better fettle generally and the expectation is that the Red Ransom gelding will get back on the winning trail and book his Cheltenham ticket.

The going won't be any help to the highly regarded, fluent maiden hurdle scorers Hidden Universe and Old McDonald, but these expected demanding ground conditions won't be a negative for the likes of hat-trick seeker Oscars Well and Shot From The Hip.

Verdict: Don't desert Zaidpour.

Irish Independent