Commander tops list in race for Gold
Irish-bred winners Imperial Commander and Denman plus dual-scorer Kauto Star -- odds-on to achieve an unprecedented fifth successive King George triumph at Kempton on Saturday -- stand head and shoulders above the 31 other horses entered for this year's Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Defending champion Imperial Commander, which landed the Betfair Chase on his seasonal return at Haydock, is shading favouritism at 4/1 with the major firms over French import Kauto Star (9/2), with last season's runner-up, Denman, on the 8/1 mark for the March 18 showdown.
The Tote promotion is worth a record £500,000 and any fond hopes of a successor emerging here to War Of Attrition as the most recent Irish-trained victor in 2006, could stand or fall after the Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown on February 6.
The Paddy Power firm, predictably, rate Noel Meade's stable star Pandorama as their 11/8 ante-post favourite for next month's renewal. The exciting stayer suffered his only defeat over fences in the Newbury version, before redeeming himself in the Lexus Chase at the Dublin course last month.
Last year's Hennessy hero at the Foxrock track, Joncol, and Pride Of Dulcote -- one of seven Cheltenham possibles from the all-conquering Paul Nicholls yard -- are the 9/2 joint-second market fancies ahead of Money Trix (8/1) and Cooldine (10/1).
Cooldine's stablemates Kempes (12/1) and Barker (14/1), back on the winning trail at Tramore, might take their chances in the Hennessy also before Willie Mullins decides whether to commit any of this trio to the Cheltenham challenge.
Pandorama, on offer generally at 16/1, and Henry de Bromhead's King George defector Sizing Europe on the 25/1 mark are regarded as the main Irish contenders ahead of Joncol and Cooldine for the Blue Riband in the Cotswolds.
"Pandorama will hopefully head to Cheltenham providing he's fit and well, though we wouldn't run him on good going. Good to soft ground would be OK and we'd love to run him in the Gold Cup," said Meade, whose star performer has yet to compete there.
Of the 34 entries, Irish owners and trainers are jointly responsible for nine of of them, with the seven-strong Nicholls team heading the home defence as he attempts to join the late Tom Dreaper on the record five-winner Gold Cup mark.
Meanwhile, Tony McCoy was in double form at Doncaster yesterday where the highlight of his brace was the impressive success of Local Hero in the juvenile hurdle. After only three starts on the level, trainer Steve Gollings wasted no time in sending Local Hero over timber and he followed up a debut win at Wetherby with the minimum of fuss, just as a 1/4 favourite should do.
The champion jockey was in the plate and was impressed enough to suggest a trip down to Cheltenham to test himself against better horses.
McCoy then teamed up with Rebecca Curtis to land the concluding bumper with Knockalongi.
Former Jim Bolger inmate Drive Time gave his current trainer, Howard Johnson, something to smile about with his debut victory in the second division of the novices' hurdle.
Winner of his only two races on the level for Bolger, he has not been the easiest to train, but came home three and three-quarter lengths clear of Gollings' Brunswick Gold.