With her new star Sizing John confirmed as a contender for the Cheltenham Gold Cup, Jessica Harrington's focus switches to her stalwart performer Jezki who will put his own festival credentials on the line at Gowran on Saturday.
The 2014 Champion Hurdle hero returned to action after more than 20 months on the sidelines with a smooth success at Navan recently and is on target to line up in this weekend's Red Mills Trial Hurdle over two miles.
On the back of the removal of the last two winners, Annie Power and Faugheen, from current championship betting lists, Jezki is as low as 6-1 to regain the crown he memorably secured three years ago.
However, the eight-time Grade One winner is a general 6-1 shot for the Stayers’ Hurdle too and prior to his injury layoff Jezki boasted a memorable defeat of his old rival Hurricane Fly over three miles at the 2015 Punchestown festival.
“We will have to see what happens on Saturday before thinking about Cheltenham where JP [McManus] has lots of horses to pick from. We’ve got to get there first and then I’ll be happy to let them decide,” Harrington said.
McManus also owns the current Champion Hurdle favourite Buveur D’Air as well as Yanworth who is prominent too in ante-post lists. The legendary owner’s colours are also set to be carried by the long-time favourite, Unowhatimeanharry, in the Stayers’ race.
Champion Hurdle crown
Just two horses have ever regained the Champion Hurdle crown but both Comedy Of Errors and Hurricane Fly did so with just a single year in between victories: should Jezki bridge a three-year gap it would unprecedented.
“We know he gets three miles. The only thing that would worry me about three miles around Cheltenham is very soft ground but we’re unlikely to get that since the place is so well drained these days,” Harrington added.
The Co Kildare trainer confirmed that Sunday's Stan James Irish Gold Cup hero Sizing John will take his chance in next month's Gold Cup at Cheltenham but she was keen to pay tribute to her former jockey John Shortt who died on his 53rd birthday on Monday. He had been suffering from cancer.
“John was a great friend and a very good jockey. I knew him terribly well. I remember I taught him at pony club long ago when he was only 15 or 16,” she said.
Shortt rode Harrington’s Space Trucker to win the Fighting Fifth Hurdle in 1996 and in the same year rode Dance Beat to win a Grade Two at the Punchestown festival.
Sizing John made his first start at three miles a winning one when beating Empire Of Dirt and Don Poli at Leopardstown on Sunday.
The horse owned by Ann and Alan Potts also had the option of lining up in the Ryanair Chase at Cheltenham but a quick decision to opt for steeplechasing's "blue-riband" was taken.
“The decision has been made and he goes for the Gold Cup. The owners want to go for that after their other horse [Alary] didn’t sparkle in England on Sunday,” Harrington confirmed.
“This horse was my first runner in the Irish Gold Cup . . . let’s hope beginner’s luck continues to Cheltenham,” she added.
The Cheltenham Gold Cup is over 2½ furlongs extra than the Leopardstown race but Harrington is confident Sizing John’s stamina can stretch even further.
“I don’t think the distance will worry him at all. He was keen for the first half mile at Leopardstown and still got home. There was no sign of him stopping at the line,” she said. “As Robert [Power] says, he jumps so quickly that he can take him back all the time.”
The Potts-owned Alary had his second run for Colin Tizzard at Exeter on Sunday but looked beaten when falling at the third last in a four-runner race.
Sizing John is a general 12-1 in betting lists for the Gold Cup.