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New chasing crop raises expectations of golden harvest

The wheel has turned for Irish hopes in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, says Ronan Groome

IN every sport there are cycles. Teams come and go, enjoying success for a period before slipping back into the shadows to rebuild.

When the seven-year-old War Of Attrition led home an Irish 1-2-3 in the 2006 Gold Cup, we thought a new period of dominance had begun, an era of Irish-trained Gold Cup horses. It didn't turn out that way. In fact, the opposite occurred and since that result there have only been nine Irish-trained horses deemed good enough to take their chance in Cheltenham's main event.

This season's renewal of the Irish Hennessy probably best identifies the weakness of our three-mile chaser division. After a lengthy gap of 16 years since Imperial Call won the Hennessy before going on to Gold Cup success, Quel Esprit led home a field that bore an uncanny resemblance to a midweek Grade Two event in Thurles three weeks previously. The omens didn't look good.

We would eventually end up with just two horses in the Gold Cup again, both priced at 100/1.

With success comes great expectations and the lack of a Gold Cup contender is a little disconcerting for the Irish racing fan, given the luxuries afforded in the other divisions.

But maybe the wheel is turning again as a look at next season's Cheltenham Festival ante-post lists -- the stimulator of excitement in National Hunt racing -- will fill you with optimism for the Irish Gold Cup challenge.

Sir Des Champs, First Lieutenant, Flemenstar and Last Instalment are all to the forefront of a new generation. A six-year-old and three seven-year-olds, with an accumulated total of just 21 runs over fences. The future looks bright.

But these sporting cycles don't just start by chance and, in the case of Irish jump racing, the game-changer has come in the form of Michael O'Leary's operation. The Ryanair boss has been Roman Abramovich-like in his pursuit of Gold Cup horses and is seeing the results of the strategy now -- three of the above-mentioned carry the Gigginstown colours.

Having seen his €100,000 take-it-or-leave-it offer for Simonsig turned down after the point-to-point bumper at the Fairyhouse Easter meeting last season, the offer was upped to €150,000 this year, only to be again politely declined. Who would bet against that offer reaching €200,000 next season?

"He's looking for fine big types who might develop into good staying chasers. If you had a horse and it wasn't 16.1 or 16.2 and couldn't carry the weight to run in a Gold Cup, then you wouldn't bother ringing him," said Last Instalment's trainer Philip Fenton.

Since winning the Gold Cup with War Of Attrition, it's all O'Leary has wanted and Irish trainers are reaping the benefits.

That Sir Des Champs was under the scrutiny of a Gold Cup favourite on only his fifth start over fences, as a novice and in his first Grade One, probably gives you an indication of the impression he has made. We didn't learn much more, only that he can stay and that Davy Russell can defy gravity when he needs to. The error at the last was due to complacency more than anything else and should not take away from another highly-satisfying performance.

First Lieutenant is O'Leary's most expensive purchase yet at €250,000. However, the son of Presenting has gone some way already towards repaying that fee. A Neptune Hurdle was merely a bonus for this fellow as he was always going to be a chaser. Produced in impeccable condition for the RSA Chase, the seven-year-old ran a cracker to be second to Bobs Worth and an extended Gold Cup distance would be right up his alley.

Last Instalment made his mark early in the season before succumbing to injury. Described by Fenton as "absolutely designed to jump fences," the seven-year-old is unbeaten over the larger obstacles. Not only that, he is a double Grade One winner.

Flemenstar joins the pack as another highly-exciting horse. After routing his rivals in a Grade One at Leopardstown at Christmas, Peter Casey said among other things that this was a Gold Cup horse.

Connections shrewdly swerved Cheltenham this time round and were rewarded by another breathtaking performance in the Powers Gold Cup. The sky is the limit.

These four are the new generation of Irish staying chasers. Out of the last five renewals of both the Lexus Chase and the Irish Hennessy, disappointingly the titles have stayed at home on only four occasions.

With the added presence of Quito De La Roque, Rubi Light and Pandorama back from the sidelines, this looks set to change next season. We are on the brink of a new cycle.

Sunday Indo Sport