Morris leads Irish charge for Gold with Lieutenant
All of eight years after masterminding the last successful Irish raid on the Cheltenham Gold Cup, Mouse Morris again looks set to lead the cross-channel charge for jump racing's elusive Holy Grail with Festival mainstay First Lieutenant.
The famously shrewd Fethard, Co Tipperary-based general is renowned for his ability to prime a horse for the big day and, at odds of 12/1, the Gold Cup sponsors Betfred rate his dual Lexus Chase runner-up the clear pick of the 11 Irish entries that were unveiled among a total of 36 for this year's showpiece on March 14.
Having conquered the subsequent Champion Hurdle hero Rock On Ruby in the 2011 Neptune Novices' Hurdle, First Lieutenant has twice hit the crossbar at the spectacular four-day gala in the Cotswolds, chasing home the reigning Gold Cup victor Bobs Worth in the 2012 RSA Chase and then filling the runner-up berth behind Cue Card in the Ryanair Chase last year.
At Leopardstown last month, Bobs Worth again thwarted the frustrating Presenting nine-year-old in emphatic fashion in the Lexus and Nicky Henderson's star is a top-priced 9/4 favourite to retain his crown come March. Barry Geraghty's mount had been cut from 5/2 to 2/1 after last year's second Sir Des Champs was sensationally ruled out for the season by Willie Mullins on Friday, so his current offering represents a slight easing of that stance.
The Colin Tizzard-trained Cue Card is third best in the ante-post list at 8/1, with his Noel Fehily-ridden King George VI Chase conqueror Silviniaco Conti the favourite's main market rival at 7/2. For all that the loss of the dual Festival winner Sir Des Champs' was a severe blow to the prospects of the raiders' Gold Cup drought coming to an end, Michael O'Leary's maroon and white Gigginstown's silks -- which War Of Attrition carried to glory for Morris in 2006 -- could still be sported by up to five horses in the sport's blue riband event.
Most intriguingly, First Lieutenant, such a breathtaking Aintree Grade One scorer in April and always at his best in the spring, could be joined by the long-absent Last Instalment (50/1). Philip Fenton revealed in these pages yesterday that his former top-class novice would tackle the Kinloch Brae Chase at Thurles this day week ahead of a potentially mouth-watering clash with Morris' charge in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown on February 9.
Last Instalment will also get an entry for the two-mile-five-furlong Ryanair Chase, likewise an option for First Lieutenant again. Still, having run First Lieutenant in the meeting's newest championship event last year to allow the Gigginstown contingent be spread out to best effect, Morris will doubtless be anxious to shoot for the stars this time.
In truth, having First Lieutenant and Last Instalment fit for battle in March could be absolutely crucial to any hope of an Irish winner. Now in its 90th year, the gruelling £550,000 three-and-a-quarter-mile feature has been brought this way by 13 Irish-based handlers on 21 occasions and Morris is the only one with an entry who has won it before.
After last year's gallant second, champion trainer Willie Mullins has put Boston Bob, Rubi Ball and Arvika Ligeonniere in this time.
However, each can be backed at upwards of 25/1, while Ruby Walsh suggested yesterday that recent Punchestown winner Boston Bob will remain over hurdles.
The other Irish entries are freely available at 50/1 or more, with Jim Culloty's 2013 RSA victor Lord Windermere leading the non-Gigginstown contingent, which is completed by Gordon Elliot's King George fourth Mount Benbulben and Dessie Hughes' Lyreen Legend.
As well as Bobs Worth, Henderson could also run his out-of-form 2011 winner Long Run, and Silviniaco Conti's handler Paul Nicholls has a similarly formidable hand with the King George third Al Ferof among his five contenders.
If consolation will be needed in the aftermath of jump racing's ultimate prize, there is a live chance that it will be immediately provided in the amateur riders' equivalent, the Christies Foxhunters' Chase. Rodger Sweeney and his son Colman have combined to plunder the prestigious hunter chase for the past two years with Salsify and the wily handler intends to follow a familiar route in his quest to complete an unprecedented hat-trick for his East Cork stable in Castlelyons.
"He's fine and came out of the race at Down Royal okay," Sweeney said of Salsify's reappearance third behind On The Fringe and Tammy's Hill, two more leading Foxhunters' candidates. "He had two very good horses in front of him. It was his first run of the season and he should improve. He'll go back to Leopardstown now (February 9) and then it will be back to Cheltenham for the defence."