Sir Des Champs is unable to defend his Hennessy Gold Cup crown but Michael O'Leary's Gigginstown Stud team still appears to be in pole position to reap the Leopardstown spoils on Sunday.
O'Leary owns three of the seven horses left in a Hennessy that will be unusual this year with Willie Mullins not represented in a race he has dominated like no other. The champion trainer's hopes of a 10th win in the €160,000 highlight have been dashed with confirmation that his big hope Rubi Ball is lame.
“He came back lame after schooling at Punchestown on Sunday. We were delighted with the way he worked so it’s very disappointing,” Mullins said yesterday.
Mullins’s disappointment has become Paul Nicholls’s opportunity though and he has snapped up the services of his old ally Ruby Walsh to partner Tidal Bay in Sunday’s big race. The partnership scored a memorable Lexus Chase victory at the course in 2012.
“It’s a small field, good prizemoney, he’s one from one at the track and he’ll get his ground,” Nicholls said. “Of course Ruby being available also helps so it has worked out for us.”
The Gigginstown owned Sir Des Champs, currently on the injury sidelines, was Mullins's ninth Hennessy winner last year but Michael O'Leary's hopes of again landing the centrepiece of a hugely significant card featuring four Grade One prizes must be high after yesterday's five-day declaration stage.
Bookmakers reckon the Hennessy looks a good opportunity for First Lieutenant to secure a rare trip to the winner's enclosure. Paddy Power make him a 13/8 favourite, with Last Instalment, also owned by O'Leary, a 7/2 shot.
First Lieutenant's Aintree win last April was a sole victory in his last 14 starts, although he has been placed in 10 of those, including three times behind the Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Bobs Worth.
The last of those was in the Lexus and trainer Mouse Morris said yesterday: "This race has been the plan since he ran at Christmas and he is in great form."
Grade One winner
Last Instalment, twice a Grade One winner at Leopardstown, is also set to take up the Hennessy entry while Gigginstown can also call on the Down Royal Grade One victor Roi Du Mee.
Philip Fenton is anticipating improvement from Last Instalment following his comeback effort behind another Hennessy entry Texas Jack in last month's Kinloch Brae but doesn't expect the horse to be at a peak yet.
“Cheltenham is the big stage and he’ll improve again for Sunday. We are aiming for him to improve for each run but it’s more important to peak in March rather than February,” he said yesterday.
The RSA hero Lord Windermere could attempt to bounce back to form on Sunday but his old rival Lyreen Legend is a definite big-race starter.
"He's had a clear run since the Lexus and I'm very happy with him. The horses that beat him in the Lexus are championship horses so you'd have to be pleased with his run the last day. He jumped well and stayed well, but just lacked a run that day," said trainer Dessie Hughes.
Fenton will pursue a Grade One double on Sunday with The Tullow Tank on course to put his Cheltenham credentials on the line in the Deloitte Novice Hurdle.
Tony Martin's course winner Quickpick Vic was supplemented into the Deloitte yesterday while Willie Mullins can chose from five entries which include Fuageen, Vatour and Valseur Lido. The Tullow Tank sets the standard though after two top-flight wins already this season and his trainer reported: "When he won his bumper last season we felt that he might develop into a novice hurdler this season, but we didn't expect him to be a Grade One horse. He is en route for Sunday and he has had a clear run since Christmas time."
Back in action
Gordon Elliott will bring the Drinmore winner Don Cossack back to action in the Dr PJ Moriarty Novice Chase and has also supplemented Tiger Roll into the Gala Spring Juvenile Hurdle.
“We missed Christmas time with Don Cossack as he had a couple of quick runs last year. But he looks great and he seems to be in great form, so we’ll let him take his chance on Sunday and see how he gets on,” said the Co Meath trainer.
Ground conditions at Leopardstown yesterday were officially “soft” and heavy in places on the chase track after 31 mms of rain since Friday.