Flemenstar evokes spirit of Sutherland
In a week which saw the Irish jump-racing community bid a final farewell to Fergie Sutherland, it is apt that another small-scale operation will initiate its Gold Cup odyssey.
Back in 1996, Sutherland -- who received a moving send-off in Bandon -- brought our Gold Cup drought to an end in sensational style. Ten years after Dawn Run's immortal climb to glory, the veteran West Cork-based handler saddled Imperial Call to a famous victory.
By the time this season's Prestbury Park showpiece begins, seven years will have passed since Conor O'Dwyer's equally composed triumph on War Of Attrition. It has been a hopelessly barren spell for our representatives at the top of the staying chasing division, but there is a sense that might be about to change.
Few signify that hope more than Flemenstar, the bold-jumping chaser that demolished all that crossed its path in a spectacular novice campaign for Peter Casey's modest Tubbertown stable. Beaten by Bog Warrior on its seasonal bow this time last year, he signed off with five successive wins, including his Powers Gold Cup rout at Fairyhouse.
Up to two and half miles on all sorts of ground, Flemenstar -- and pilot Andrew Lynch -- became untouchable. In Navan this Sunday, the partnership is expected to take the first step on a precarious journey that has the Cotswold Grade One as its ambitious end-goal.
The Grade Two Fortria Chase is over the minimum trip, but it is an ideal starting point for such a versatile animal. And for all that the prospect of a clash with three-time winner and former Champion Chaser Big Zeb would rank as a proper test on a first foray against senior opposition, Flemenstar's stated objective is the Gold Cup.
The Willie Mullins-trained Sir Des Champs -- pencilled in for its return in Punchestown's John Durkan Memorial on December 9 -- is the ante-post favourite for the big race on March 15, but Flemenstar is the one with all the romantic potential. His colourful handler has already endeared himself to the masses and his owner Stephen Curran has rejected many offers to sell, just as Imperial Call's owners Lisselan Farms did 16 years ago.
He has dared to dream. Gold Cup horses aren't easily come by, but, if last term's rare sub-par renewal hadn't already confirmed as much, Kauto Star's retirement last Wednesday, the day of Sutherland's passing, formalised the vacancy for a new star.
The exceptional dual holder and his nemesis Denman have moved onto pastures new, while the 2012 hero Synchronised met a fatal end at Aintree. Long Run, successful in 2011, still lurks, but cut a distinctly more mortal figure throughout last season.
While wins either side of the Irish Sea on Saturday for Kauto Stone and fellow Paul Nicholls-trained Silviniaco Conti were the first markers laid down, neither did enough to shake up the big-race markets. Apart from Long Run, Nicky Henderson has still to unleash the likes of Bobs Worth and Riverside Theatre.
He could yet hold a formidable hand, but an emerging collective that includes Flemenstar, Sir Des Champs, Last Instalment, First Lieutenant and Hidden Cyclone makes for a national assault of considerable merit. The sorting process effectively begins in earnest at Navan, which also stages the Lismullen hurdle.
Colm Murphy's Voler La Vedette heads the 10 entries for the event which has also attracted Willie Mullins' So Young. Nicky Henderson's former smart novice, Mossley, bounced back to his early form on his second run for Robbie Hennessy and could step up in class, while Noel Meade has two possibles in Donnas Palm and Prima Vista.
Meanwhile, there was no joy for the Irish raiders in France yesterday. Eddie Lynam's Viztoria and David Nagle's Maarek, each sent off favourite for their respective Group Twos, both performed admirably to finish second.
Viztoria appeared to have every chance of landing a first Pattern-race victory under Johnny Murtagh, but she was beaten a length by Penny's Picnic, while the David Wachman-trained Three Sea Captains was fourth.
Having been held up by Seamie Heffernan, Maarek finished well, but was beaten half a length by Myasun.