Tradition indicates that Lord Windermere faces a huge task if he is to retain his Gold Cup crown in March. But Ireland's latest "blue-riband" hero will start the road back to Cheltenham in this Sunday's Grade One feature at Punchestown.
History is no encouragement to Lord Windermere's run for the €80,000 John Durkan Memorial Punchestown Chase: no reigning Gold Cup winner has managed to land the two-and- a-half mile event in its 45-year history.
Recently deceased champion Imperial Call fell at the last in the 1996 Durkan, his first outing since scoring a famous success at Cheltenham. However, Kicking King did win the 1994 Durkan on-route to winning the following year’s Gold Cup.
Lord Windermere is currently as high as 16-1 to repeat his Cheltenham heroics. But it looks a mammoth challenge to win back-to-back Gold Cups, something which in the past has only been managed by legends of the post-war game, such Arkle as (1964-65-66) and Cottage Rake (1948-49-50.)
Still, the eight-year-old has the incalculable plus of Jim Culloty in his corner. The Co Cork based trainer – only the fourth man to ever both ride and train a Gold Cup winner – has confirmed the Durkan will be Lord Windermere's first start since that memorable day last March.
“The horse is fit and well. Two and a half miles is a slightly inadequate trip,” Culloty said. “We are hoping for a good run to kick off his campaign this season.”
With nine entries in the race, it can hardly be described as an easy return to action for Sunday’s star attraction.
At the moment, possible King George contender Champagne Fever is the shortest of the likely Irish-trained Gold Cup contenders, despite having won just of his five starts to date over fences.
But Boston Bob and Don Cossack, the two other shortest priced horses in many ante-post lists, are on course to clash with Lord Windermere in the Durkan.
Don Cossack won impressively at the track in October and followed up at Down Royal. He heads a trio of Gigginstown Stud contenders, including First Lieutenant, who chased home Boston Bob in the Bibby Financial Group Gold Cup at last April’s festival.
Boston Bob was a distant third to another Michael O'Leary-owned star, Road to Riches, at Down Royal last month. He's expected to improve for that effort by trainer Willie Mullins, who won last year's Durkan with the 4-7 favourite, Arvika Ligeonniere, one of five successive winning favourites or joint-favourites in the race.
Rubi Light, the 2011 Durkan winner, could also line up on a Sunday card that may see the return to action of the 2013 Punchestown festival winner, Un Atout, in a Beginners Chase.
As recently as 2008 and 2010, weather conditions forced a cancellation of the Durkan. This year looks like providing exceptionally dry conditions, with the going at the Kildare track currently described as “yielding.”
“I’ve never seen the ground so close to good at this time of year. It’s just been very dry,” said Punchestown’s racing manager, Richie Galway. “It’s due to get cold this week, but it’s forecast to get milder over the weekend, so I wouldn’t envisage any problems with frost.”
In other news, Tony Martin’s Gallant Oscar has been installed a 12-1 co-favourite with the Troytown winner, Balbriggan, and the Barry Connell- owned Foxrock by the sponsors of the the €190,000 Paddy Power Chase – the richest race at Leopardstown’s Christmas festival .
Martin won the race in 2007 with Newbay Prop and can also call on four of the 68 entries left in the lucrative three-mile handicap, including Sraid Padraig and Living Next Door.
There are seven British- trained entries, with the Donald McCain-trained Corrin Wood just 1lb off the topweight, Bog Warrior.