Davy Russell seeks ‘step forward’ from Lord Windermere in Hennessy Gold Cup

Gold Cup hero Lord Windermere is on course to have his final outing before the defence of his Cheltenham crown in Sunday’s Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown, where he will face eight possible rivals.

Davy Russell seeks ‘step forward’ from Lord Windermere in Hennessy Gold Cup

This season has been all about another trip to the Cotswolds for Jim Culloty’s stable star, who will be gunning for a third successive win at the Festival having also been successful in the 2013 RSA Chase.

He made a pleasing return to action in the two-and-a-half-mile John Durkan which meant connections approached the Lexus over Christmas with confidence, but he was only seventh and his jockey Davy Russell hopes that was just a blip.

“I went back to the old tactics and dropped him right in and he still ran a reasonably good race the last day, he was beaten the same distance as he was last year,” said Russell.

“We weren’t that happy to be honest, though, especially after his good first run at Punchestown when we were over the moon with him.

“We thought he’d improved for that so hopefully he can take a step forward again at Leopardstown.”

Willie Mullins has two strong possibles in Gold Cup runner-up On His Own, who bounced back to form in the Lexus, and Boston Bob.

Carlingford Lough, who made a respectable comeback in the Lexus when fifth, is on course to have his second start of the season.

Ted Walsh’s Foxrock makes the leap out of handicap company having won the BoyleSports Chase.

First Lieutenant is likely to take up his entry, meaning he will not be running in Haydock’s Grand National Trial a week later.

“He’ll probably run this weekend I’d have thought,” said trainer Mouse Morris. “I’d certainly be more hopeful of goodish ground there than at Haydock.”

Gordon Elliott’s Roi Du Mee, Noel Meade’s Texas Jack and Henry de Bromhead’s Home Farm complete the list.

Leopardstown is confident Sunday’s “mouthwatering” card won’t fall foul of the weather.

With four Grade Ones, competitive handicaps and and a classy hunter chase on an eight-race schedule, countless Cheltenham clues will be on offer.

Yet, despite today’s scheduled Down Royal needing to be rescheduled and Clonmel tomorrow being in doubt, Leopardstown is frost free.

“We’re in a very good position, the ground is yielding, soft in places,” said Leopardstown’s Nessa Joyce.

“We’ve not had a huge amount of rain since our last meeting. It has been very cold this week, but temperatures are set to rise as we head towards the weekend.

“At the moment we’ve got green grass and blue skies.

“I’m not sure the ground will dry up much as it is very cold at the moment.

“As it stands, we have no worries about the weather at all and are just really looking forward to it. It’s a mouthwatering card.”

Meanwhile, Richard Johnson will come in for the ride on Coneygree in Saturday’s Betfair Denman Chase at Newbury, should champion jockey Tony McCoy be unavailable.

The Mark Bradstock-trained eight-year-old has returned from a near two-year absence seemingly better than ever this season, making a winning debut over fences at Newbury in November before a brilliant display in the Feltham at Kempton.

He could earn himself a tilt at the Cheltenham Gold Cup with another victory in Berkshire this weekend and will have a new rider, with regular pilot Nico de Boinville suspended.

Connections have identified McCoy as the number one choice, but he may be required for one of Jonjo O’Neill’s two entries in the race, Holywell or Taquin Du Seuil, and Johnson is waiting in the wings.

The trainer’s wife, Sara Bradstock, said: “We’ve spoken to Jonjo and he won’t run his horses unless he can school them on the grass this week and obviously it’s frozen up at the moment.

“Because of that it’s not definite that AP (McCoy) won’t be able to ride, but we’ve got Richard Johnson on standby in case he isn’t available. Our horse has just been schooling in the indoor school. We would have preferred to get him on the grass, but we wouldn’t not go on Saturday because of it.”

Coneygree is one of the star names in a nine-strong field, with Unioniste an intended runner for champion trainer Paul Nicholls and leading owner John Hales.

Nicholls has won this race with the likes of Kauto Star, Denman and Silviniaco Conti in recent years and this season’s potential representative has strong claims judged on an impressive victory at Sandown last month.

Hales said: “The plan is to run Unioniste in the Betfair Denman Chase.

“He ran a really encouraging race in the Hennessy and won very well at Sandown last time.

“He seems to be on an upward curve which is good going into the weekend.”

Last year’s winner Harry Topper is in the mix again for Kim Bailey, but needs to bounce back having been pulled up on his last two starts.

O’Neill’s pair, the Venetia Williams-trained Houblon Des Obeaux, Nigel Twiston-Davies’ Double Ross, Linda Jewell’s Itoldyou and Rajdhani Express from Nicky Henderson’s yard complete the entries.

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