This afternoon's line-up for Leopardstown's talismanic Hennessy Gold Cup could hardly stand accused of representing its finest vintage.
Arguably our two finest staying chasers – Sir Des Champs and Flemenstar (which finished first and second in the race last year) – have both been side-lined to injury, while Lexus winner Bobs Worth is being prepared for his defence of the Gold Cup through a more reticent routine around home at Seven Barrows. The withdrawal of fascinating French recruit Rubi Ball, which had run so promisingly in the Lexus, diluted the field further.
However, it is likely the absence of some of steeplechasing's finest that has copperfastened the attendance of the two market leaders, First Lieutenant and Tidal Bay.
First Lieutenant is breaking the habit of a lifetime by turning up at this fixture. The Mouse Morris (pictured) policy of Christmas at Leopardstown then straight to the Festival in March has served the gelding well the last three years with a win in the Neptune and runner-up in both the RSA and Ryanair. His preference for spring weather, better ground and a freshness in his step have collectively underwritten the policy, but this year it is the absence of others that make the Hennessy too good to miss. Interestingly, First Lieutenant has never actually won a chase at the Foxrock venue even though he has finished runner-up in the Lexus (twice) and the Topaz from just three attempts.
First Lieutenant's small-margin conqueror in last season's Lexus over course and distance was, of course, Tidal Bay. I say 'of course' because few who witnessed the finish of the race are ever likely to forget it, with less than a length covering the first four horses at the post. Tidal Bay's declaration for today was doubtless in no small way influenced by the unscheduled availability of Ruby Walsh for the ride.
At 13, Tidal Bay has more guises than Benedict Cumberbatch. His early clockwork reliability (won or finished second in his first 17 career starts) was exchanged for a Jekyll & Hyde persona which yielded just one from 19 over four seasons and had punters perennially guessing which Tidal Bay was going to turn up. It is seven years since Tidal Bay was narrowly defeated in the Ballymore Properties at the Festival; and six since he won the Arkle.
The switch to Paul Nicholls, in what should have been the twilight of any horse's career, slowly brought about a revitalising effect. Since then racing's Benjamin Button has won a Bet 365 Gold Cup under top-weight, two West Yorkshire Hurdles and a Lexus while finishing runner-up in a Hennessy at Newbury trying to give the future Gold Cup winner 6lbs.
However, remarkably, the highest rated effort of his entire career came in his last outing just four days before his 13th birthday. On the 41st career start, Tidal Bay just fell short of giving 26lbs to Mountainous and Hawkes Point in the Welsh Grand National off a mark of 163 under 11-12.
So, technically in the form of his elongated life at present, with Ruby Walsh up, at a course where he is 1-1 on soft-to-heavy ground – what's not to like? No 13-year-old has ever won the Hennessy. Beef Or Salmon won it at 11. Florida Pearl at 12. Fortunately, horses neither count the years, nor read statistics. Evergreens like Tidal Bay forever brighten racing's canvas and, as it's likely the last time we will see jumping's Dorian Gray on these shores, his appearance will rightly put a few hundred more on the gate today.
The Hennessy also provides a couple of other interesting angles. Hardy stalwarts First Lieutenant and Tidal Bay are justifiably greatly favoured in the market today over the crop of last-season novices – Lord Windermere, Lyreen Legend and Texas Jack. All three sophomores finished in a pile in the PJ Moriarty at last year's fixture behind Boston Bob and Lord Windermere went on to win the RSA at Cheltenham from Lyreen Legend, but in truth the Class of 2013 has come up woefully short against their elders thus far this season.
Perhaps the most intriguing runner of the whole party is Last Instalment, a contemporary of First Lieutenant and under the same ownership. He actually defeated First Lieutenant by six lengths in the Topaz two seasons ago before incurring an injury that forced him to miss all last season. His reappearance run behind Texas Jack at Thurles was satisfactory at the very least, and even though he is nine, the Anshan gelding still has only 10 career runs to his name.
If there is still to be a major shake-up to the Gold Cup market, then a Last Instalment victory this afternoon (can still be backed at 50/1 for the Gold Cup) would certainly provide it.
In an interesting jockey-go-round aside, Last Instalment was unbeaten in four chases in his novice year, yet stable jockey Davy Russell chose to partner a different Gigginstown horse on two occasions. Today, new Gigginstown appointee Bryan Cooper, faced with a similar dilemma, has opted for First Lieutenant, a decision that cannot have been easy and indeed would have been made even more difficult given his allegiance to First Lieutenant after their pulsating Betfred Bowl victory at Aintree when deputising for Russell.
Cooper has already shown himself an astute judge in this situation with a similarly challenging decision in choosing Trifolium over better-fancied Mozoltov in the Arkle a fortnight ago. The additional spice is that deposed Davy Russell is now free to partner Lord Windermere today for the first time since their combined victory at Cheltenham. Oh, and Barry Geraghty steps in for the ride on Lyreen Legend that Cooper would have ridden had he not taken up the O'Leary offer...
There may only be seven runners but there are more angles to this year's Hennessy than a Terry Griffiths safety shot.