Flemenstar set for Punchestown
Martin star ready for round four of rivalry with Sir Des Champs
The fourth instalment of the most absorbing Irish steeplechasing rivalry in recent times looks set to go ahead on Sunday after Tony Martin revealed that Flemenstar will endeavour to reassert his superiority over Sir Des Champs in the John Durkan Memorial Chase.
"At this stage the intention is that he will run at Punchestown on Sunday," the Co Meath whiz said. "I've been happy with him since Navan. We will give him some work (today) and take it from there."
When the duo first touched gloves in the two-and-a-half-mile Grade One a year ago, Flemenstar, then trained by Peter Casey, slammed Willie Mullins' eventual Cheltenham Gold Cup runner-up with his then trademark poise.
The bold-jumping front-runner had the benefit of race-fitness over Sir Des Champs following a superlative reappearance triumph in the Fortria Chase, and the circumstances are almost identical this time, notwithstanding that Flemenstar's fencing lacked its usual efficiency on his recent debut for Martin at Navan.
When they next squared off in the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown last Christmas, both were thwarted by Tidal Bay's last-gasp flourish under an inspired Ruby Walsh.
The three-mile journey ultimately proved incompatible with Flemenstar's flamboyant style of racing and while he again finished a place in front of Sir Des Champs, there was a sense that Davy Russell's mount was a work in progress as he stayed on purposefully to be denied just a short-head for third.
That impression was confirmed in decisive fashion when the Gigginstown House Stud-owned seven-year-old finally came out on top of the exchange in the Hennessy Gold Cup back at Leopardstown en route to Cheltenham.
Thereafter, their changing fortunes were further crystallised when Flemenstar (below) was ruled out of the Prestbury Park Festival due to a lung infection, before being put firmly in his place by Sprinter Sacre on his Aintree return.
Sir Des Champs' gallant Gold Cup second to Bobs Worth was followed by a fine victory over Long Run and First Lieutenant at Punchestown, a comprehensive performance in trying conditions that suggested the less flashy gelding was still on the upgrade.
Right now, Flemenstar cannot be said to be displaying the same stability, for all that Paddy Power make him the 5/4 favourite to take advantage of Sir Des Champs' (5/2) 228-day lay-off.
The eight-year-old underwent surgery to correct his breathing during the off-season, and then his owner Stephen Curran opted not to return him to Casey.
Flemenstar duly won his first race since last year's Durkan on his Navan return, but his deliberate fencing under Andrew Lynch raised questions as to where exactly he is at right now.
As such, this latest encounter between the two heavyweight bruisers ought to be hugely informative, with the participation of Mullins' improving mud-lover Arvika Ligeonniere under Ruby Walsh pitching a compelling unknown into the equation.
Another strong-travelling force of nature, the triple Grade One-winning novice is a 5/2 shot to emerge on top following his facile reappearance at Clonmel, though the prospect of good ground won't help his cause.
Still, the €80,000 contest has the makings of a vintage affair, with Gordon Elliott's recent JNWine.com victor Roi Du Mee also among the 10 entries.
Both Arvika Ligeonniere and Flemenstar are also among 12 in Sunday's Hilly Way Chase at Cork, though the two-mile Grade Three is understood to be merely a contingency option for both.
Of more relevance is that Flemenstar has not been entered in the Dial-A-Bet Chase over the minimum trip at Leopardstown this Christmas.
He remains in the Lexus on December 28 and Kempton's King George VI Chase, which corroborates the theory that another tilt at three miles is very much on the agenda. Mullins is still likely to be well represented at the Mallow track, with last year's Champion Bumper hero Briar Hill among those pencilled in for the Grade Three Kerry Group Novice Hurdle over three miles.
The champion trainer, who has revealed that Boston Bob will be trained with the World Hurdle in mind after suffering a minor setback, has also given his exciting novice chaser Felix Yonger an entry in the two-mile novice chase at Navan on Saturday, when Charles Byrnes' classy Trifolium and Noel Meade's Ned Buntline could form part of the opposition.
Meanwhile, Andy Stewart, part-owner of Paul Nicholls' Hennessy Gold Cup runner-up Rocky Creek, has reiterated that his progressive seven-year-old will be aimed at the Lexus.
There was less good news for Invictus, as Alan King stated that his luckless chaser has again broken down badly on his first run back for 21 months in the Newbury Hennessy Gold Cup, an injury that looks sure to end the talented seven-year-old's racing career.