Denman to show class
Familiar to the majority of jumping fans as 'The Tank', 2008 Gold Cup hero Denman and 2006 Cheltenham victor War Of Attrition, which have done Irish breeding proud, clash for the last time at Punchestown this afternoon in what promises to be a vintage renewal of the Guinness Gold Cup.
While this €225,000 contest is bound to prove an emotional swan song for the connections and fans of the Mouse Morris stable star, Denman will be the main focus of attention on only his second racecourse appearance here.
Transferred to the Paul Nicholls yard after a debut point-to-point success in his native Cork, the imposing son of Presenting won as an odds-on favourite should win when returning in late December, 2007.
That occasion was the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown where Ruby Walsh guided the hotpot to a convincing victory over Mossbank before Sam Thomas took over in the saddle for the gelding's Cheltenham triumph.
Since then, the career of Denman has been a story of highs and lows, with Hennessy Gold Cup wins under top weight interspersed with less memorable displays around Kempton and more recently at Newbury.
But the initial, inauspicious foray with Tony McCoy aboard in the build-up to another March showdown with Kauto Star and company was put firmly in the shade when they were second in the Cheltenham showpiece.
So it is on to the Kildare course today for Denman's new challenge in an end-of-season event being staged on watered ground that may not be ideal for the 10-year-old, or indeed for last year's winner Notre Pere.
Though there could be question marks too going-wise over Joncol in his bid to land a third Grade One of the campaign for Paul Nolan's yard, the conditions won't be any bother for the Willie Mullins pair Cooldine and J'y Vole.
The other English raiders Planet Of Sound and Barbers Shop in particular have been proving costly to follow and it's not easy either to visualise former festival winners here Rare Bob or Tranquil Sea springing a surprise.
While there's unlikely to be a dream ending to War Of Attrition's brilliant career on his 35th appearance, it's surely the right decision to bow out in this Guinness promotion as the horse is best know as a 'chaser.
Reinvigorated over timber during the winter, Davy Russell's mount could make the frame here on the type of terrain on which he prospered around Cheltenham and twice at this fixture in the past.
The other top-flight race this evening is the Paddy Power Champion Bumper, which could unearth some valuable pointers to future stars as 18 hopefuls set out to emulate Cousin Vinny and Dunguib in the past two years.
Guinness Gold Cup (5.30)
Last year's impressive winner in the mud, Notre Pere and War Of Attrition, which completed the Cheltenham-Punchestown Gold Cup double in 2006, may have to take a back seat this time as Denman makes a rare Irish sortie.
While Barbers Shop and Planet Of Sound have made the journey from England as well, ante-post favourite Denman is a much more likely scorer for a stable that hit the jackpot with Neptune Collonges in 2007 and 2008.
A strict interpretation of their Cheltenham clash suggests Denman will again have the edge over Cooldine which, however, looked as though today's slightly shorter trip and probable less hectic pace will both be more to his liking.
A dual Grade One victor this season, including over two and a half miles here in December, Joncol is another member of the home defence that merits the utmost respect along with Ryanair Chase third J'y Vole.
The ratings would suggest that there is little between this particular pair and the fastest ground which Joncol has encountered could militate against his chances as well as the distance possibly stretching his stamina.
In the heel of the hunt, I won't be surprised if the presumed front-runner Denman, Cooldine and J'y Vole sort themselves out from the remainder into the closing stages and the favourite could take catching.
Verdict: Denman holds the key.
Paddy Power Champion bumper (6.05)
Tavern Times, which was fourth in the Cheltenham equivalent after a less than satisfactory preparation, could be the one to progress most from that event, in which the well-backed Shot From The Hip ran far too free.
Hidden Universe had a rough passage in that contest and showed his true form again when landing the odds readily at Limerick, while promising English raider Caught By Witness should make the frame also.
Verdict: Tavern Times is the pick.