Flemenstar (Andrew Lynch) winning at Punchestown last time
©Healy Racing Photos
Flemenstar, Sir Des Champs and Tidal Bay head a mouth-watering line-up of nine runners in the featured Grade 1 Lexus Chase at Leopardstown this afternoon.
Flemenstar was one of Ireland's leading novice chasers last term and has carried on his progress this season with impressive wins at Navan and Punchestown.
He made a winning return over two miles at Navan before slamming previously unbeaten chaser Sir Des Champs in the two-and-a-half-mile John Durkan Memorial Punchestown Chase.
The pair lock horns again in the feature event of Leopardstown's Christmas Festival, but this time the distance is three miles, which is further thanp>Flemenstar has gone before under Rules.
Trainer Peter Casey has always been of the opinionp>Flemenstar could develop into a realistic Cheltenham Gold Cup contender.
"He's all ready to go. Everything is grand. He did a nice bit of work the other day," said the County Meath handler.
"This is his big test and at quarter past three tomorrow we'll know a lot more about where we're going. I think there is a lot of rain coming in, but I'm not worried about that - the ground makes no difference to him.
"At the moment I'm not worrying about any of the other horses in the race. I'm very happy with our horse and you've just got to go and take your chance. We'll either come home disappointed or delighted."
Andrew Lynch has been ever present in the saddle during Flemenstar's career over fences and is hopeful three miles will not be a problem.
"I gave him a breeze the other day and he seems in good form. With the trip you never know for sure until you try, but he gives you every impression he'll stay," said the jockey.
"It's a very good race. First Lieutenant, Sir Des Champs, Tidal Bay, Quito De La Roque - they are all good horses. We'll decide what way we'll ride him nearer the time, but he's a very straightforward horse to ride."
Connections of Sir Des Champs feel he could be more at home over three miles at Leopardstown than at Punchestown last time.
Eddie O'Leary, manager for owners Gigginstown House Stud, said: "It's a fantastic race and we are trying to beat a very good horses in Flemenstar.
"It's a level playing field tomorrow. Sir Des Champs has had a run now and it's three miles on a more galloping track, which should suit. Sir Des Champs has to show up well tomorrow, really.
"Ifp>Flemenstar beats us again, he is the better horse and we'll have to go somewhere else. If he beats us again,p>Flemenstar will be Ireland's Gold Cup horse for this season."
First Lieutenant and Quito De La Roque also carry the Gigginstown silks.
O'Leary said: "First Lieutenant has a chance as well, and so does Quito.
"We still think Quito is a good horse. He has cheekpieces on tomorrow and hopefully that will help him.
"All three have them have chances, but obviously Sir Des Champs is our main hope."
Gigginstown's retained rider Davy Russell has unsurprisingly opted to ride Sir Des Champs, but insists it was not easy to pass over First Lieutenant.
"We're in there with a fighting chance. Hopefully he's up to competing at this level, whether he's up to winning only time will tell," said the champion jockey.
"I don't know if he's going to improve a lot for his first run. I suppose the longer distance might help him improve as much as anything. It wasn't a straightforward decision to ride Sir Des Champs.
"First Lieutenant is well up there in my mind and he is no back number, I can tell you. Quito has been a bit disappointing on his last couple of runs. Hopefully he can improve a bit."
< Tidal Bay appears as good as ever this season, despite officially turning 12 next week.
After making a winning return to action over hurdles at Wetherby, he ran a superb race to finish second behind Bobs Worth under top weight in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury.
The Paul Nicholls-trained Tidal Bay is joined on the trip from Britain by Neil Mulholland's stable star Midnight Chase.
Nicholls is keen to find out how the British form measures up against the best Ireland has to offer in the staying chase division.
"Tidal Bay has been in amazing shape this year and we're so proud of him. He won over hurdles at Wetherby and then ran an absolutely blinding race in the Hennessy giving 6lb to Bobs Worth off top weight," the champion trainer told Betfair.
"He's in the form of his life and Ruby (Walsh) said immediately after he got off (at Newbury) he'd love to ride him round Leopardstown as it will suit him well.
"It will be very interesting to see him take on horses like Sir Des Champs and the other Irish horses, as we have a bit of form with the English ones.
"It's a race we won before with Denman and the form he's in at the moment I see him running a big race."
Mulholland acknowledges Midnight Chase faces a difficult task, but could not be happier with his condition.
He said: "He's in very good form. He feels well and fresh in himself, so fingers crossed. He has come on since his run in the Charlie Hall. He needed that run a bit more than I thought.
"Hopefully they don't get too much more rain at Leopardstown. It's obviously a very good race, but where else do you go?
"He has to run in the good races and the ground here is better than it is in England at the moment."
Mouse Morris saddles China Rock as well asp>First Lieutenant with the former making his first appearance since winning the Punchestown Gold Cup in the spring.
Morris is confidentp>First Lieutenant and China Rock will be involved in the finish.
"I couldn't be happier with both of them and I expecting big shows from both," said the trainer.
"First Lieutenant has had a good start to the season. The ground isn't going to be ideal for him but it's the same for all of them and hopefully he'll be all right.
"China Rock is terribly well and even though it's his first run in a while, he's straight enough. He doesn't take much getting ready.
"He's a big price, but he doesn't know what price he is and I'm hopeful he's going to run very well. I wouldn't like to split the two of them."
Shark Hanlon's progressive Hidden Cyclone adds further strength in depth.
Pandorama has his first start since the 2011 Cheltenham Gold Cup, while Quito De La Roque also takes his chance.
Colm Murphy's Quito De La Roque needs to bounce back to form.
The trainer said: "We're going to let him take his chance. He came out of the Aintree race very well, he was as fresh as a daisy afterwards and the Lexus is the obvious race to go for.
"He won't mind the ground and he has run well round Leopardstown before. He's very well and we just hope he runs a nice race."
Hanlon is keeping his fingers crossed Hidden Cyclone can handle what is a marked step up in grade.
He said: "He's all ready to go and he's in great form - I couldn't have him any better. Hopefully he won't mind the ground and we'll just have to see how he gets on.
"It's as good a Lexus as I've seen. Our horse is lowest rated in the race (153) and he has to prove he can do it at this level now.
"In fairness to the horse, he has never been tested at this level, so we don't know how good he is."
The field is completed by Noel Meade's long-absent Pandorama.
Meade said: "He's in good form and we are hoping for the best.
"It might be a bit much to ask him to come back and win a race like this after all that time off, but he's in good shape and we can't do any more with him at home. He'll probably come on for the run, but hopefully he'll run a good race."