The five best Irish jumpers
No other horse carries quite so much expectation into the new campaign, as Joncol's mission statement is clear -- win the 2011 Cheltenham Gold Cup. When he landed the Hennessy Gold Cup in February, many felt that he had earned the right to tackle the big guns the following month. Paul Nolan, however, decided that his towering star needed more time. Joncol may not be expected to win on his return over two miles tomorrow, but this is his year. That much is certain.
Rarely would a horse that has not run for over a year make a list like this, but Mikael D'Haguenet's absence since May 2009 is not due to any serious injury. Having been under the weather around this time last season, a couple of further niggles eventually prompted the champion trainer to draw stumps rather than introduce him in the spring. As a result, when the three-time Grade One winner reappears over fences shortly, he will do so with his novice status intact.
Gets in here at the expense of Sizing Europe, Captain Cee Bee and Forpadydeplasterer but, at seven, is the youngest and least exposed of that bunch. Beaten just once, by Mikael D'Haguenet, in nine starts, Pandorama rounded off his novice chasing season with a Grade One triumph over the subsequent Cheltenham winner Weapon's Amnesty at Christmas. Victory today would set him up for the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury, a race that has no Irish winner on its roll of honour since 1980. High time that changed.
Last March Big Zeb became the first Irish-trained horse since 2007 to secure one of Cheltenham's championship events, so Colm Murphy's reigning champion chaser will be the centre of attention tomorrow. If you discount his below-par run in the Tingle Creek a year ago, since April 2008 Big Zeb has been beaten on only one occasion when he has stayed on his feet, going under to Master Minded by a head at Punchestown in 2009 after splitting the last fence. He looks the finished article now.
Having missed two successive festivals, everything will be geared towards getting this brilliant hurdler to Prestbury Park next March. At Punchestown in April, Hurricane Fly overcame a worrying injury that had kept him off the track since November to record a stunning victory over Solwhit, a horse he could meet again next week. That result confirmed him the best hurdler in the country, so Cheltenham, and Binocular, are what it's all about now.