Michael O’Leary reckons his ambitions for a Cheltenham Gold Cup hat-trick could flounder against the English favourite Might Bite.
The Ryanair boss – successful with War Of Attrition (2006) and Don Cossack in 2016 – famously covets the Gold Cup like no other contest and is pinning his 'Blue Riband' hopes this time on Road To Respect.
The impressive Christmas Chase winner is a general 10-1 shot in ante-post lists as the overall Irish challenge starts to take shape with less than four weeks to steeplechasing’s most famous prize.
Another piece of the Irish jigsaw for the Gold Cup was put in place when it was confirmed Noel Fehily will team up with Saturday's Gowran winner Our Duke at Cheltenham.
Our Duke's usual rider Robbie Power is committed to Jessica Harrington's other big hope, the reigning title-holder, Sizing John, while Willie Mullins has indicated both Killultagh Vic and Total Recall are on course for the Gold Cup.
And although Coney Island all but ruled out his Gold Cup chances when pulled up at Ascot on Saturday, the JP McManus team can still call on the surprise Irish Gold Cup winner, Edwulf.
However, O’Leary reckons all the Irish face a huge task trying to beat the mercurial 7-2 favourite Might Bite and questioned any perception this is an open Gold Cup year.
“Is it an open year? Might Bite hasn’t been beaten in two years. He gave Whisper 15 lengths in the RSA last year and still won. I haven’t seen that before and the RSA is the best trial for the Gold Cup. He’s won at Aintree and he’s won a King George. Okay, he might be a bit of a head-banger. But I would have thought he should be close to evens on the day. We have it all to do against him. If Might Bite messes up, it’s open,” he said on Sunday.
Road To Respect won a Grade Three handicap chase at last year's festival but successfully stepped up into senior Grade One company at Leopardstown in the Christmas Chase. He emerged ahead of a number of other high-class chasers from O'Leary's team on that occasion but will fly the Gigginstown flag alone at Cheltenham.
“He’s our only one and he will need to improve another 10 to 15lbs. But he’s young and we hope he’s still improving. We put him away for the Dublin Racing Festival so hopefully he’ll get there and have his ground. Balko Des Flos will go for the Ryanair. Outlander won’t go; he doesn’t like the plane and isn’t good enough. Sub Lieutenant’s more likely to run in the Ryanair too,” O’Leary added.
If both Sizing John and Our Duke make it to the Gold Cup start, Noel Fehily will be on board the Irish Grand National hero who returned to winning form in Saturday’s Red Mills Chase.
Bookmaker reaction was to make him a best-priced 10-1 for Gold Cup glory and Fehily commented: “He looked back to his best and hopefully he’ll be raring to go in March. There are plenty horses in with chances – on that performance I think he has as good a chance as any of them.”
Gigginstown secured a hat-trick at Navan on Sunday where the Thyestes winner Monbeg Notorious followed up his big handicap victory with a Grade Two victory in the Ten Up Novice Chase. The 5-4 favourite had just half a length in hand of O’Leary’s other runner, Mossback.
"They're two grand, honest staying horses and they're in the Boylesports Irish Grand National," Gordon Elliott said. Before that however Monbeg Notorious was cut to 6-1 with some firms for the four-mile National Hunt Chase at Cheltenham.
Noel Meade supplied Dis Donc to win the opening maiden hurdle after the 4-1 shot got the better of an exciting duel with Antey. The pair momentarily touched in the closing stages but a stewards enquiry left the placings unchanged.
There was also a stewards enquiry after Master Of Tara got the better of a dour duel with All For Joy in the bumper. The winner made contact with the runner-up outside the furlong pole but was well on top at the line.