This afternoon, Leopardstown hosts its flagship race meeting featuring four Grade One races, headlined by the anchor Hennessy Gold Cup. Since Forgive And Forget won at its inception as the Vincent O'Brien Gold Cup in 1987, the race has positioned itself as de facto the most prestigious staying chase on the calendar.
Its roll of honour stands up to the closest quality inspection with names like Carvill's Hill, Jodami, Imperial Call, Danoli, Dorans Pride, Alexander Banquet, Florida Pearl and Beef Or Salmon recalling some pulsating memories offered by some of the best-loved steeplechasers of our generation.
The public thrives on a diet of champions so when Tony McCoy said last week that "there is no superstar" in the field, it may be true in the context of the giants whose shoulders the current crop are resting on -- but while there may be no Kauto Star or Denman in the field the race has a few angles of fascination all its own.
Firstly, the history of the race is characterised by dual or multiple winners and last year's winner Joncol is bidding to join an elite that includes Jodami, Florida Pearl, Beef Or Salmon and Carvill's Hill.
The presence of English challenger Pride Of Dulcote adds spice to the flavour as many of the others have met before over course and distance. Most of these are known quantities while the Nicholls runner still has plenty of intrigue. On the other end of the scale, The Listener -- evergreen at 12 -- had this race in the bag way back in 2007 but had his name robbed from the honours-list when nailed on the line by Beef Or Salmon. In addition, Paul Nicholls won the race as a jockey -- hard to imagine him doing light these days -- on Playschool back in 1988 and is bidding to become the first to complete the trainer-jockey double.
Strangely enough for a race of such pedigree, few winners have gone on to victory at the Cheltenham equivalent, illustrating how three miles through deep February ground in Foxrock is an altogether different soup to the challenge awaiting in the Cotswolds in five weeks.
Ratings for the race today provide even more to ponder as Racing Post Ratings has the entire field within an 11lbs band; and nine of the 10 runners within 6lbs. So based on the numbers at least, a tight contest can be anticipated.
Of course theory doesn't always do practice, but one thing pretty certain is that The Listener is going to set off on his customary merry dance routine to capitalise on his jumping strength and test the agility of others. He lasted until the second last in the Lexus over Christmas before being engulfed and might last a little longer on his second outing back from a break. Whether he still has the elements at 12 to win it, however, is unlikely. However, his influence will mean -- particularly in light of the recent rain -- that stamina will be success's chief ingredient.
Although Joncol has the Grade One John Durkan and Hennessy already on his CV from only 12 career starts, he still has a 'king in waiting' feel about him and everything seems set up for him to run very close this afternoon. Heavy ground holds no fear for the giant gelding which should encounter his optimum conditions. In addition, trainer Paul Nolan was unhappy with the horse's preparation for the Lexus where he still managed to finish third to Pandorama. The trainer has been delighted, by contrast, on the run-up to the Hennessy and with the tea leaves signalling the possibility of a career-best, he has to be a major player.
Market rival and fellow eight-year-old Pride Of Dulcote has a parallel profile and is even more unexposed as a chaser. While the gargantuan Joncol never even ran over hurdles (probably too tall to see them), Pride Of Dulcote was pretty handy in that discipline, only losing out on Cheltenham Festival glory to subsequent RSA Chase winner Weapon's Amnesty.
His novice chase campaign had to be shelved due to a leg injury after just one win at Worcester. However, his trainer has always considered him (to quote his Betfair blog) "a top-class prospect" and we can only assume Nicholls knows a top-class one when he sees it.
According to the trainer, his Newbury comeback win where he defeated last March's RSA favourite Punchestowns was "his first real gallop" and he expects Pride Of Dulcote to "come on enormously" for the run. With such positive rhetoric from the champion trainer, it is easy to see why his horse heads the market. However, having not seen enough in Newbury's fog to assess his jumping technique, I suggest it will be some achievement for a horse which has only beaten five rivals over fences in his life to better some of the hardiest annuals in Ireland in their own back yard.
Moreover, connections claim he loves soft ground, but there is soft ground and there is Irish heavy. The only time Pride Of Dulcote has run on official heavy ground was in a two-horse race at 1/12 around Wincanton.
Kempes has come in for strong support all week but for me the rain has done for his chance as his most compelling victory over fences was significantly achieved on good ground at the Punchestown Festival.
With the Mullins yard in the form of its life, however, Cooldine bears the closest scrutiny in the context of today.
A somewhat fallen hero, he was quoted in single figures for the following year's Gold Cup when scooting away with the 2009 RSA Chase by 16 lengths. However, he has not paid a win dividend again since, and is in danger of becoming last year's blonde. Nonetheless, he was beaten just a quarter of a length by Joncol in the corresponding event last year and there are valid reasons to excuse his two runs this season.
His John Durkan re-introduction was over an inadequate trip and after being forced to go too fast there he was forced again to reappear just 13 days later in the Lexus, which was far from ideal. Jockey Paul Townend sensibly pulled the horse up after his chance had evaporated in the straight; that kindness and a six-week sabbatical should mean he is cherry-ripe today.
Furthermore, his record in February during the last four seasons reads 1-1-1-2 on ground quoted as either soft or heavy. His apparent "decline" simply doubles his price this afternoon and he reflects the value in the race at 7/1.
Sunday Indo Sport