The prospect of testing conditions is a concern for trainer Mouse Morris as the admirable First Lieutenant looks to secure a deserved return to the winner’s enclosure in tomorrow’s Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown.
The Gigginstown House Stud-owned nine-year-old has been in the three on 14 of his 17 starts over fences and has filled the runner-up spot in the last two renewals of the Lexus Chase over the Hennessy course and distance.
He found only Cheltenham Gold Cup hero Bobs Worth too strong in the most recent running of Leopardstown’s festive showpiece, and while Morris has been pleased with his stable star since, he admits the wet weather in Dublin has tempered his enthusiasm.
“The ground is going to be heavy, but he’s in good shape and we’ll let him take his chance,” said the trainer.
“On his Lexus run he is (the one to beat). The ground would be a concern, but it’s the same for them all.”
Gigginstown’s retained jockey Bryan Cooper has opted for First Lieutenant, with Brian O’Connell aboard Last Instalment in a seven-runner field. Gigginstown is also represented by the Gordon Elliott-trained Roi Du Mee.
“First Lieutenant put in a fine run when second in the Lexus and puts in a great performance every day he runs. He takes a couple of runs to get to himself and when he comes to himself, then he shows his true colours,” said Cooper.
“He’s known for putting in some spectacular jumps. He’s a thrill to ride, never mind watch. Hopefully he can perform well on Sunday.”
Philip Fenton trains Last Instalment, who slammed First Lieutenant when winning the first of two Grade One novice prizes at Leopardstown a couple of seasons ago, but was soon sidelined for the best part of two years by injury.
He made a highly encouraging return in defeat when third in last month’s Kinloch Brae Chase at Thurles, but while Fenton is anticipating progress, he does not expect his charge to be at peak fitness this weekend.
He said: “You’d be hoping he’d improved from his first run and he will improve again for Sunday. Cheltenham is the big stage. It’s his second run back, but even so he’s in great shape.
“We are aiming that he will improve for each run and it is more important to have him peaking in March than February.
“I’m hoping that Last Instalment runs a respectable race and comes out of it in good shape and improves and is good enough to take to Cheltenham.
“He has a bit of history with First Lieutenant – I’m sure he’s probably the fitter of the two, but even so I’d be hoping he’d put up a good show.
“The picture will be clearer after Sunday.”
The horse Morris fears most is Paul Nicholls’ British raider Tidal Bay, who will be ridden by Ruby Walsh for the first time since his memorable victory over First Lieutenant in the 2012 Lexus.
“Tidal Bay would be the one if he puts it in. He’s beaten us before,” said Morris.
“But our horse is healthy and well, so we’ll keep our fingers crossed.”
Tidal Bay missed the rest of last season following his Leopardstown triumph, but has returned seemingly as good as ever judged on a fantastic effort to finish a close third under a huge weight in the Welsh Grand National.
Nicholls said: “He found the Betfair Chase a bit sharp then ran a blinding race in the Welsh National.
“His big aim is the Grand National but it’s a long time until April, so I decided to give him another run.”
The field is completed by Jim Culloty’s Lord Windermere, Dessie Hughes’s Lyreen Legend and Texas Jack, trained by Noel Meade.
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