Flemenstar and Sir Des Champs - two of Ireland’s most exciting young chasing talents - clash in what is a small-but-select field for tomorrow’s Grade 1 John Durkan Memorial Chase at Punchestown.
The former, who is trained by Peter Casey, will be chasing a seventh consecutive victory, and hoping to add to the two Grade 1 victories bagged last term.
The seven-year-old made his seasonal return in the Fortria Chase at Navan recently, when he readily accounted for former Champion Chaser Big Zeb.
Race-fitness and his positive, bold-jumping style will stand him in good stead and he heads the market.
Casey reports everything to have gone smoothly with his charge since his winning return.
“The nerves are fine, I’m not worried,” said the County Meath handler.
“His jumping is his greatest asset, I think. He takes lengths out of the others at every fence, even in bad ground.
“We wouldn’t want it sticky - that’s the only thing.
“It wouldn’t hurt if it rained just before racing, just to loosen the ground up.
“Everything has been grand with him but he’s meeting a better class of horse - they are all Grade 1 winners.
“If he was in a handicap he’d be giving them weight, though.
“We see the Durkan as a stepping stone to going three miles with him so we’ll know an awful lot more after this – it will tell us where we go.
“Everyone I meet say he is a joy to watch with his jumping and I hope they are still saying that after this.”
The Willie Mullins-trained Sir Des Champs is a leading fancy for the Cheltenham Gold Cup but will be having his first start since his Grade 1 win at this track back in April, and he is 2-1 second favourite behind even-money shot Flemenstar.
The six-year-old, who is unbeaten in seven outings since joining Mullins’ Closutton yard, first jumped into the Gold Cup picture when taking the Jewson Novices’ Chase at the Cheltenham Festival, comfortably beating Champion Court.
Tomorrow’s two-and-a-half-mile trip is short of his best but, with three rivals who all like to force the issue, the race could be run to suit the Robin Des Champs gelding.
Davy Russell is the lucky man who gets to ride all of the Gigginstown horses and he will be in the saddle.
“I’m really looking forward to it - I have been all summer,” admitted the Youghal-born Russell.
“It’s a tough place to start, but it was always going to be, wherever he went, because he’s a Grade 1 horse.
“I suppose it will depend on who handles the conditions best.
“This looks the right race to start him off in if we are maybe thinking of stepping up in trip at some stage.”
The Robbie Hennessy-trained Rubi Light was a smart winner of this race in 2011 but he, too, is having his first outing of the season.
He likes to bowl along at the head of affairs but he’ll face stern opposition in that department.
His Cheltenham form includes a third-placed finish in the 2011 Ryanair Chase, run on good ground. The testing conditions at Punchestown are much more to his liking and he is rated just seven pounds inferior to top-rated Flemenstar, and just a pound behind Sir Des Champs.
The field is completed by Bog Warrior, who looked a potential star when trouncing the opposition in last year’s Drinmore Novices’ Chase as Fairyhouse.
However, his chasing career has been stunted by jumping errors and he was dropped back to hurdling for his most recent outing.
Taking advantage of a mark two stone below his chase rating, he hardly broke sweat in beating some seasoned handicappers by eight lengths and more.
It’s too early to write him off as a chaser and, while he has plenty to find on ratings, he remains unexposed.
Despite the small field and relatively early stage of the season, it’s a fascinating contest which will reveal much about the Cheltenham prospects of these potential stars.
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