Racing: First Gold can restore lustre to Cheltenham ambitions

With Best Mate at home enjoying the prospect of an extended holiday until his next public appearance in the Gold Cup itself, the focus shifts today to Ireland, where another batch of pretenders to the crown present themselves for evaluation.

With Best Mate at home enjoying the adulation that celebrity brings and the prospect of an extended holiday until his next public appearance in the Gold Cup itself, the focus shifts today to Ireland, where another batch of pretenders to the crown present themselves for evaluation. Today's title eliminator is the Ericsson Chase, and although it would be stretching a point to dismiss the field of seven as merely a round-up of the usual suspects it will, assuming the card survives an inspection, take an exceptional performance to disturb Best Mate's serenity at the head of Cheltenham betting.

And three miles round Leopardstown on a bog will provide a severe test. Several of today's competitors have tried it before and two, Foxchapel King last year and Rince Ri in the two previous runnings, have come out with top marks. But while they are undoubtedly two of Ireland's best in the division, neither has produced anything to quicken the heartbeat. That honour in today's field is solely the province of First Gold, who had the world at his hooves when blazing away with the King George VI Chase two years ago.

Since then, life has not been straightforward for the pride of France. Last season's campaign was limited to two runs before injury intervened. But there was much to like about the François Doumen-trained nine-year-old's return to action after nearly a year off in the John Durkan Memorial Chase at Punchestown three weeks ago. There, over an inadequate two and a half miles, he showed his old zest and ability as he jumped to the front four out. He was outpaced thereafter by the distance specialist Native Upmanship but was staying on again at the end and was only a length behind Rince Ri.

Sackville is one step ahead of First Gold on the comeback trail. Fourteen months ago he was favourite for the Gold Cup but that view of his ability proved a false dawn and his victory in the Tommy Whittle Chase was his first for more than a year. But encouraging though that showing was, he had an easy ride against two plodding course specialists that day and can be opposed in today's stronger field.

Harbour Pilot, one of Ireland's best staying novices last year, may have won the Hennessy Gold Cup off a light weight on his first venture into senior handicap company with a more fluent leap at the last, but it was not the first time his jumping had failed to convince. Beef Or Salmon, one of his country's young rising stars, will be some horse if he can cope on only his third try over fences.

Foxchapel King had something of a soft touch against moderate opposition in his warm-up in a handicap at Fairyhouse last month, a run which will have boosted his confidence after a horrible time at Down Royal first time out. But a chance is taken that the rehabilitation of First Gold (2.40) is nearing its completion.

The last time rock-hard Limestone Lad was beaten over hurdles was this day last year, when Bannow Bay caught him in the last few strides of the Christmas Hurdle. The pair renew rivalry in a fascinating contest that may, now that reigning marathon champion Baracouda's aura of invincibility has been removed, prove a dress rehearsal for the Stayers' Hurdle. Limestone Lad can gain revenge for his 35th victory.

The domestic Grade One feature, for stamina-laden first-season hurdlers, is the Challow Hurdle, a race of little obvious glamour, but with a record that stands close inspection given that recent runnings have produced winners of a Hennessy (King's Road) and a Grand National (Bindaree). Today Coolnagorna (2.00), Maybe The Business and Calling Brave are those to excite for the future.

The Mandarin Chase can be left to PHARPOST (nap 3.05), who was in the process of running a solid race at Aintree last month when he fell and has the assistance of one A P McCoy for the first time today.

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