Native River (right) and Might Bite battle it out at Cheltenham last March© Photo Healy Racing
There are 24 Irish-trained possibles among the 43 entries for the Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup on March 15.
The current ante-post favourite for the race is Presenting Percy, last year’s RSA Chase winner who has yet to run this season for trainer Pat Kelly.
He heads a huge raiding team from Ireland that includes last year’s third and fourth, Tony Martin’s Anibale Fly and Noel Meade’s Road To Respect.
Willie Mullins has plenty of options too — including impressive Savills Chase winner Kemboy, Al Boum Photo and Bellshill.
There are three former winners in contention — Jessica Harrington’s Sizing John, not sighted since December 2017 — Native River and Coneygree, who unseated in the King George last time out.
Native River came out on top in a terrific duel with Might Bite last season, but neither has been able to win a race in this campaign.
The reigning champion is part of a strong entry for Colin Tizzard that also includes 2016 King George winner Thistlecrack and Welsh National hero Elegant Escape.
Assistant trainer Joe Tizzard said: “Thistlecrack will go straight to the Gold Cup. He hasn’t got there yet in his career, but he deserves to get there.
“With Native River, we haven’t definitely decided, but quite possibly he will turn up in the Denman Chase (Newbury, February 9) and then on to the Gold Cup to defend his crown.
“We were really pleased with both Native River (third) and Thistlecrack (second) at Kempton — and they have both just been ticking along since.
“Elegant Escape also has an entry for the Gold Cup, and that is almost certainly the way we will be looking — and hoping there will be a bit of cut in the ground. He will also have a Grand National entry.”
He added: “It is difficult to know what to do with Elegant Escape next. He is rated 159 now and needs to find a bit more to be competitive in a Gold Cup, but if we are going to have a big spring campaign with him and run in all the big Festivals, then it doesn’t do them any harm to just freshen him up for a month after running in a Ladbrokes Trophy and a Welsh National.”
After Might Bite’s disappointing displays this season, Nicky Henderson sent him for a wind operation in the hope of rekindling the fire. He may be joined by stablemates Terrefort and impressive Ascot winner Valtor.
The King George was won in good style by Clan Des Obeaux, Paul Nicholls’ new great hope, while Definitly Red is set to head there a fresh horse for Brian Ellison.
He has been impressive in winning the Charlie Hall at Wetherby and the Many Clouds Chase at Aintree — and Ellison is sitting pretty, having got those runs under his belt.
“It’s still the plan to head straight there, probably after a couple of racecourse gallops,” said the Malton handler.
“We’ll go there fresh — we don’t have to worry about rushing to get another run into him beforehand, like a few others who started out later are doing.
“Last year we thought it was great winning the Cotswold Chase, but it probably cost him any chance he had in the Gold Cup because he had a harder race than we thought.
“This time we’re going straight to the Gold Cup, and then the Bowl at Aintree.”