It is the moment of truth not just for Flemenstar, but for anyone clinging to the hope that he can restore the lost romance to jump racing. A sport increasingly dominated by wealthy patrons of a few top trainers today shares the tension and excitement suffusing the Casey family's tiny stable, just up the coast from Dublin, as Flemenstar attempts a new summit at Leopardstown. A first start over three miles in the Lexus Chase, in testing ground, requires him to disclose a doughtiness to match his brilliance. If he proves equal to the challenge, every neutral will join his connections in their dream of landing the Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup.
It is instructive that the Gold Cup betting is otherwise dominated by two horses trained by Nicky Henderson, one by Paul Nicholls, and one by Willie Mullins. Long Run reiterated his seniority, as the winner two seasons ago, with a terrific display of endurance at Kempton on Boxing Day; while Bobs Worth, Silviniaco Conti and Sir Des Champs were the best novices stabled in their respective powerhouses last season. But the latter was comprehensively beaten when first to try his luck against Flemenstar, over two and a half miles at Punchestown earlier in the month.
True, Flemenstar had an advantage in fitness, but his energy and boldness once again overwhelmed his rivals – and he saw out the race well enough to persuade Peter Casey that he should now step up in trip.
The veteran trainer is relaxed about the forecast of further rain, and certainly Flemenstar has no problem with deep going. But he will need to be a genuine freak to stretch that trademark exuberance over three miles in demanding conditions, and this field permits him no hiding place. It has greater depth than the one that convened against Long Run at Kempton, and raises the bar for Flemenstar in quality as well as distance.
Sir Des Champs will be fitter this time. Hidden Cyclone himself faces a new challenge, and then there is poor old Pandorama, who met his own date with destiny with such aplomb in this race two years ago, only to break down at Cheltenham. He makes his first start since, while the Hennessy form of Bobs Worth is measured by Tidal Bay and First Lieutenant. Tidal Bay adores the mud and seems better than ever since joining Nicholls.
To an extent, it would be disappointing if one of the dominant stables could thwart Flemenstar with a horse approaching his 12th birthday. But Tidal Bay could prove value today without necessarily dismantling the ambitions of rising stars in the race, simply by being so well suited by its specific demands. Regardless, there would be no point trying to turn Flemenstar into a second-rate stayer if he is top-class over shorter distances, and it is not as if horses are queueing to take on Sprinter Sacre at two miles.
That horse overshadowed some of yesterday's key races. Sanctuaire, thrashed by Sprinter Sacre at Sandown, lent substance to the form with an emphatic win in the William Hill Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton, where Simonsig meanwhile confirmed his eligibility to follow in the hoofprints of his stablemate with a dashing round of jumping, just six days after similarly outclassing his rivals on his chasing debut at Ascot. He is now 5-4 from 7-4 with Coral to emulate Sprinter Sacre in the Racing Post Arkle Chase.
Barry Geraghty, Simonsig's rider, was duly compensated for missing out on Jezki, whose impressive success over at Leopardstown arguably confirmed him the leading novice hurdler either side of the Irish Sea. Sizing Europe made pretty heavy weather of landing short odds on the same card, but that was pardonable in the conditions.
He could yet take on Sprinter Sacre in the Queen Mother Champion Chase, but Henry de Bromhead increasingly considers longer distances within his reach. It is not hard to picture him ending up in the Ryanair Chase, and likewise Menorah – who compensated connections of Captain Chris, so narrowly foiled in the King George, in the rescheduled Peterborough Chase back at Kempton.
Chris McGrath's Nap: Glastonberry (3.30 Lingfield)
Off the same mark as when failing by just a head over course and distance last time.
Next best: Clear Praise (2.30 Lingfield)
Bumped into a flourishing rival last time but saw off the rest. Solid prospect off this mark.
One to watch: Bright New Dawn (Dessie Hughes) has kept some good company and lasted on the bridle to the final flight when third to Jezki.
Where the money's going: Jezki is 11-2 from 8-1 with the sponsors for the William Hill Supreme Novices' Hurdle after another striking display at Leopardstown yesterday.
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