If Boxing Day at Kempton has a familiar look to it, with Kauto Star going for his fourth King George VI Chase in a row, the festive season fencing feature in Ireland two days later must find a new cast of characters, because the last three winners of the Lexus Chase will not be taking the field again. Poor Exotic Dancer, who 12 months ago finally gained the Grade 1 victory his ability deserved, is dead; his predecessor at Leopardstown, Denman, has an alternative programme; and The Listener is injured.
The first set of credible credentials posted by one of the home side came at Punchestown yesterday when, in testing conditions, Joncol out-toughed his four rivals to take the John Durkan Memorial Chase. Three miles round Leopardstown in the middle of winter is often a gruelling affair and the six-year-old's last-man-standing warm-up propelled him to the head of the market for his Christmas assignment.
Joncol, trained by Paul Nolan in Co Wexford, is a huge, black beast, very much out of the Burrough Hill Lad mould. He is so big – 18 hands if he's an inch – that a hurdling career was never even considered; he went straight from bumpers to fences and won three out of four as a novice last term. On his first venture into senior company, in October, he beat all bar Tranquil Sea, who did nothing to devalue the form by immediately winning the Gold Cup at Cheltenham.
Yesterday, Joncol jumped and galloped straight and true as those around and behind him stumbled. The first to go was Barker, who left his hind legs in the middle fence on the back straight and pinged Ruby Walsh from the saddle. The grey's Willie Mullins stablemate J'y Vole lost momentum by getting low at several obstacles and Aran Concerto had already been burned off by Joncol's relentless progress when he took a heavy, tired fall two out.
In Compliance made eye-catching ground on the home turn, but fluffed the penultimate fence, leaving Joncol, who measured his last leap well, to power away for a near six-length success. His relatively inexperienced rider Alain Cawley, deserves plenty of credit too, for a well-paced ride throughout the two-and-a-half miles.
Joncol's performance not only left him as 3-1 market leader for the Lexus, but advanced his Gold Cup claims to around the 20-1 mark. Indeed, the only other Irish challenger ahead of him in the market for the Cheltenham showpiece is the Mullins inmate Cooldine, last season's RSA Chase winner who has yet to appear this term.
"The Lexus is the next stop for Joncol," confirmed a delighted Nolan, "and you'd have to consider him a Gold Cup horse now. Three miles and more should be no problem and I don't think he's just a mudlark horse."
His size and scope apart, Joncol, who runs for his breeder Kay Browne, has demanded patience from all. And to call yesterday's effort gutsy is fairly apposite.
"He's had stomach ulcers," explained Nolan, "which has meant a bit of a stop-start career. But he's on a different exercise programme and diet this year and it seems to have turned him inside out. We're now 100 per cent happy with him for the first time."
Less than an hour earlier at Kelso, another hat went into the Leopardstown ring as Money Trix gave 17lb and a neck beating to progressive Belon Gale in a handicap over an extended two-and-three quarter miles, again in demanding rain-softened conditions.
The handsome grey, whose career has been compromised by leg trouble, made hard work of it with some untidy jumps but showed himself to be a gritty competitor to catch and then repel his lightly-weighted rival's renewed effort on the long run-in. "He had to get stuck in," said trainer Nicky Richards, "but I was pleased with that. He was giving away lumps of weight and he wants further."
Cloudy Lane, in third place, did little to dent his Grand National prospects, right in the firing line until he ran out of puff on his seasonal comeback. Later on the card L'Aventure took advantage of her plummeting handicap mark to take the four-miler and in the process notch back-to-back National wins. Yesterday's race was the Scottish Borders edition; her previous victory, nearly four years ago, came in the Welsh version.
And time was rolled back, too, by Our Vic at Warwick, in the Totesport.com Chase. The last time the splendid David Pipe-trained 11-year-old, twice a winner at the top level in his palmier days, had scored was when he inched out Kauto Star at Aintree 19 months ago. Yesterday, a spring-heeled leap at the last from the old pro sealed the 12th success of his career to confirm the old adage about class and form.
Turf Account: Sue Montgomery
Meridian City (1.50 Musselburgh)
Smoothly off the mark over hurdles at the first time of asking at Aintree in October and should prove progressive enough to carry his penalty today.
Dumitas (1.20 Musselburgh)
Dual Irish bumper winner making his hurdling debut for a small Northern Ireland stable, interestingly providing Tony McCoy with his sole ride of the day.
One To Watch
Badger Foot (J O'Neill) proved best of the rest behind easy winner Silver Kate at Chepstow on Saturday, and with three hurdles runs under his girth looks sure to be placed to strike sooner rather than later.
Where The Money's Going
SkyBet reports Le Beau Bai (R Lee) is 8-1 co-favourite for the Welsh Grand National.
Chris McGrath's Nap
Ghufa (3.40 Wolverhampton).