Sizing John spearheads Irish assault on Gold Cup
If this year's Cheltenham Gold Cup doesn't throw up an Irish-trained winner, it won't be for the want of trying.
The blue riband of chasing has attracted a record 18 entries from this side of the Irish Sea - just less than half of the 38 listed yesterday in the initial field. Last year's winner Sizing John and ante-post favourite Might Bite, from the Nicky Henderson yard, are the headline acts.
The Jessica Harrington-trained Sizing John was an impressive winner of the three-and-a-quarter-mile contest last season and made a spectacular seasonal return in the John Durkan Memorial Punchestown Chase.
However, he is a general 6/1 shot to defend his crown at Prestbury Park after a disappointing showing in the Christmas Chase at Leopardstown.
Other hopefuls from these shores include dual runner-up Djakadam, which is one of five entries for Willie Mullins as he bids to win the race for the first time.
Ladbrokes Trophy winner Total Recall is another potential challenger for the champion trainer who has opted not to enter Yorkhill.
Noel Meade's Christmas Chase winner Road To Respect, his high-class stablemate Disko, Harrington's Irish Grand National winner Our Duke and the Eddie Harty-trained Coney Island are other possible raiders.
Coney Island was sidelined for almost a year after splitting Our Duke and Disko in the Neville Hotels Novice Chase at Leopardstown, but made an impressive return in a graduation chase at Ascot last month.
Harty has also given his charge an entry in the Ryanair Chase at Cheltenham and his Festival target is likely to become clear after his next run, at either Ascot or Leopardstown in February.
"I was delighted with Coney Island at Ascot. He has come out of it fit and well, and is ready to go again," said the Curragh handler.
"He has been entered for the Gold Cup and the Ryanair Chase, and will also have entries in the Irish Gold Cup on February 4 and the Ascot Chase a fortnight later. We'll go for one of those two and then make a decision about which race to aim for at Cheltenham."
Harty added: "I think the Gold Cup picture looks as much as it did before Christmas. Might Bite did nothing wrong, Sizing John did, but that might have been down to the proximity of his prep race, and nothing else really came to the fore."
Might Bite is the 7/2 market-leader to provide Henderson with his third Gold Cup triumph, to add to the wins of Long Run in 2011 and Bobs Worth in 2013. The nine-year-old, winner of the RSA Chase at last year's Festival, was last seen winning the King George VI Chase on St Stephen's Day.
Mark Bradstock's 2015 Gold Cup hero Coneygree is in the mix once more, while Colin Tizzard could call upon Native River, which has not been seen since finishing third in last year's renewal, and the popular veteran Cue Card.
Others on the home team include the Nigel Twiston-Davies-trained pair of Bristol De Mai and Blaklion and last year's runner up Minella Rocco, trained by Jonjo O'Neill.
Subscribe to The Left Wing, Independent.ie's Rugby podcast, with Luke Fitzgerald and Will Slattery for the best discussion and analysis each week. From in depth interviews with some of Irish rugby's biggest stars to unmatched insights into the provinces and the national team, The Left Wing has all your rugby needs covered.