Ireland's Pearl leads the pack for Hennessy

There are 44 days to the Cheltenham Gold Cup, but just two afternoons left that really count. On Saturday, we were allowed a small dress rehearsal for the Blue Riband with Cheltenham's Pillar Property Chase and over the next two weekends further casts will come together, at Leopardstown and Newbury, before the greatest company gathers at the base of Cleeve Hill on 15 March.

There are 44 days to the Cheltenham Gold Cup, but just two afternoons left that really count. On Saturday, we were allowed a small dress rehearsal for the Blue Riband with Cheltenham's Pillar Property Chase and over the next two weekends further casts will come together, at Leopardstown and Newbury, before the greatest company gathers at the base of Cleeve Hill on 15 March.

In the wake of See More Business's Prestbury Park success (he has been left on a handicap mark of 174 for that demolition job) it is now the turn of the Irish horses in the Hennessy Gold Cup on Sunday.

For once the Leopardstown event will be an entirely domestic affair, the nine runners including a triple representation from Willie Mullins.The Co Carlow trainer, who also has Alexander Banquet and Micko's Dream in the race, places his principal hopes in the King George VI Chase runner-up, Florida Pearl. "I was quite pleased with how he came out of the race," the trainer said yesterday. "He has had a nice little break since."

Florida Pearl apart, there will also be Gold Cup pointers provided by the resurgent Nick Dundee and the much-touted Native Upmanship. Dorans Pride, Commanche Court, Imperial Call and Rathbawn Prince complete the potential field.

The following Saturday the focus is back in Britain, when the Cheltenham favourite, First Gold, takes in Newbury's Aon Chase, which is also the target for Nicky Henderson's Marlborough.The Seven Barrows trainer unleashes his fast-improving Champion Hurdle contender Geos at Sandown this Saturday, the only horse many now think capable of levering Istabraq off his hurdling throne.

Geos is the top name among 12 entries for the Agfa Hurdle, but there are further Festival pretenders there in the shape of Hors La Loi III, Hitman and Ben Ewar. "I will work Geos in the morning, but Sandown is the plan for him," Henderson said yesterday. "He's fine, he's got to run somewhere and this looks a decent opportunity."

Also at Esher on Saturday, Henrietta Knight will be taking the heaviest of her artillery into battle for their final Festival preparations. Edredon Bleu, the Queen Mother Champion Chase winner, is on course for the Elmbridge Chase, while her Independent Arkle Chase favourite, Best Mate, is sent out to gain more experience in the Scilly Isles Novices' Chase.

The West Lockinge trainer will be peering out of her window each night this week and hoping that the forecast harsh weather does not arrive. "Best Mate is very well," the trainer said yesterday. "He's a sensible horse but he could do with a run now. We're getting conflicting reports. One forecast, the farmers' forecast, says it isn't going to be too bad, so we're hoping that's the right one and not the scaremongers' one which says it's going to be -12.

"I've already looked at an alternative in case of a terrible catastrophe and there is a race at Sandown the week after, an ordinary two and a half mile chase. But that might be cutting it a bit fine and I'd much rather run at the weekend."

There were 123 entries yesterday for the Triumph Hurdle, including the outstanding French ante-post favourite, Jair Du Cochet. It is a cosmopolitan Triumph, with the regular Irish deputation and the entry of the top-rated American juvenile hurdler, Segregation Lane.

The four-year-old is unbeaten in three completed starts over hurdles and slipped up on the home turn on his only other outing over timber. He is trained at Middleburg in Virginia by an Englishman, Neil Morris.

"It's been one of my dreams to have a runner at Cheltenham and one doesn't get too many opportunities," he said.

"I know he has to be really, really good to go over, but he's training super. I think he's a pretty useful horse who I'd like to run against his own age group, which he can't do in America. In his favour is that we get started a little earlier with our three-year-olds and he's put everyone to bed in this country."

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